‘Drive American’ = Works of JOHN ADAMS, JOAN TOWER, WM. BOLCOM & Others – Heidi Louise Williams, p. – Albany

by | Jan 20, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

‘Drive American’ = JOHN ADAMS: American Berserk; JOAN TOWER: No Longer Very Clear; DANIEL CROZIER: Winter Aubade; CHEN YI: Ba Ban; AUGUSTA READ THOMAS: Traces; WILLIAM BOLCOM: 12 New Etudes – Heidi Louise Williams, piano – Albany Records TROY 1298, 78:20 ****:

One of the most interesting things about American music, from Charles Ives through Copland and Bernstein to the composers represented in this collection is its wonderful eclecticism. There is a variety and a discovery to the thinking and method behind living American composers that I have found unique and refreshing.
This particular collection of solo piano works is great fun to listen to and illustrates the point quite well! First off, Heidi Louise Williams is a superb pianist who clearly has an affinity for modern repertoire. She is a graduate of the Peabody Institute and has taught in a number of prestigious universities including Florida State University and Southern Illinois University. She has an impressive technique and a phrasing and style that fit this music perfectly!
The music itself is intriguing and well worth listening to! Most people have heard at least some John Adams, who has built an international reputation for his music which has evolved from a nearly pure minimalism to a fascinating and unique mélange of styles and moods. American Berserk (titled after a line from a Philip Roth novel), written for Garrick Ohlsson, is in some ways familiar Adams with a structure based on small repeated cells and motives, but a very jaunty sound. Adams describes the structure as one based on “indigenous” (to American jazz culture, it seems) rhythms. It is, like most of his music, quite propulsive and great fun to listen to.
Joan Tower is one of my favorite composers and she, too, has a style that is hard to define but definitively her own.  No Longer Very Clear takes its name from a poem by John Ashbury and contains four movements that were originally four separate short pieces. Holding a Daisy is a reflection of the image in a Georgia O’Keefe painting and captures the sense of a beauty within the macabre found in so many of O’Keefe’s works. Or Like a … an Engine was written for a radio station anniversary and does sound like the technical Chopin etudes it is intended to emulate. Vast Antique Cubes is quite a departure in its slow, open, somewhat hollow and mysterious sound. It does resemble the small impressionistic preludes of Debussy it pays homage to. Throbbing Still, however, brings the set to a rousing close. Based on some Latin American rhythms and sounds and touches of Stravinsky, it moves and “throbs” in a very nervous sort of way. Each of these miniatures works very well on its own but the set as a whole is at least as convincing, working almost like a very eclectic and atypical sonata.
Daniel Crozier may not be as well known as the other names on this disc but his music is very neo-romantic and pleasant to listen to. I am familiar with some of his orchestral music in which there is frequently a very picturesque “fairy tale” quality (even in name, occasionally). Winter Aubade is a form of reflection on a cold but beautifully mysterious winter dawn. There is an appropriately “icy” quality to some of the writing and the work exists as an arc of sorts through which some simple melodic fragments come and go and are put through some interesting permutations. I found the harmonies and chord progressions in this piece to be particularly striking!
Chen Yi is a well known and respected composer who, for the past several years, has been the head of the composition staff at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. More importantly, she writes very interesting music and frequently on themes or relevance to her native China. Ba Ban is an example of this. A traditional “ba ban” is a form of instrumental folk tune from which Chen draws the structure, rhythmic motives and pitch materials for this piano work. She does so in a very interesting formal manner, using a twelve tone row within the context of a set of four variation-like sections. The rhythmic groupings of the traditional structure are maintained and I found this to be a very dramatic work with just a hint of its “traditional” sounding origin.
I have always liked the music of Augusta Read Thomas, much acclaimed composer and composition professor at the University of Chicago. Her music is consistently heartfelt, personal and highly creative. Traces for solo piano emanates from a very interesting structural premise. That being the creation of several small works within a larger whole wherein each section crosses the style and feel of a classical piano composer “giant” with that of a modern pianist-composer. What is truly interesting about Traces is that the pairings of four of the movements is that of classical with jazz. Only the first movement, Reverie, pairs the feel of Schumann with a modern “classicist”: George Crumb. The other movements all seek some melding of old with jazz. Specifically, the Caprice utilizes the ornamentations of Scarlatti with that of Art Tatum, Tango is a blend of Piazzola and John Coltrane, Impromptu meshes actually some Stravinsky with touches of Chopin and Thelonius Monk (this was my personal favorite…) and a closing Toccata that blends Bach and “bebop”. A lot of Thomas’ music has some jazzy and improvisatory feel to it, yet her music is actually very precisely notated.  I found this piece one of the stronger ones in this impressive program.
This collection closes with the Twelve New Etudes, Book IV by William Bolcom, another composer whose music I find consistently engaging.  This piece won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for the composer and he has a long and distinguished reputation with multiple awards.  The three etudes represented here are all impressive and mood filled works with the composer’s characteristically creative use of harmony and symbolism. For example, Vers le silence (“towards the silence”) depicts in sound the voyage of the soul after death according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Hi-jinks is an intentionally light and frothy intermezzo – perhaps in reflection of a departed friend’s personality, while the closing Hymne à l’amour is, indeed, intended as a funeral hymn for friend and pianist Paul Jacobs. As in all Bolcom, whose music I do admire a great deal, the moods shift, the harmonies are creative and sudden and the effect is very appealing.
I enjoyed this disc a great deal, both for Ms. Williams’ terrific performance but also because this program contains music by people whose work I already know and like very much. I think this album should appeal to anyone who wants to stretch their knowledge of modern piano repertoire or who already appreciates the amazing variety and feel that American composers have come to characterize. I believe you will enjoy the drive!
—Daniel Coombs

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