“Excursions – Orchestral, Chamber and Choral Works by MARIE NELSON BENNETT" – Var. performers/Pro Musica Chorus & Orch./John Marlow Nielson – Ravallo (2 CDs)

by | Jan 12, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

“Excursions – Orchestral, Chamber and Choral Works by Marie Nelson Bennett” = MARIE NELSON BENNETT : Excursions for English horn and orchestra; Sonata for clarinet & piano; Shorelines for orchestra; In Memoriam for trumpet & piano; A Filigree of Flowers for flute, clarinet & piano; Once in Israel for soprano, baritone, chorus & orchestra; A Summer Day for solo piano; Mary’s Lullaby for piano, chorus & orchestra; Gloria for chorus – Boston Modern Orchestra/Holly Gornik, English horn/Gil Rose, conductor/Richard Stoltzman, clarinet/David Pihl, piano/Prague Symphony/Roger Briggs, conductor/James Caswell, trumpet/Laurel Ann Maurer, flute/Russell Harlow, clarinet/Pamela Jones, piano/Pro Musica Chorus, orchestra & soloists/John Marlow Nielson, conductor/Solveig Lunde Madsen, piano/Pro Musica Ladies Chorus/Marie Nelson Bennett, piano/John Marlow Nielson, conductor – Ravallo Records RR 7809 (Distr. by Naxos) (2 CDs), 126:39 ****:

One of the curiosities to modern music is the fact that, perhaps, more than any other time in history there are so many composers, many of high quality and except for the big names with the big name publishing houses, they just don’t become well known enough. I think such is the case with Utah-based Marie Nelson Bennett. I found it immediately fascinating that she was a student of Paul Hindemith. This two CD set of her works provides a very nice insight into the variety of her art.

Bennett has written many works and received recognition from many different performing groups. This collection covers some characteristic work from each of her principal genres; chamber, choral and orchestral. The opening work, “Excursions” caught my attention right away with its wonderful solo line and its interesting, not strident, harmonic vocabulary. In the very informative booklet notes, Bennett describes the work as a path of seven short interludes that characterize the many different effects and timbres of the solo instrument (the “excursions” of the title.)  This is a very attractive work and I should think that cor anglais players everywhere would want to add this piece to their repertoire. Hornist Holly Gornik, for whom it was written, plays beautifully and the work succeeds on every level. In the other example of the composer’s orchestral output, “Shorelines”, Bennett constructs what is essentially a concerto orchestra wherein each movement represents the impressions and feel of favorite beaches of hers (Torrey Pines, California; Nag’s Head, North Carolina and Tulum, Mexico) The writing is picturesque and somewhat impressionistic and does successfully evoke the majesty and beauty of national shorelines.

I found Bennett’s chamber works particularly interesting. Her “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano” is a very pleasant and idiomatic work for the clarinet, here played with the usual panache and style of Richard Stoltzman. This four movement work gives the soloist great opportunity to showcase tone and mood and some perky technical flourishes as well. While I was particularly taken with the inner movements, allegro and adagio, I found this to be a very fine work; very enjoyable to hear and I am anxious to go play!  Bennett’s “In Memoriam” for trumpet and piano is equally impressive but paints a very different emotional picture. Written for the present soloist, James Caswell, the work is intended as a memorial to Caswell’s brother, who was killed in a car crash. The piece displays the anger, the sorrow and the final acceptance that comes with the sudden death of a loved one. The “taps” like motives in the trumpet are played against and after some very dramatic piano flourishes. Bennett describes a “lullaby of death” and the sound of “angel’s wings” that are depicted in the score. Caswell plays with clarity and emotion and this is a very poignant and effective work.

The two chamber offerings on the second disc present a more delicate and almost impressionistic tone. “Filigree of Flowers” takes its title from a poem by the composer’s sister and is scored for flute, clarinet and piano. This is a somewhat extended work that (like “Shorelines”) depicts the imagery to be found in four stanzas of the poem (for example, sunflowers pointing toward the sun, flax waving the wind, wild flowers in a field such as lupin and paintbrush) The “filigree” is carried as delicate and wispy interchanges between the woodwinds and piano and the work progresses nicely, floridly (literally…) and never loses one’s interest. The wind writing is clean and attractive and the performances by soloists Maurer, Harlow and Jones are quite good!  Lastly, the solo piano work “A Summer Day” is also built on several different small sections that describe aspects of nature – a recurring element in Bennett’s music. The depiction of “early morning”, “noon” and “late evening” is, as in the other works, more impressionist than realist, but this is a very pretty work, performed here brilliantly by Solveig Lunde Madsen, for whom it was written.

The choral music of Marie Bennett is also very interesting and enjoyable to hear and seems to carry its own thematic connections. In the case of the three works represented here; the connection is religious and scriptural story lines. An excellent example is “Once in Israel” which Bennett describes as an oratorio for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra. In this case, the source texts are poetry by Emma Lou Thayne which, in turn, are based on stories and imagery from the Old Testament regarding the forming of Israel and the original prophet kings. The writing is bold and declamatory with an appropriate sound for the material. In some small ways it reminded me of some of the English big scale choral writers, like Walton or Elgar but the sound is captivating and the solo lines are showcases for the big voices of Lila Stewart and Robert Peterson. I enjoyed the scope and drama if this work, that apparently served as Bennett’s doctoral thesis. “Mary’s Lullaby” also leaves a very positive, yet different, impression.  This very short, sweet work to an original text, is very reminiscent of spirituals in its tone and wording, performed here quite well by the women of the Pro Musica Chorus. Bennett’s “Gloria” for chorus and organ rounds out this collection and takes the traditional Latin text and gives it a characteristically exuberant feel. There are not too many totally unique ways of setting traditional texts that do not alter the feel of the words or stray from what we know. I would count Bennett’s setting, though, among the several better renditions created these past several years, including Rutter and Ferris.

I really enjoyed this collection by this talented composer about whom I knew nothing, until now. Proof positive that there are many quality works being written by people who are not located in the largest and most predictable cultural hubs of the country, I encourage anyone wanting something new and of high quality to get to know her music. I find it worth the ‘excursion’!

— Daniel Coombs

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