“Helix Collective – All In” = MADELEINE DRING: Trio for Flute, Oboe, and Piano; CHARLES RUGGIERO: Variations On and By; WILLIAM GRANT STILL: Five Miniatures; LÉO DELIBES: Sous le dôme épais (Flower Duet) from Lakmé; PHIL POPHAM: The Pharmacy – Helix Collective – Blue Griffin Recording BGR133 [Distr. by Albany], 58:19 ****:
A grab-bag this certainly is, but then “grab-bag” doesn’t have to have purely negative connotations. Here, the quirky programming has to do with what reposes in the necessarily limited repertoire of flute-oboe-piano trios, which includes one work by a member of the Helix Collective and another by a living composer whose chamber works feature a variety of unusual combinations involving winds and piano. As it turns out, the program has a little something for everyone: those who like their classics straight up, with a contemporary edge to it, or with populist appeal.
For classicists, there’s the “Flower Duet,” which would probably sound lovely played on nose flute and didgeridoo. It certainly sounds appealing here with flute and oboe standing in for Delibes’ two sopranos. We have populism covered by William Grant Still’s Five Miniatures, written in 1948 for the American tour of John Barbirolli and his wife Evelyn, a celebrated oboist. For this team, Still decided to arrange folk tunes from several countries and cultures in the Americas. These include “I Ride an Old Paint,” an American cowboy song; “Adolorido,” a Mexican folk song; “Jesus Is a Rock in the Weary Land,” a Negro spiritual; “Yaravi,” a Peruvian folk tune; and “A Frog Went A-Courtin’,” an American folk song. Expertly scored and harmonized, the miniatures are attractive yet a trifle bland. There’s little piquancy in the originals or in the treatment of them with the exception of “Jesus Is a Rock,” where Still pays tribute to the roots of blues and jazz that lie in the Negro spiritual. Here, the composer cuts loose and injects the kind of fresh, improvisatory feel that makes his Afro-American Symphony such a success. The performers offer brief spoken introductions to each piece, which doesn’t add much to the experience.
Populism shades into crossover in Phil Popham’s The Pharmacy. The composer states, “Although the specific ‘research methods’ will be left undisclosed, each movement is meant to be a caricature of the medication and ailment.” With titles such as “Aspirin and Acetaminophen,” “Steroids,” and “Dextroamphetamines,” the pieces proclaim their characters before we even hear them. Some of the movements have a harmonic, rhythmic, or performance-practice edge to them; for instance, in “12-Hour Decongestants and Antihistamines,” we begin “with the ailment of a cold. Unbalanced (piano), congested (oboe), and with post-nasal drip (flute), our patient pushes through the day.” Wild syncopations in the piano and non-musical croaking sounds from the oboe provide the onomatopoeia in this piece. Other pieces display more laid-back, pop-musical roots as suits the mood (especially so in the mellow “Herbal Meds” movement). The Pharmacy is an entertaining listen, not terribly challenging but enjoyable.
For a challenge, turn to Charles Ruggiero’s Variations On and By. Ruggiero, professor of composition and theory at Michigan State, writes in a learned style that blends jazz and strains of pre-twentieth-century classical music with more contemporary trends in classical music. Like Shostakovich with his signature DSCH theme, Ruggiero latches onto his own signature concept, the Ruggiero bass, a common feature of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian music. The composer explains: “The most characteristic form of the Ruggiero bass is an eight-measure diatonic melody in G major, but for Variations On and By, I have used a Mixolydian version of the bass. The Ruggiero-bass theme is not stated literally at any point in this composition; hence, the beginning of the work is labeled ‘Variation 1.’ But anyone familiar with the Ruggiero bass will recognize fragments of it in each of the 12 variations. . . . Many of the techniques used in Variations On and By come from medieval and renaissance music (hocket, canon, etc.), but a few of the variations are fashioned primarily by the manipulation of pitch-class sets that have been derived from the Ruggiero bass.”
This description sounds like pure egghead music right from the get-go, where the composer plunges the listener into the first variation without bothering to state the theme. In practice, the music has its challenges for the listener, but these all tend to engage rather than to be off-putting. The music is varied, colorfully arranged, tantalizing to the ear even in its more dissonant passages.
My other favorite piece on the program is Madeleine Dring’s slightly daft Trio. Dring had a double life as actress and composer. She studied at the Royal College of Music with Vaughn Williams, Howells, and Gordon Jacob, but on the evidence of the Trio, as a composer she doesn’t put on airs. The first movement shows her penchant for jazz, and it’s a pretty unbuttoned affair that busily goes down rabbit trails before returning on occasion to the main theme. That’s true of the last movement as well, which sounds like Francis Poulenc on a cognac diet: it wanders around in an appealingly tipsy fashion. Giving some sense of stability to the whole is the gently tuneful slow movement.
The Helix Collective (Sarah Robinson, flute; Phil Popham, oboe; Meghan Schaut, piano) obviously had fun with this program and meet its various challenges and interpretive vagaries with the steadiness and unanimity of professionals who have managed to blend into a true ensemble. These are very enjoyable performances. Blue Griffin provides a vivid, close-quarters recording that might have benefited from a bit more perspective; the expired air that doesn’t turn into flute music is just as prominent as the music itself in Sarah Robinson’s performance. That becomes wearing after a bit. Otherwise, no complaints from this quarter—recommended for fine musicianship and beyond-the-ordinary programming.
— Lee Passarella
A “…first choice for a gift to any lover of classical music”…