“McDuo: Works for Flute and Percussion” = JAMES LEWIS: Tampanera; DANIEL ADAMS: Between; PAUL RELLER: McDuo; J. STEPHEN MONTAGUE: 2 Dirges – 3 Dances; HOWARD BUSS: Stellar Visions; CHIHCHUN CHI-SUN LEE: Thin-O-O; HUGO WEISGALL: Tangents – Kim McCormick, flute/ Robert McCormick, percussion – Ravello Records RR7814, 74:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Even in the world of contemporary music, where rules of decorum are meant to be broken, the combination of flute and percussion seems pretty unlikely. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering the best music on this current disc, where the Odd Couple nature of the pairing is explored with gusto and enterprise. For me, the first two or three works on the bill are a warm-up act, and one to which I don’t really warm. They seem to fall into the category of music written for other composers, musicologists, and those for whom music is essentially a series of sound effects.
The first, Tampanera, was conceived as a tribute to Bizet on the hundredth anniversary of his death in 1975. The McCormick Duo play an undated version from 2006. The notes to the recording make a profound understatement in saying that “Tampanera only vaguely resembles Bizet’s musical language, though like Lewis he occasionally focused on the interval of the augmented seventh, and sometimes used melodic sevenths or ninths.” And Lewis does briefly quote Bizet’s famous Habanera, providing a melodic interlude amid all the musical noise.
Daniel Adams’s Between is one of the pieces based on, to most folks, an obscure concept that’s supposed to give it intellectual rigor: in this case “the concept of inter-relational space described by early 20th century psychologist William Alanson White as a level of interaction between two individuals which results in a higher state of being than manifested in either individual alone.” The notes go on to say, “in Between, the inter-relational space is represented by a constant fluctuation between congruent and divergent musical passages. A three-note motive is continuously transformed and shifted in its orientation to the remaining nine chromatic pitches.” I’ll take the note writer’s word for it; I just hope he or she won’t be offended if I say I’ll take my music straight up—hold the lofty concepts and formulae.
Paul Reller’s McDuo, written specifically for the McCormick Duo in 2006, is an improvement on the first two pieces. Its exploration of sonorities and rhythmic combinations is something of a tour de force, given that the composer has restricted his resources to flute and marimba, but McDuo is far from the most interesting work on the program and still constitutes a warm-up act for me.
With J. Stephen Montague’s 2 Dirges – 3 Dances, we’re getting somewhere. The idea of such diametrically opposed musical contexts as dance and dirge instantly supplies variety, and in execution, Montague produces a range of sounds that seems to defy the forces at his disposal. The dance sections jog along with a lightness and rhythmic freshness that recalls Paul Creston, another American who wrote memorably for percussion instruments, while the dirges wail and screech in ways that recall Henry Cowell’s piano-untuning Banchee. Maybe these comparisons are superfluous if not downright odious, but they may help give an idea of the nature of this ear-grabbing music, my favorite.
Of the other works on the program, Howard Buss’s Stellar Visions predictably but enjoyably captures the lonely iridescence of deep space, while Thin-O-O, which looks like some sort of mathematical formula, turns out to be an expression in native Taiwanese that translates as “the dark sky proceeding [preceding?] the storm.” The piece is based on a traditional Taiwanese folk song of that name; composer Chihchun Chi-sun Lee explodes the melody, treating it atonally, in fragmentary form, as if viewing it from the distant distorted perspective of dream.
Moravian-American composer Hugo Weisgall, the best-known name on the program, contributes a work of varied musical expression, with dance-like movements that alternate between lilting waltz and jaunty ragtime, cakewalk and gallop, all in a highly chromatic idiom. This piece of approachable modernism provides a vibrant conclusion to a program that, once the main acts arrive, proves to be a stimulating one.
The McCormicks, both on the faculty of the University of South Florida, are not only new-music specialists but players of the first order. This disc won’t appeal to everyone, though the best works on the program should amuse—and even amaze—a broad range of listeners who may think, as I did initially, that flute and percussion make for an unlikely instrumental duo.
A “…first choice for a gift to any lover of classical music”…