Sounds Heard: Odyssey—Mimi Stillman & Charles Abramovic
Charles Abramovic: piano
Eclectic ensembles that often employ state-of-the art electronic gadgetry, and/or amplification, seem to be receiving the most media attention lately as the instrumentaria of choice for the chamber music of our time. But centuries-old configurations still inspire a great many composers out there. While everyone knows that the string quartet is far more than alive and well by now, other time-tested combinations have also continued to inspire a broad range of music. Take, for example, the so called “piano + one” model which has been around since the 18th century, engendering countless works involving every conceivable instrument from the still ubiquitous violin and cello to the banjo and even the Chinese pipa and the Basque txistu. Among the more effective “piano + one” possibilities is piano plus flute which goes back to at least Mozart and counts among its enduring repertoire works from Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Cecile Chaminade, Serge Prokofiev, York Bowen, Samuel Barber, Paul Bowles, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen, Aaron Copland, and even John Cage. And in recent years, several recordings have shown that the combination of flute and piano continues to be intriguing. The Utah-based flutist Laurel Ann Maurer has released numerous discs featuring recent American works. And two years ago, as a result of a Meet The Composer project with New Zealand-born flutist Marya Martin, a collection of eight new American works were released on Naxos with their scores simultaneously published as a set by the Theodore Presser Company. Now added to that already significant discography is a generous 2-CD collection of 11 heretofore unrecorded American works on Innova performed by flutist Mimi Stillman accompanied by Charles Abramovic, both of whom are also founding members of the Philadelphia-based Dolce Suono Ensemble.
Perhaps it is a tad misleading to say that Odyssey, the name of Stillman’s collection, contains 11 new American works for flute and piano. Three of the works—the title piece Odyssey by Gerald Levinson, Daniel Kellogg’s Five Sketches, and David Bennett Thomas’s Whim—are solo flute pieces (another grand tradition with illustrious antecedents in Bach, Debussy, and Varèse). And two are actually transcriptions. Michael Djupstrom’s 2007 Sejdefu majka budaše, originally for flute and guitar but re-arranged for flute and piano by pianist Charles Abramovic for the present recording, is a loose setting of a Balkan folk song. The duo’s version of the aria “A Quality Love” from Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner, his 2005 operatic collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, is one of the only transcriptions Danielpour has ever permitted of his music. Five Sketches alternates between completely chromatic and diatonic movements, albeit with occasional blue notes thrown in for good measure. Whim (2009) is a delightful exploration of skewed rhythmic groupings whereas Odyssey explores the instrument’s entire range not only in pitch but in timbre as well. Curiously Odyssey, the oldest piece in this collection, was composed all the way back in 1973, which is before more than half of the composers featured herein were actually born! Stillman has finally righted a discographical wrong by being the first person ever to commercially record it as well as Andrew Rudin’s 1979 Two Elegies for flute and piano. The latter is an extremely emotional and highly engaging work from a composer who is probably most known for his pioneering electronic composition Tragoedia, which was issued by Nonesuch in 1968 and is one of the earliest widely released recordings featuring the Moog synthesizer.
The remaining flute and piano works in the collection offer a fascinating cross-section of what American composers have been exploring for this combination over the past decade. Katherine Hoover, who in addition to her activities as a composer is also a flutist and has composed extensively for her instrument, is here represented by a work from just two years ago, Mountain & Mesa, which Stillman premiered at the National Flute Association’s national convention in the summer of 2009. I was particularly drawn to the final movement, “Dizi Dance,” which is Hoover’s personal impression of Chinese traditional music. Chinese music also serves as the departure point for the Duet for Flute and Piano by Zhao Tian. Composed in 1999 and revised in 2005, here Dai minority folksongs from China’s Yunnan Province are only one of the influences—the other is the jazz piano playing of Chick Corea. Quite a world apart from these pieces is David Ludwig’s 2002 Sonata, a formidable three movement work which shows some influence of Argentinian music, and Elements, a 2000 piece by Mason Bates, which will surprise listeners who only know of his electronica infused compositions. I was perhaps most surprised by Benjamin C.S. Boyle’s Sonata-Cantilena, a work composed just two years ago that sounds like it could be part of the standard repertoire for flutists for years to come. That it is unrepentantly tonal—its role models are Barber and Poulenc—is nothing to be apologetic for in the 21st century when all aesthetic positions are equally valid and when all continue to yield captivating music.
Video courtesy Mimi Stillman