Composing America – Review

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The intent of this release, it seems, is to provide an updated version of the American chamber music survey that started with Ives and ran up to perhaps Samuel Barber, keeping the focus on vernacular/popular content and even deepening it by showing how it has woven itself into many types of compositions. The Lark Quartet rejects the division of American music into vernacular-influenced and European-oriented, showing that vernacular instincts have penetrated the works of composers not generally associated with that tradition, and it offers a clever demonstration of the group’s idea. Each of the first three works on the program somehow involves that most American of musical devices, the blue note. In the first of the five “pages” from John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the blue note appears in a form very close to that in Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano, creating an interesting absent touchstone. William Bolcom’s wonderful song for baritone and quartet Billy in the Darbies, a forerunner of the composer’s Billy Budd opera, and Aaron Copland’s early Two Pieces for string quartet both pull further against the blues tonality in different directions, and the Lark Quartet delivers an unusually good realization of the young Copland, soaking up the scene in Paris and finding that the French composers he admired were themselves interested in American jazz. Finally, with the modern Piano Quintet of Paul Moravec, commissioned by the Lark Quartet itself, discarding the blue note but not the rhythmic aspects of popular music; in the words of annotator Andrew Waggoner, “the connection [to vernacular music] is there. It is just less apparent, less at the surface and more in the make-up of the musical elements themselves.” A novel take, performed with attractive precision, on the age-old question “what is American music?”

James Manheim