Summary for the Busy Executive: The real deal.
John David Lamb belongs pretty much to Washington State. He managed to earn degrees in composition and conducting at the University of Washington. However, it's difficult to earn a living as either a conductor or a composer, especially if you live somewhere other than San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, and Lamb taught in the Seattle public schools for many years until he retired. Nevertheless, he continued to compose and to get his music performed, mainly in the Pacific Northwest. Like most contemporary American composers (probably like most composers all over), he has subsidized his music, to the extent of bringing out five CDs (see my review of earlier releases) on his own dime.
The hell of it is, he's a very good composer indeed. He's not only got inspiration, but he actually knows his craft. He writes expertly for his forces. Knowing that this "job" costs you money, almost ignoring how good you are, must discourage younger people out there. You don't compose concert music to make a living. Therefore, you compose fewer works, simply because you need to earn to eat. I'm sure Lamb was a fine teacher, but why should he have had to, when he could do this? The fault really lies in us. We're not willing to pay for non-commercial art – or is that a tautology?
This CD runs a gamut from choral to chamber to orchestral music and shows Lamb a master of each genre.
Halcyon Summer, for brass quintet, consists of four movements: an asymmetrical dance in the American neoclassicist manner, led off by Coplandian heraldry finishing up with a tender backward glance; a slow second movement described by the composer as a "serenade," ie, a nocturnal love song; a third movement that begins with a chorale and moves to a waltz which, because of its juxtaposition to the chorale, reminds me a bit of "Vom Himmel hoch" (quickly dissipated by the suave music that follows); a "ragtime" finale, in which the rag is little more than a suggestion and a suggestion that comes from the composer's liner notes. I doubt I would have thought of it on my own, although one hears clear echoes of early jazz and popular music. More importantly, the composer treats us to clear, memorable ideas, expert brass writing, real wit, and, even within the confines of the miniature, genuine sentiment.
"Bicinium" refers, in general, to two-part compositions of the Renaissance and Baroque. More specifically, it means duos with a pedagogical purpose. Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály composed a choral masterpiece with Bicinia Hungarica, a teaching piece for treble voices. Lamb, involved in a project to publish teaching pieces for young singers, used the occasion to write Bicinia Americana. The project fell through, however, but not before Lamb had produced thirteen little gems. The words, other than two A. E. Housman lyrics (in the folk-ballad idiom anyway), are traditional. Lamb uses one pre-existing tune, "Old Betty Larkin," but you could mistake his originals (almost all of them in the old modes) for folk tunes – by me, a high compliment. Most follow the two-part format. Some are quodlibets (two or more different tunes going at the same time). The one large exception is "Gonna Leave My Farm," a raggy round that turns into something fairly involved as more and more voices join in (I gave up counting at four). These are both beautiful and fun, with lots of interest for young people (notoriously severe critics). Furthermore, like the Kodály, they are not beyond the performing capacity of children or, at least, adolescents. A shame, really, that the publishers pooped out.
Song and Dance, for solo horn and chamber orchestra, right now counts as my favorite work on the CD. Lamb wrote it in his early 20s in 1958. Even then, he demonstrates a fine lyric gift as well as the ability to write interesting and individual music. It doesn't display an individual surface, rather a personal point of view. In the "Song," one hears a certain bittersweet, almost Scandinavian longing – a bit like Nielsen in a less-dark mood. The horn, of course, brings up all sorts of Romantic and neo-Romantic associations. I listen to it and catch myself grinding my molars that this music isn't better known. It has "classic" written all over it. The "Dance" is a bit more complex in structure. Again in asymmetrical, changing meters, it reminds me of my earlier review, where I wondered whether Lamb had ever composed a symmetrical dance. It begins leaping about like Harlequin and leads to a very Mahleresque Ländler, whose theme Lamb then appropriates for another off-kilter whirl. The Ländler returns. The first section gets recapped and developed with the Ländler theme, now given over to the livelier rhythms.
Lamb's Short Mass was composed for a group of Belgium Cistercian nuns, moved to northern California and looking for something in English to sing. Written for women's voices and a beautiful recorder part (in the Agnus Dei), the mass shows Lamb's affinity for modalism and the mesmerism of religious ritual. In that regard, although in no other, it reminds me of Stravinsky's religious music. One can also say the same for the setting of Psalm 150, written as a kind of pendant to the Mass. Composers as far back as William Byrd (his magnificent Laudate Dominum, for example) will set this as exuberantly and as flashily as possible. Again, Lamb takes a quietly intense tack. One might almost call the little piece Asian in its restraint. However, I'll have a difficult time forgetting either work. Somehow, they got inside me and stayed there. I'm not even Catholic (neither is Lamb, incidentally) or particularly religious or even (and I hate this word) "spiritual."
In Rueful Passages, for double wind quintet and percussion, Lamb set himself the task of writing an extended work without resorting to traditional means of coherence – namely, melody and functional harmony. The work, the most ambitious on the program, isn't atonal although it is chromatic and even polymodal. I'd also say that, given his announced aim, I don't think he succeeded. The score certainly coheres, but I believe that Lamb has unconsciously allowed melody to creep in. Why not? He's a fine melodist, after all. At least, that's how I hear the piece: a bunch of little mosaic bits and melodic gestures that combine and re-combine throughout the work. Indeed, one shape in particular (in its basic form, F#-G-Eb'-D'-C') seems to dominate, especially in the quicker parts. Composers have been playing this sort of game since Haydn at least.
Lamb seeks to write a work about the death of dreams and ideals. He thought and read a long time about the emotional course his piece should take. Lamb thought the "traditional" course of crisis and acceptance not quite right. He finally had the idea of growing anger and crisis, ending up in complete smash-up. The piece begins quietly with a solo English horn, merging into duet with the oboe. Gradually, the other winds join in to form a slow, contrapuntal lament. The music builds over a long span, with pops of percussion. With a neat little skip, we find ourselves within a quicker section, and then after a small bang, in an even faster one. The percussion becomes more prominent, with wild cries from the horns. We reach a climax, and then a muttering fallback, with the hi-hat cymbals prominent. From here, the music sounds more and more chaotic, and we build one more time. The ground shifts, and we briefly lament once again. This leads to yet another build and a final smash. If I have any criticism of the piece at all, it's that last build, which simply isn't wild enough to do the job Lamb wants. The previous bit of chaos was wilder, and I suspect that either Lamb should have ended the piece there, switched the two sections, or simply recomposed that build to give a stronger impression of flying apart. As it stands, the end seems anticlimactic. Nevertheless, a very impressive work and even through all the musical tsuris, Lamb remains a highly communicative composer.
All the performances are at least decent. I thought Song and Dance, led by Roupen Shakarian, the best, although the brass quintet in Halcyon Summer ran closely behind. Mark Robbins, the horn player in both, deserves special mention. Rueful Passages is simply too dense a piece for one to expect a home run in its first recording (rehearsal time for independent recordings runs notoriously short), but Shakarian does give it shape. The choral work is a little spotty. This matters less in the Bicinia, since one can imagine the charm of kids performing the score. In the Short Mass and the Psalm, it would have been nice to have a group at the level of the Kansas City Chorale, but the stature of both works comes through nevertheless.
An honest workman with no pretense, Lamb has created a rewarding program. Check out his other CDs as well.
Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz.