Summary for the Busy Executive: Forever young.
One of the best meals I ever had in my life was in a small town in upstate New York. From the outside, it looked like a typical "family-style" restaurant. If any one of us – my father, mother, sister, or I – had been paying attention, however, we'd have noticed among the Fords, Chevies, and Plymouths, the Mercedes and the Bentleys. We'd been driving all day, and we hadn't changed, although we had washed up at the motel. We opened the door to one of the most elegant interiors I'd ever seen, with small intimate nooks lining the corridor to a main dining room. The owner greeted us in a beautifully-cut tux. We felt like the Joads, but the man seated us courteously and even graciously. The bill wasn't cheap. My sister and I had baked Alaska for the first time in that restaurant. Later, with my wife, I drove sixty miles out of my way to eat there again. It was even better, mainly because my palate had learned to enjoy more things. This review celebrates what you can find in odd corners of the country.
John David Lamb (or just David, as he is known to his friends) studied composition at the University of Washington in the Fifties. With timeouts for brief intervals of grant support, he spent about thirty years in the public school system, from which he has recently retired. He has continued to compose.
The careers and personalities of classical composers fall, basically, into four bins: the one who actually makes a living at it (rarer than the whooping crane); the Quixote who puts his stuff in a drawer and hopes for the future; the megalomaniac who rails that people must listen, for the sake of their musical souls; the home hobbyist who drags out his MIDI files, rather like people with their slides and family photo albums. Lamb is Quixote, but make no mistake: Lamb is no duffer. He has formal training and at least forty years of real composing experience. He has written in just about every form. These CDs, however, represent his chamber music only. We get these small-scale works because Lamb himself paid for the recordings. I shudder to think what a reading of an orchestral piece would set a composer back. I already hear the objection: only the pieces someone is willing to take a chance on get recorded. No one other than the composer was willing to take that chance. I would counter that probably no one other than the composer had looked at these pieces or knew these pieces existed. I get really tired with the free-market version of the survival of art. As William F. Buckley remarked, the free market tells you merely the cost and the price, not the value.
All this could drive an artist to wormwood and gall, but Lamb has definitely avoided the trap. He is an artist who sees the point of art not only as communication, but even as entertainment. When he writes a piece, he keeps before him the image of the listeners he has asked to give up time for his work.
I would describe Lamb's musical idiom as Postwar Neoclassical. One hears a bit of Stravinsky in the rhythms and Hindemith in some of the harmonies and in the counterpoint. Even Copland and Mahler occasionally peek out from behind the curtain. He writes tonally, he loves building radiant melodies, but he doesn't rehash other work. He has his own personality. For me, this comes out most strongly in his rhythms. He dearly loves to change meter, sometimes with each measure, and to build asymmetrical syncopations, as you would find in folk music, where the dancers stamp their feet against the pulse. Because of the metrical changes, Lamb's dancers must also find their feet. I suppose this sort of thing goes back at least to Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat and to Orff's Rundtänze. Lamb's melodies have the ever-fresh quality of folk tunes, but they receive sophisticated handling. One is always aware – as one is with Mahler in his Wunderhorn settings – that a very canny musical mind has searched for exactly the right note at any particular point in the phrase.
The artistic personality behind the music wins me over right away with a modest, down-to-earth quality. As Debussy once remarked, "Music should seek, humbly, to please." At least in the works here, Lamb achieves sincerity without over-inflation. He doesn't blow smoke simply to impress. You never doubt that the notes here come from the desire to express, as clearly as possible, an inner drive or an emotion genuinely felt. Of course, in art sincerity is never enough. That's where Lamb's craft comes in.
Lamb credits the inspiration of the saxophone works to the virtuoso Sigurd Rascher, always on the look-out for new, original work for his instrument and a cheerleader to composers. Rascher's encouragement led to the sonata for soprano sax, certainly one of the most substantial works on the three CDs. What with one thing and another, it took Lamb over twenty years to complete the sonata. It's a polished gem. The piece begins with what I hear as a "Russian" melody, à la Mussorgsky, but the harmony derives from Hindemith. The counterpoint as well presents a Hindemithian exuberance and complexity. However, you hear mainly the exuberance and smile at the complexity. The effect on the listener is warmer than is usual with Hindemith, with less of a concern for near-Palladian symmetry or marmoreal classicism. Lamb comes across as a lyric, rather than epic composer. So despite a beautiful slow movement with themes chock-full of Hindemithian fourths, one listens to something not constructed or built, but sung and truly personal. The finale as well is all Lamb, with characteristic off-balance rhythmic pirouettes.
The altogether lighter Fables and Follies managed to charm the socks off me, despite some occasional stretches where I felt Lamb's inspiration had faltered. I think it a matter of hanging around the same key center too long or of insufficient contrast or of sticking to the middle and low registers of the instruments. I felt this more in the baritone piece than in Fables. Lamb is primarily a composer of clear ideas. The style doesn't really allow one to hide behind a welter of notes. Consequently, he risks exposing a bad hand or an idea insufficiently worked. As ingratiating and as "natural" as the music sounds, it is a cruel, unforgiving style. Nevertheless, some of the writing seemed to turn the baritone sax into a cello – that kind of lyricism.
No reservations at all about Affirmations, a full-blown saxophone quartet and the longest, most ambitious piece on the program. The first movement – sonata with slow introduction – brought to mind the pastoralism of Milhaud's wind music, particularly something like La cheminée du Roi René. Lamb wrote the entire quartet in the early Nineties. Despite a continuing fondness for melodies featuring fourths, Lamb has largely left Hindemith behind. The quirky rhythmic sense remains, however. I continue to think, during the allegro sections, of little lambs leaping suddenly straight up into the air. The music exudes the sweet air of Spring. The primary impulse of the second movement is tune, tune, tune. Lamb, however, sells himself short when he writes in his liner notes, "the cantabile sections are innocent and romantic with nothing to get in the way of the melody." Nothing gets in the way, but there's considerably more going on in the way of counter-tunes and classy accompaniment, free of cliché. The finale is a rondo with a sly main theme (almost like a playground taunt) and a couple of wonderful surprises along the way, which I won't give away here. One of the outstanding episodes of the piece is a lot like a hymn (Lamb himself thinks of it as "lush," for some reason). It reminds us that more goes on than bumptious fun. I should also mention that although Lamb works with a jeweler's precision, he can nevertheless deliver an extensive movement. This three-movement quartet – entertaining and delightful as it is – nonetheless runs to twenty-five minutes.
Caricatures, a suite of miniatures, began as a series of musical sketches of Lamb's friends. Since most of us don't know Lamb's friends, we have to take the suite as pure music – not very hard to do. Lamb points out that because the pieces are early, one can easily spot the influences. The opening allegro strikes me as very French, with again a strong reminder of Milhaud. The second movement, "Andante pastorale," comes across as a moderato Scandinavian dance, by a Grieg who perhaps loved writing rounds. The "scherzando" third movement has elements of Stravinsky's Pétrouchka. The slow waltz of the fourth movement owes, as Lamb himself hints, quite a bit to Berg. The finale, however, shows the composer at his most characteristic, with yet another asymmetrical dance and happy tune.
Up to now, we've talked only about wind pieces. The two string works – the aptly-named Asymmetrical Dances (indeed, I don't know whether Lamb has ever written a symmetrical dance) and Night Music – come as a refreshing change of pace. The dances, a series of violin duets written over the years, began as "something to play" with his string-playing friends when they "ran out of Bartók." Bartók's own duos as well as Stravinsky's violin writing in L'Histoire seem the models. Here and there, I also hear a bit of Swedish or Latvian fiddling. Lamb's duets are fun to listen to, without pandering, and they must be a gas to play. Night Music, essentially a two-movement string quartet of about eighteen minutes and in many ways the most interesting music of all on the three CDs, shows a different side to Lamb. It scarcely sounds like the composer I've heard so far. The concern for the wonderful tune persists, but it's a different kind of tune and a different harmonic support. I suspect Lamb wanted to stretch his expressive legs into new territory. The first movement – "Fäbodlåt" – according to the composer is a lament inspired by Swedish farming. In the summer, the men would go off to the city to earn money, leaving the women alone to take care of the farm. It was a lonely, difficult life, and the movement captures that as well as the monotony of the life, without the music ever itself losing interest. There's a quality of hard stoicism to it, far removed from Lamb's usual sunny musical disposish'. The second movement, "Polska," dances mainly in moderate three-four time. One of the tunes bears a strong resemblance to the third movement of Grieg's Symphonic Dances, but the effect is less straightforward in Lamb. Lamb's players aren't as suave as Grieg's, the music not so new-paint-bright, and eventually the melancholy of the first movement tints the second. Happiness comes in fits and starts, to be overwhelmed by anger and regret. Come to think of it, it's a pretty Bergian movement, without resort to Berg's idiom. The emotions of the piece lie fairly close to the bone.
Personae of 1999 took the composer roughly forty years from the first sketches to completion. It's not a stretch to imagine that a composer as fond of melodic fourths and fifths as Lamb to want to write for the horn. The composer describes Personae as a set of self-caricatures. Again, it's hard either to agree or to disagree, since I don't know Lamb, so again the music stands or falls all by itself. It's a beautiful work, with the opening motif a breezy update of the finale to Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony. I'm a sucker for the sound of the horn myself, though it's a bear to write for. The slow second movement daydreams, with one secondary theme evoking the Appalachian "come-all-ye." The third movement is another slow one, but more a hymn than a ballad. I must say that any element of caricature (in the sense of ironic distance) in this music so far has escaped me. Indeed, it seems to me to come from deep within Lamb. The final "Valz sentimentale" is yet another slow movement, but with Schwung – a handsome end to a handsome work.
The third CD, Bird's-Eye View, contains examples of my least favorite genre – the piece for single melody instrument. I except string instruments, because ever since Bach at least, composers can make them sing more than one line. Truth to tell, I don't much like Gregorian chant either, preferring their use in polyphonic music – not "Ave maris stella" but Josquin's Missa 'Ave maris stella', for example. To me, composers have too hard a job to keep things interesting. About the only such piece that wakes me up is Varèse's Density 21.5. Consequently, I will skip over Pasatiempos and Divertimento, for solo flute and solo bassoon, respectively.
Against the Darkness, for small ensemble, is program music based on a Lamb chamber opera. Again, I'm not a huge fan of narrative music not by Strauss or Elgar, but I will concede that I can follow Lamb's plot (he gives the general outline of it in his liner notes) through the music. I don't want to go any deeper right now because I'm sure my prejudice against the genre affects my reception of the work. Others who have heard the piece like it a lot, and there's certainly nothing wrong with the music. I simply feel no imaginative sympathy.
The partita for solo viola contains five brief movements. Lamb acknowledges this as the earliest piece he's willing to keep. It embodies for him a kind of manifesto – a reaction against "the empty… essentially ugly music" of the time. I've never actually met anyone in favor of ugly, empty music, so I really don't know why Lamb needed a manifesto. Basically, he wanted to write tonally, with recognizable tunes – as if someone was out to stop him. At any rate, based on what I know of Lamb's later music, this presents the composer at the beginning of his road. The tunes haven't the distinctive stamp of his later work, but it's a beautiful, thoughtful piece nevertheless, wonderfully suited to the autumnal sound of the viola. In the last two movements, "Scherzo" and "Charivari," we get the Swedish fiddling routine characteristic of the mature composer.
Flourishes, five duets for horns, opens with a Tippett-like fanfare, followed by a scherzo with a rolling gait a little reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold's Three Shanties. The third-movement "Intermezzo" brings back the Tippett (or perhaps Britten) sounds of the start then settles into a B section, full of a nostalgia that seems particular to Lamb. I love horn duets anyway, and Lamb has provided some gems.
Lamb wrote Beyond the Clouds inspired by the playing of Lynne Palmer, "who taught me all I know about the harp." You've got to know your compositional onions if you want to master writing for the tricky solo harp. It's a bit easier if you regard the harp as essentially a diatonic or even modal instrument; its essential musical character really hasn't changed in the thousands of years it's been around. The nineteenth century added a bit of mechanics, and chromaticism became possible, but in no way easy. Things like the dodecaphonic Krenek sonata or the quartal Hindemith sonata are, in addition to great music, tours-de-force. But the harp all by its natural is pretty wonderful. People have thought it the preferred instrument of heaven for a reason. Lamb's music is gorgeous, mostly "white-note" stuff, with enough chromatic pinches to keep things interesting.
Cradle Song, a lullaby in quintuple time for chamber ensemble, is simply one extraordinary tune and its own excuse for being. The orchestration is worth mentioning – full of surprising colors without a lot of players. It made me hungry to hear an orchestral work by Lamb.
In Heart Springs, Lamb has set four poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins – two relatively well-known, two not – all for women's chorus, horn, and piano. Hopkins gives composers fits because of his odd rhythms and extremely concise expression. This leads to often clunky and even incoherent settings. Lamb's own odd rhythms, however, take Hopkins's in their stride, and one can always follow the rhetorical shifts. Lamb has produced songs that marry tune and word to an unusually close degree, and the tunes are beautiful, besides. The horn also adds that extra bit of Romantic yearning – pure lagniappe. The first song, "Cuckoo," remembers Mahler's cuckoo, particularly its song in Mahler's early "Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen," but Lamb quickly strikes out on his own, with an enchanting broken canon between women and horn, painting the words "Repeat that, repeat." In "Spring and Fall," Lamb strikes a simple, almost naïve pose, avoiding the over-inflation into Significance of so many other settings of this poem. For the most part, the women continue in two parts – in some places, down to unison – only, untouched by piano or horn. "Heaven-Haven" (also set by Barber as "A nun takes the veil") continues this very direct, pared-down expression, but relaxes it a bit with interludes for horn and piano. Barber looks almost garish in comparison. The final "Inversnaid," a Hopkins poem new to me, is the most gnarly of the group, but again Lamb turns the knots and twists into something wonderfully playful and leaves his audience in smiles.
I've written at such length in the frank hope that the review will spark enough demand for Lamb to recoup at least some of his costs. The only source for these CDs is Lamb himself. The performances were well worth the money. Outstanding performers include Paul Cohen on soprano and baritone sax (a cello-like tone on the bari), Ilkka Talvi on viola, Laura DeLuca on clarinet, all the horn players (Robbins, Weaver, McBride, and in particular Peter Moore), and the Heart Springs ensemble. The chorus's diction is clear enough that you don't need the text Lamb provides in the notes. They sing well in tune, rhythmically spot on, and with character: they know what they're singing about. The Impuls Quartet and the ad hoc string quartet negotiate the interpretively difficult Affirmations and Night Music respectively, and the recording itself is first-rate.
A rare bit of treasure.
Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz