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CD Review

Cleveland Composers' Guild

Volume 1

  • Klaus George Roy: Canticle of the Sun, Op. 17 (1950) 1,a
  • Bain Murray: Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers (1962) 2,b
  • Howard Whittaker: Cantata "Behold, He cometh with clouds" (1952) 3,a
  • Hale Smith: In Memoriam – Beryl Rubinstein (1953) c
  • Raymond Wilding-White: Paraphernalia (A Regalia of Madrigalia from Ezra Pound) 4,b
1 Abraham Skernick, viola
2 Harvey McGuire, English horn
2 Warren Downs, cello
3 Seth McCoy, tenor
3 John Dietz, baritone
3 Marcellene Hawk, piano
3 Donald Shelhorn, piano
4 Crawford Thorburn, tenor
4 Marshall Bell, baritone
4 Eleanor Pudil Anop, contralto
4 Margaret Hauptmann, soprano
a Kulas Choir/Robert Shaw
b Kulas Chamber Ensemble/Raymond Wilding-White
c Kulas Chamber Ensemble/Robert Shaw
CRI/New World NWCRL182 39:21
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Hallelujah! A cult classic returns!

A quick disclaimer: I love Cleveland, Ohio, my home town. I'd move back there, if I could, not that it lacks problems, of course. It gets a bad rap, mainly from stand-up comics. But stand-ups are generally just passing through. They don't live there, and they resent the fact that the city in general rolls the sidewalks up after 11 PM. There's nowhere to go for hip, late-night carousal and clubbing. On the other hand, aside from a world-class orchestra, world-class art museum, and one of the finest public library systems in the U.S., one finds a lively cultural and intellectual life, if one knows where to look. Among these hidden treasures resides the Cleveland Composers' Guild Fortnightly Music Club, to which all the composers on this program at one time belonged. About the only one even slightly known to the classical-music public is Hale Smith, probably because he moved to New York. Almost all of the works here stand well above the common run.

Readers may know Klaus George Roy for his liner notes to recordings by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. For years, he directed the orchestra's publications, but he was also a wonderful composer in his own right. He studied with, among others, Walter Piston at Harvard, and his music takes on some of Piston's elegance. Roy's Canticle of the Sun has haunted my musical dreams since I first heard it. It sets the poem by St. Francis of Assisi in the original Italian for choir and viola solo. I love so much about it. It has the poise and cool beauty of Hindemith, although it sings more warmly than a lot of Hindemith. The viola part is no mere filigree; like tendrils, it insinuates itself into the choral music while keeping its own identity. Also, the music tames the poem's sprawl with a compelling musical argument. I can't think of a reason why this isn't a masterpiece.

Bain Murray studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Herbert Elwell at Oberlin, and, again, Piston at Harvard. Murray also taught at the latter schools. He wrote superb music criticism in one of Cleveland's suburban papers, where I first encountered him.

Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers sets an Emily Dickinson poem about the dead awaiting Resurrection, while the world, large and small, goes on without them. At the end, the poet equates the two. I'm not usually a Dickinson fan, but even I consider it a fabulous poem. Murray employs an English horn and a cello to evoke a mysterious serenity. The choir then enters with a lullaby, written by a superb melodist. I first heard the score while a teen, as a rare revelation of beauty, such that a lump arose in my throat. I haven't changed my mind. Murray doesn't deserve his obscurity.

An Elwell student, Howard Whittaker taught generations of budding composers at the Cleveland Music School Settlement (an institution still active), which he directed, and in general acted as a cultural force in the city for several decades. Behold, He cometh with clouds bowled over teen-aged me, with its maestoso opening for two pianos – like a call to arms. Unfortunately, I'm no longer a teen, and the piece has faded a bit for me. The opening has lost nothing of its power, but the quieter sections now come across to me as Sunday-school piety. Nevertheless, Whittaker writes with craft, with marvelous two-piano writing that keeps the identity of each instrument distinct and surprising voice-leadings and chord progressions in the men's choir.

A product of the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with Marcel Dick (a friend and disciple of Arnold Schoenberg) among others, Hale Smith moved to New York and later taught at the University of Connecticut. I think of him as a hard-core Modernist, adopting dodecaphonic serialism in the Fifties. However, he also arranged for such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie and Chico Hamilton. In Memoriam – Beryl Rubinstein, for chamber ensemble and choir and the knottiest work on the CD, honors the cultural pillar Beryl Rubinstein, who taught at and headed the Cleveland Institute of Music. Rubinstein, a pianist and composer and a man of immense general culture, died relatively young, in his 50s. Smith's memorial, for chamber ensemble and choir, consists of three mini-movements: a choral keening on pure vowels, a setting of "Poème d' Automne" by Langston Hughes, and another setting of an elegy by Cleveland poet Russell Atkins about the pain of bereavement. Although not a serial work, the memorial is highly chromatic, expressively in keeping with its subject. The entire score reminds me of the melancholy of a gray day. Cleveland gets a lot of them.

Born in England and growing up in France and Argentina, Raymond Wilding-White studied with Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola. Temperamentally a maverick, he moved from one compositional idiom to the next, including aleatorics and electronic music. He taught for a time at Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland and became a kind of hero to those of us interested in new music. Paraphernalia, a set of Monteverdi-inspired madrigals on Ezra Pound's reconstructions of classic Chinese poetry, gets my vote as the liveliest work on the program. An early work, for Wilding-White it's rather conservative and reminds me most of Benjamin Britten, particularly that composer's Songs from the Chinese, which of course also sets Chinese poetry. From its opening bars, however, it continually surprises, with new-as-paint textures, rhythms, and unpredictable melodies. No matter how goofy the melodies get, they remain real melodies. A bona-fide delight.

The performances are astonishingly good, especially when one considers the unfamiliarity of the music. Indeed, they're good even for those performers who know the music inside-out. Their quality in roughly fifty years hasn't declined. Robert Shaw, choral legend, directs the choir which he probably selected from singers in his local church choir (professionals all). The Kulas Chamber Ensemble seems an ad hoc group, drawn from members of the Cleveland Orchestra and other stellar players in Northeastern Ohio. Again, I emphasize the newness of the music at the time as well as its depth, and both Shaw and Wilding-White (conducting his own work) deliver performances that remain classics. The one disadvantage is the incredibly short playing time for a full-price disc. Apparently New World hasn't heard the CDs can hold far more music than the original LP. There is a second volume of Composers' Guild composers, which of course New World is happy to sell to you separately, but why they couldn't combine them in one disc, I can't tell you. Nevertheless, for gorgeous music in marvelous performances, it's hard to beat this disc.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz