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CD Review

Amy Scurria

Compositions 1992-1998

  • Fantasy for Piano (1992) 1
  • Variations on Reflection (1994) 1
  • Beyond All Walking (1997) 3
  • Rains Alive (1996) 2
  • Furchte dich nicht (1995) 4
  • 5 Haiku (1998) 5
  • A Winter of Flowers (1994) 6
  • Games Children Play (1995) 7
1,6 Susan Boetcher, piano
2,5 Jay Bitner, baritone
2 JoAnn Kulesza, piano
3 Peabody Symphony Orchestra/Teri Murai
4 Shepherd School of Music Ensemble
5 Pamela Hay, soprano, musicians from Peabody/Brian Stone
6 Tracey Rhodes, soprano
7 Sylvia Danburg, violin
TT 56:55
Available from the composer at web site

Summary for the Busy Executive: Hat's off, gentlemen!

So I'm on this internet music discussion list and a new member introduces herself as a composer, giving a website URL. I go to the site, since I'm simultaneously skeptical and curious when anyone describes themselves as a composer, mainly because experience has shown me that a claimant usually thinks that "composer" and "good composer" are the same thing. I click on the links of excerpts and am blown away. I send for the CD, which confirms my initial excitement.

Scurria, born in Florida and now living in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, is, to old me, a kid, although she's now in her twenties, but her artistic personality is quite mature. She's a graduate of Rice and Peabody (student of Robert Sirota and Chen Yi), and she credits Peabody with her formation as a composer. On the other hand, her works written at Rice have nothing to apologize for: they show the same command over materials and poetry as the Peabody stuff. I also found her on the MP3 site - short piano pieces she wrote in high school. The difference astounded me. They sounded like the typical pop, New Age-y noodlings one would expect from a teenager, like comparing Celine Dion ear candy to a Carl Nielsen symphony. Whatever came together seems to have come together very quickly.

The harmonic idiom and time sense is that of a classic modern, like Piston or Holmboe. I compare her to symphonists, although as far as I know, she hasn't written one. Nevertheless, her architectural reach and her ability to carry on an extended, dramatic argument I think point to a symphonist. Opposing this, however, is a lyrical side. Not many symphonists were also great song writers, and not many song writers are great symphonists. I detect an impulse to song and lyric poetry, although the songs on the disc impressed me less than the instrumental works. In part, this might be due to the choice of texts (Jonathan Pearle in "Rains Alive," Jay Bitner in 5 Haiku, and Mary Oliver in A Winter of Flowers). There's nothing awful about these poems, but they are merely pretty. I'd like to know what she'd make of work by Jane Kenyon or Galway Kinnell. In either case - architectural or lyrical - Scurria's music strikes me as a journey to discover heartbreaking beauty. The climaxes of her work aren't so much dramatic as rapturous. Furthermore, no moments in the music here merely mark time or lay there. A tremendous technique infuses the music, but Scurria never uses it to cover up a paucity of ideas. She's an honest workman - the real goods.

The two piano short pieces, Fantasy and Variations, are really the same kind of work: the composer takes an idea (or perhaps two ideas) for a brief walk. In both cases, the ideas and treatment are strong - in the Fantasy a rather muscular cell of rising fourths transmutes into something singing and back again. Variations, as far as I can tell, does not adhere to formal variation, but the same kind of change as the Fantasy. Here, the idea is more lyric. I'm no pianist, but within the modern language (roughly Barber of the Piano Sonata), the piano writing seems idiomatic, at times Chopinesque. Boetcher realizes these works very well indeed, very possibly because of Scurria's strong ties to the Romantic piano tradition.

The song "Rains Alive" is lovely enough, but the text doesn't really merit the setting it gets. That goes double for the 5 Haiku, whose music is gorgeous. The latter has an unusual orchestration - added to the baritone and chamber ensemble, a wordless soprano, possibly representing the spirit of nature. At various points, the baritone joins the soprano for his own wordless riffs, perhaps representing the observer at one with nature. Scurria's music proceeds in the conventional way of haiku settings - slow and contemplative - but the difference between this setting and others lies in its ravishing beauty.

A Winter of Flowers, a song cycle for piano and voice, to my ears borrows the idiom of Hindemith's Rilke settings or perhaps of Barber's Hermit Songs. For me, this cycle most successfully marries music and text, investing the words with greater weight than they otherwise might carry. I didn't think, for once, that the music was wasted. However, I believe Scurria definitely needs to choose harder poetry, so that music and text don't seem out of whack - that she's not shooting a fly with an elephant gun. I should mention, however, that Scurria has replaced Mary Oliver's text with her own, although the CD presents the older version.

Furchte dich nicht, a piece for chamber ensemble, boasts the unusual feature of a trumpet with flute, two violins, viola, cello, and bass. I can't think of too many chamber pieces that mix trumpet with solo strings. The Saint-Saëns septet is just about the only thing I can think of. Although I like the piece, I think it a bit scruffy, too sectional in design. Despite its attractiveness (and everything Scurria seems to write is at least attractive), I found it the hardest to assimilate. Also, the trumpet - admittedly a neat sound - always threatens to become too big for the rest of the group, particularly with no piano to oppose it (the Saint-Saëns has a piano). Maybe a clarinet instead?

Games Children Play for solo violinist (violin and speaker) is a divertissement. The texts, by Scurria, are charming and fun - the music as well, idiomatically suited to the instrument. Beneath the fun, however, lies the anxiety in a child - small, trying to figure things out, and wondering how to make it to adult life.

Beyond All Walking for orchestra impressed me the most. The title comes from a line by Rilke about a woman going blind:

She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way:
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly."

The music's expression ranges from declamatory to lyrical. The large gestures are big indeed, as in the opening. It's a magpie of influences, even contemporary influences, but it adds up to something personal, just as Rachmaninoff's music does. Also, like Rachmaninoff, Scurria's dramatic and lyrical interpenetrate. The singing is intense, slightly melancholy, the drama tinged with tenderness. During my first couple of hearings, I tended to listen to the work as that of a young composer and was impressed by the variety of textures, highlighting and mixing sections, nonetheless part of a real symphonic argument. Very quickly, however, I realized that, young or old, Scurria is one fine composer. Roughly two minutes from the end comes a gorgeous, elegiac chorale for strings - something awfully hard to keep up for that long - capped by a "blue note" in the solo flute for a stunning, if enigmatic conclusion.

The performances seem to be all student, but standards have risen enormously since my day. The voices - Bitner, Haye, and Rhodes - are still a bit young. Bitner's has the most personality, reminding me a bit of the late William Parker's. Danburg plays enthusiastically, with drive. Pianist Boetcher plays music rather than notes. The Peabody Symphony does sound like a student ensemble, but a very good one, with a nice string tone. The most unstable performance comes from the Shepherd School of Music Ensemble for Furchte dich nicht, but, to be fair, they suffer from mostly balance problems entirely due to the specification of the trumpet. I don't know whether it's possible, or even nice, to ask a trumpet to play softly throughout.

Recording is acceptable. All the performances are live, and the editing isn't really commercial quality. That makes little difference to enjoying the music, and I do recommend it highly to those interested in a young tonal composer with something to say.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz