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CD Review

Rick Sowash

Serenade - 3 Works for Clarinet and Friends

  • Serenade for Mary for Flute, Clarinet & String Quartet: A Musical Get Well Card
  • Trio con Brio for Violin, Clarinet and Cello
  • Quintet for Clarinet & String Quartet
Michele Gingras, clarinet
Betty Douglas, flute
Kris Frankenfeld, violin
Ellen Shertzer, cello
The Camilli Quartet
Rick Sowash Publishing RSP-9 63:50
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Ohio French.

American concert composers – almost all of them, even the ones you've heard of – can't make a living from their music. The attitudes that art should pay its way and that music should be free combine to put that goal out of reach. Most composers spend a significant part of their day doing something else, and most subsidize, usually in full, live and recorded performances of their work. The well-known ugly secret is that complex art has almost never made money, even going back to the Renaissance. William Byrd was subsidized. Beethoven, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky had patrons. Berlioz made most of his money through journalism. Mendelssohn had family money. Dvořák taught. Mahler conducted.

In his own words, Ohio composer Rick Sowash has "lived by his wits," at a variety of jobs and even careers. Through it all, he has continued to compose and to get his music out for people to hear. There's nothing abstruse about his work. It reminds me of Debussy's notion that "music should seek humbly to please," and indeed in its clarity and sense of mesure it reminds me of Françaix, but with an American sense of rhythm and a melos occasionally reminiscent of Appalachian folk song. I also find him uneven, but that comes down to his clarity and directness. The style doesn't allow the distractions of lots of notes, extreme dissonances, or contrapuntal hi-de-hos and depends mainly on the quality of his melodies to make his point. Of course, a good melody is hard to write, although Sowash has more than his share of them, and even Puccini didn't score all the time. Overall, however, this disc I think one of his strongest.

The Serenade for Mary, as its subtitle indicates, came about from Sowash's wish to cheer up a seriously ill friend. Written for flute, clarinet, and string quartet, the work contains five movements: "Overture toward Mary," "Lullabye for Mary," "Scherzo on Mary," "Spiritus Maria," "Theme and Mary-ations." I tend to like his chamber pieces that don't include a piano better than those that do, for some reason; perhaps because he makes greater use of real counterpoint. Here, Sowash writes trenchantly for his forces, and spreads interest among all the players. A lively overture, a tender lullaby, a teasing scherzo full of back-and-forth between instrumental groupings, a hymn, and a pastoral gambol, with canonic entries of the main theme. In the last movement, I want to note especially a fun variation with multiple canonic entries. However, the fun, not the canons, is the point. The piece ends on a joke.

Sowash composed Trio con Brio for clarinetist Angelo Santoro. "Brio" means vivacity, energy, fire. One frequently finds it applied to works emphasizing instrumental brilliance. Another suite in five movements – "Intrada," "Lincolnesque," "Song of Samwise," "Lullabye," and "Finale" – its fewer instruments (violin, clarinet, cello) get even more concentrated treatment from the composer. The odd-numbered movements have a "con brio" designation, while the even-numbered provide a respite. The "Intrada" is agitated, with chains of fast repeated notes. "Lincolnesque" is a stately amble, with a rhythm reminiscent of "John Brown's Body." "Song of Samwise" gets its inspiration from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, apparently one of Sowash's favorite books. An energetic jig, it begins and ends as a three-part round and relaxes in the middle, "[skipping] across the meadows, picking up lots of forget-me-nots." "Lullabye" sings quietly, as you would expect, although it's not particularly lullaby-ish, at least not to me. For one thing, its structure has more complexity than and less repetition than the usual lullaby. The "Finale" careens around like a René Clair comedy, light-hearted but determined, with a middle of quiet fantasy.

The Clarinet Quintet, my favorite work on program, shows a longer architectural reach and more standard motivic development than either of the suites. Brahms in his more autumnal moods seems to stand in the shadows. Written for French clarinetist Lucien Albert and premiered in Paris, the work shows what Sowash can do in classical forms. Nevertheless, one could call it "An American in Paris." It exhibits, especially rhythmically, an American viewpoint. A whopping eleven minutes, the first movement, a rough sonata marked "Allegro moderato," has many themes which always come 'round to the melancholy main idea. About three-quarters of the way through, we get a beautiful duet between solo violin and solo clarinet. The "Presto" second movement moves more like an allegretto, with elements of Brahms's Zigeuner mode. Fragments of the main idea of the first movement slip in and out. The "Moderato" third movement feels similar in mood to a Brahms intermezzo and is the shortest of the score, although it lasts long enough. In the "Vivo" finale, Sowash deliberately evokes Brahms's gypsy mode, although in a more modern idiom. To me it comes out more like klezmer or even at times proto-jazz, perhaps because it of its heavy syncopation and the clarinet's prominence. Sowash after all is American. Nevertheless, you can occasionally hear allusions to the Hungarian Rhapsodies.

The players recorded the music in one session. Since the composer subsidized the recording, this shouldn't surprise us. If we consider that, it's a great job. The suites come off best. The quintet needs more familiarity to make its full effect, but the performance nevertheless is committed and by no means shabby. Michele Gingras communicates like gangbusters, and the string quartet accompanies capably. A lovely disc.

Copyright © 2015, Steve Schwartz