by Gary Ruschman, special to the Sybaritic Singer
Edward Smaldone’s Once and Again features chamber music scores that have seen a tweak or two across a twenty-eight year span. The collection was recorded in two venues between 2013 and 2019. The first part of the retrospective focuses on two cycles for soprano and instruments, ranging from ancient Italian texts to some letters Smaldone found in a Long Island cupboard, and presents an instrumental interlude and finale to round out the set.
Compelling flute and harp phrases amid mixed meters weave seamlessly
Composed as a seventeen-minute cycle for Stony Brook Premieres on the same words Claudio Monteverdi used for madrigals, Smaldone immediately drops us into an eerie, windy landscape for Cantare di Amore (2009). Preferring heightened emotive states to tunes, elongations of words and syllables abound, sung by soprano Tony Arnold across a high-tessitured and often leaping part. Masterful use of instrumental colors are at play throughout these Italian pieces, with an occasional opportunity to let a sonority burn in between voice and flute, or sound amid seven or eight-tone clusters. Tara Helen O’Connor and June Han weave their compelling flute and harp phrases amid mixed meters seamlessly.
The correspondence addressed to a Mrs. P.H. Andrews in Letters from Home(composed and revised twice between 2000 and 2014) feature evocative and appealing sentiments across six songs with a variety of wind and piano sonorities. With occasional competition between treble instruments and voice for the same aural space, the text setting doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot that the instrumental writing does in the audio mix. Nevertheless, Susan Narucki and the cohort of players cover a lot of emotional ground across the cycle.
Splitting the two vocal cycles is an eight-minute ebullient foray into interweaving textures and peppy staccato phrase-lets in a Double Duo(1987/2006) of flute, clarinet, violin and cello. The energetic unfolding of motivic material would lend sparkle to any chamber music concert, and must be a great deal of fun to play.
The strings play gorgeously muscular lines with silky assurance
Duke-Monk’s (2011) Come Sunday-esque serenade goes abstract with the pulse, while providing little glimpses of Classical period and French Romantic sensibility. Morey Ritt’s sensitive keyboarding drops in a glossy foundation for the clarinet to float over. The Monk half of the tribute is played without swing, but does hold onto the gleeful harmonic crunches of the movement’s namesake. With fast-flying riffs John Coltrane might have conceived on a recording date with Thelonious, Charles Neidich’s playing is keen and toneful even at breakneck speed.
Smaldone’s keen rhythmic drive meets the ghost of Roy Harris somewhere in the haunted fields of America in the string Sinfonia (1986/2010) that ends the collection. The piece, a reworking of a previously-composed string quartet movement, provides a lot of context to the album, transforming my impressions of the previous works once I got to it. The Brno Philharmonic Strings gorgeously play muscular lines and clusters with silky assurance, and the room sound is beautiful.
Hailed as “funny and fresh-voiced” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Gary Ruschman is a multi-instrumentalist and singer, conductor, and ASCAP award-winning composer whose work ranges from historically-informed baroque scores to folk, jazz, country-fried fusion, choruses, and contemporary opera. A graduate of Northern Kentucky University and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he has performed on four continents, received commissions from Minnesota Opera, South Dakota Chorale, and American Composers Forum, and appeared on a dozen recordings over the past two decades. Learn more about Gary at http://ruschman.com