Monday 14 July 2014

Chamber works by Margaret Brouwer receive first rate performances on a new release from Naxos

The award-winning composer Margaret Brouwer (b.1940) has earned much critical acclaim with a continual demand for new works. Indeed, recent commissions have come from Dallas Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Rochester Philharmonic, American Pianists Association, CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and the American Composer's Orchestra.

In August, 2011, Brouwer was a composer-in-residence at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music where Marin Alsop led the Festival Orchestra in a performance of Brouwer’s Pulse on the opening night concert. Her Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony, was premiered by them with Ellen Rose (viola) in January 2010. 

Brouwer received a Meet The Composer Commissioning/USA award to compose Path at Sunrise, Masses of Flowers and received an Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow for 2004, and was awarded an Ohio Council for the Arts Individual Fellowship for 2005.  She has also been awarded grants from the Ford Foundation and the John S. Knight Foundation.

She served as head of the composition department and holder of the Vincent K. and Edith H. Smith Chair in Composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1996 to 2008.   Residencies include those at the MacDowell Colony where she has been a Norton Stevens Fellow and Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. 

Brouwer’s compositions range across most genres including vocal and choral, orchestral, including concertos and a symphony, works for brass and wind ensemble, chamber works and piano works.

Her chamber music ensemble, Blue Streak , continues to tour throughout the USA performing their innovative and eclectic programs. It is Blue Streak that appear along other artists on a new release from Naxos


Shattered Glass (2007) was written for and dedicated to MOSAIC, Cleveland State University and is intended to be a musical kaleidoscope. Here it is performed by the Blue Streak Ensemble with Madeline Lucas (flute), Maaike Harding (cello), Nathan von Trotha (percussion) and Shuai Wang (piano).

Little tinkles of percussion soon joined by drums and piano open before the flute and cello join in this fast moving, glittering piece. The piano is often used percussively along with the percussion instruments, thereby adding sharp details of sound. A falling motif for cello and piano leads the music forward to a melodic flute solo, joined by piano, then percussion and creating a distinctive atmosphere. The cello weaves a strange motif before the music picks up again, with a joyful feel, rhythmic and colourful. Soon there is a shimmering, quiet section that leads to a piano solo, with a motif quietly picked out. When a hushed section appears it is strange territory with odd percussion, piano and cello sounds. The flute enters over these strange sounds. Staccato rhythms for flute and cello and a rising piano motif lead the music faster to a percussion passage before the instruments share the dynamic material around and the music moves to its assertive coda.

This is an incredible tapestry of sounds from this small ensemble that do the utmost justice to this piece.

The Quintet for Clarinet in A and String Quartet (2005) was commissioned by the clarinettist in this performance, Daniel Silver and the University of Colorado. The clarinettist is joined here by the Maia String Quartet. Reflecting the increasingly troubled world situation at the time of composition, the composer explored new compositional methods, multiple techniques and layering.

The Maia String Quartet opens the Allegro before the mellow tone of Daniel Silver’s clarinet enters, the Quartet repeat the opening statement before clarinet and quartet move the music forward, developing it. There is very much the feel of bursts of energy breaking out. After a brief lull the music gains in momentum, rising dynamically before quietening, with an attractive motif for clarinet, developed by the quartet around the hymn All creatures of our God and King. But the music soon lets the energy return, though falling towards the end, with strange string sounds combining with the mellow clarinet  until the strings fade out.

My white tears broken in the seas takes the melody of one of Brouwer’s songs. It has a beautiful melodic line for the clarinet and quartet that is developed with the clarinet and instruments of the quartet weaving around each other. The strings provide translucent, high harmonies responded to by arabesques from the clarinet, often high in the register. Soon the melody appears in a richer textured form before leading to a slowly quietening coda.

The clarinet opens the Scherzo alone, in a theme that is reminiscent of Rautavaara, but the strings soon enter in cascades of falling then rising phrases before the Moderato, Vivace arrives, opening vibrantly.  This is the most dissonant movement of the quartet using dodecaphonic techniques. The movement keeps its momentum all the way through, often becoming quite raucous in its feeling, hurtling in all directions to a sudden end.

Daniel Silver and the Maia String Quartet are absolutely terrific in this hugely demanding work.

Soprano, Sandra Simon  is joined by Laura Shuster (viola) and Alijca Basinska (piano) in Whom do you call angel now? (2005), the song from which the theme of the second movement of her Clarinet Quintet was drawn.

Piano and cello provide an introduction before Sandra Simon enters and the instrumentalists quieten to a background drone. Simon has an attractive, pure, youthful sounding voice in this lovely setting that occasionally has Arabian inflections. The instrumentalists provide a more florid accompaniment as the song develops.

The Blue Streak Ensemble return for Lonely Lake (2011) inspired by the idea of summer camps on Lonely Lake in Canada. Madeline Lucas (flute), Maaike Harding (cello), Nathan von Trotha (percussion) and Shuai Wang (piano) are joined this time by Amitai Vardi (clarinet) and Sharon Roffman (violin).

Hovering, staccato strings and little percussion sounds open this piece, creating the sounds of nature. The strings slowly rise in long drawn melancholy chords as the nature sounds from flute and percussion continue. Slowly a melody appears leading to a wildly varied development as the instruments become more animated with percussion outbursts. Later the music quietens with some exquisite melodic sounds. Eventually the pace picks up with percussion driving the rhythmic momentum until the strange atmospheric sounds return before the hushed coda.

This is another brilliantly descriptive piece expertly played by this ensemble.

The Arrangements for Blue Streak Ensemble (2011) are for the same forces as Lonely Lake, flute, cello, percussion, piano, clarinet and violin. In Debussy’s: Clair de Lune Brouwer achieves some very lovely textures from her ensemble in this exceptionally fine arrangement. Her arrangement of Bach’s Two Part Invention in F major is a sheer delight as Brouwer moves the theme around the various instruments.

Margaret Brouwer has an ear for creating some exquisite sounds and textures that listeners will find beguiling. The performances are first rate as is the recording made at Clonick Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Ohio, USA.  There are informative booklet notes from Margaret Brouwer.

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