Celebrating Philadelphia composers

Mary Elizabeth Bowden; David Crumb; Barbara Westphal & Christian Ruvolo

5 minute read
The undeniably winsome Mary Elizabeth Bowden. (Photo via
The undeniably winsome Mary Elizabeth Bowden. (Photo via

Three recent CDs highlight the music of composers with Philadelphia connections, from Samuel Barber to Andrea Clearfield.

Radiance: Mary Elizabeth Bowden

Trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden returned to her alma mater, the Curtis Institute of Music, to make most of the recordings on this generous and stylistically varied recital, using the acoustically superb Gould Rehearsal Hall as her venue.

The opening piece, Escapade — one of several she plays by the easy to enjoy American composer Joseph Turrin — immediately shows off her brilliant and colorful sound. A transcription of three songs by Samuel Barber, truly a Curtis godfather, is delivered in an honest and plaintive manner that underlines the pointed, direct emotion of this music that marks it as uniquely American. A couple of generations later finds us at the inkwell of David Ludwig, a current faculty member at Curtis, whose own music has been known to include a tip of the hat or two to Barber. His Radiance is a dreamy yet thoughtful work, awash with delicate tonality and an uneasy tranquility.

Joseph Hallman’s Sonata for Trumpet and Piano includes the most challenging music in a harmonic sense here, more so in the piano accompaniment than the trumpet part, which moves along flowing lines while the piano jabs at dissonant clusters of notes or engages in jazzy, syncopated rhythms. The Totem Voices of Michigan-based Catherine McMichael are short character pieces inspired by wild animals (of the cute Disney variety) and James Stephenson’s Croatian Trio, an homage to his residency in Zagreb, is quirky, witty, and ultimately delightful.

I enjoyed this recital, but with a few caveats. There are places where I find Bowden a bit underpowered, in a dramatic sense, such as in the final movement of the Hallman sonata, which is titled “frenetic and frenzied,” but doesn’t sound like that in this performance. And it would have been nice, and even respectful, to have squeezed in composer bios in the CD notes, if at the expense of a photo or two of the undeniably winsome Bowden (although I was easily able to research the music online). But this is essentially a musical business card for a very fine young artist, and in that regard, it works quite well.

Red Desert: David Crumb

David Crumb does not mind being referred to as the son of George Crumb (let alone Broadway actress Ann Crumb’s brother), and he even studied composition at Penn, where his father was a star member of the faculty for many years. This combination of familial pride and independence is made possible by the unique signature of his own work, which is displayed here with an array of chamber music and solo piano music.

September Elegy, for violin and piano, was being composed as the catastrophe of 9/11/2001 occurred. Not surprisingly, the music has an eerily bipolar profile, with a rather traditional and upbeat first section, and concluding with a dreamy ending, including ghostly quotes from a Bach chorale that seems to convey both sadness and hope at once. Both Soundings and Primordial Fantasy show off Crumb’s excellent craft, with a rather decorative sense for timbre blending and rhythmic variety. The brash sounding percussion in the latter piece may be a nod to his father’s music, consciously or otherwise.

Red Desert Triptych, for solo piano, is the most substantial piece on this program, even as it the most spare. It is that very economy of construction that lends the music a sense of solemnity, in the manner of the great French master Messiaen. Crumb was inspired by visits to the national parks of southern Utah, and with that knowledge in mind, you can hear the stark majesty of those spaces, and even the colors, in this music. It would be easy enough to let this material become sentimental or pompous, but Crumb calibrates his restraint with precision, and the pianist, the invaluable Marcantonio Barone, captures this quality with his usual combination of rock steady technique, intelligence, and stealthy passion.

Convergences: Barbara Westphal and Christian Ruvolo

Brahms’s beloved Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor transcribes smoothly to viola, an instrument that is just as capable of conjuring the eloquence and dramatic depth of the human voice, just in a different register. Whatever instrument is being played, this is not music to be emotionally reticent about; Brahms pours his heart out in this work with as much passion as can be heard in anything he wrote, and a great performance should leave a little blood on the floor.

Westphal and Ruvolo do indeed bring it on in these smart yet warm and lyrical readings. The viola not only misses some of the gruffness of the cello’s sound, but also adds a new dramatic resonance and greater agility. Westphal, who made the transcription, travels the same distance in the opposite direction of the scale when she translates the haunting G major violin sonata into a viola and piano sonata. These performances will not replace those by, say, Jacqueline du Pré or Isaac Stern (respectively), but they do stand comfortably alongside them.

Snugged in between the two Brahms sonatas is Convergence for viola and piano (which, tellingly, is also the title of this CD) by Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield. She knows the instruments well and finds expression in a broad dynamic range, beginning with aggressive, tautly coiled declarations at the bottom of the viola’s register, well into the territory of the cello. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, the solo piano leads the work into a more relaxed, even lyrical section that ties the music neatly to the Brahms. Eventually, the growling low notes of the viola return, only now somewhat tamed by all that had come before it. It’s an ambitious bit of abstract music from Clearfield, whom I associate with more episodic and narrative work, such as is heard in her large works for voices and mixed orchestra. This is a fine example of her ever increasing stylistic range.

What, When, Where

Radiance: Mary Elizabeth Bowden, trumpet. Summit Records

Joseph Turrin: Escapade; Fandango for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano; Arabesque for Two Trumpets and Piano. Samuel Barber: Three Songs, Op. 10. David Ludwig: Radiance for Piccolo Trumpet and Strings. Joseph Hallman: Sonata for Trumpet and Piano. Catherine McMichael: Totem Voices for Trumpet and Piano. James Stephenson: Croatian Trio for Trumpet, Flute, and Piano.

Red Desert: David Crumb. Bridge Records

September Elegy, Soundings, Red Desert Triptych, Primordial Fantasy. Fritz Gearhart, violin; Corey Hamm, piano; Jerome Simas, clarinet; Steve Vacchi, bassoon; Marcantonio Barone, piano; et al.

Convergences: Barbara Westphal, viola; Christian Ruvolo, piano. Bridge Records

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in G major for viola and piano; Sonata in E minor for viola and piano. Andrea Clearfield: Convergence.

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