New music reviews: March/April 2017
(S1-4) Signature Solos, Books 1-5, selected and edited by Gayle Kowalchyk.
Students and teachers are in for a lively musical journey, with brand-new compositions by favorite Alfred composers, all in one collection! Students will learn pieces by beloved composers including Dennis Alexander, Melody Bober, Martha Mier, Wynn-Anne Rossi, Robert D. Vandall, and many more. Levels range from early elementary in Book 1, to late intermediate in Book 5, and each volume contains eight to nine compositions.
The pieces in Book 1, for beginners, are in five-finger patterns, and only one piece contains eighth notes. At this level, almost all the selections have lyrics and optional teacher duet parts. A particularly charming selection is W.T. Skye Garcia's "Scruffy, Puppy," with words telling the real-life story of a dog who didn't bark until her first birthday. Books 2 and 3 contain progressively more difficult works in a variety of styles. Two pieces in Book 2 have lyrics, and one has an optional duet part. Book 2's "Swirling Winds," by Gayle Kowalchyk and E.L. Lancaster, is fun and tarantella-like and sounds harder than it is.
The compositions in Books 3–5 include no lyrics or duet parts. In Book 3, Wynn-Anne Rossi's "Mystery of the Black Diamond" has neat harmonic changes that are fun to play, while Ted Cooper's Nocturne is reminiscent of the famous Grieg Notturno from Lyric Pieces (but is much easier to play!).
Book 4 is an especially engaging collection of works, each appealing in its own way. Catherine Rollin's "Summer Memories" is a beautiful piece that would work well for a student who is asked to play for a wedding or other ceremony. Martha Mier's "Tango Dance" has a South American flair, and Matt Schinske's "Love Will See us Through" would appeal to students who enjoy pop ballads. Judy East Wells's "Million Dollar Rag" features intriguing major-minor shifts and chromaticism, but remains accessible to students not ready for the more difficult rags of Scott Joplin; Wynn-Anne Rossi's "Deep Blue Water" features 5/4 meter and a contemplative character.
With the exception of Tony Caramia's boisterous "Rockin' Hard," most of the pieces in Book 5 are fairly slow and lyrical. Thus the volume is a suitable collection for students who are able to play intermediate repertoire but want some lighter options or for students who need to work on voicing and phrasing in a context easier than that of typical intermediate Romantic repertoire. Kathy Holmes's "Shadowbrook," for example, features a melody that requires ample attention to voicing and phrasing, but—thanks to the piece's elegant simplicity and Holmes's many expressive score indications—most students should find learning the voicing and phrasing fairly manageable. The books all have identical attractive cover art, and score layouts are large, clear, and easy to read. (Alfred, $7.99 each)
(S3-4) Museum Masterpieces, Books 1-4, by Catherine Rollin.
In this series for early-to-late-intermediate students, Catherine Rollin effectively pairs noted artworks with original music in a variety of styles and moods. These compositions are truly "impressions"—pieces that filter the art's mood, lighting, subject matter, and colors through the personal lens of the composer and inspire the musical imagination. And, although Rollin was clearly influenced by the images, the compositions would also be satisfying as absolute music.
The books contain reproductions of the art and links to online resources. Students can also view the paintings at museum websites and learn about both the art and the artists. For example, an image of John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark, an intensely graphic, large-canvas painting of a nineteenth-century whaling incident, is available on the National Gallery of Art website, along with the full story of the shipwreck and the sailor's fate. Rollin uses this emotionally charged scene to good musical effect, crafting a dramatic solo full of tension and fear.
In addition, the pieces provide a gamut of appropriately leveled technical challenges, including broken and blocked chords in root position and inversion, arpeggios, extensions, intricate passagework, and frequent register shifts. Rollin's harmonic structures remain solidly diatonic, with a few standard-fare altered chords inserted for color. Pieces that depart from traditional harmony, however—especially the bitonal works—reveal a more original style. In "Hommage à Blériot," Rollin juxtaposes a D-major chord in the left hand with an A-flat chord in the right hand, coordinating the resulting dissonant swirls of sound and harmonic color with the swirls and circles found in Robert Delauney's painting.
Further, Rollin's use of register changes is highly satisfying, particularly in shifts to the powerful bass. In Book 4, she uses registral contrast to great effect in "At the Front," inspired by George Cochran Lambdin's portrait of a Civil War soldier. Here, she creates an ominous scene, alternating middle-range static blocked chords with blocked and triplet broken octaves in the lowest register of the piano. A quiet opening gradually builds to fortissimo before subsiding to a concluding pianissimo.
Several of my students listened to Rollin's solos as I read through them, and I asked them for their on-the-spot critiques. All liked the interrelationship of music and art, and they responded eagerly to the powerful color and depth of sound in Rollin's bass excursions.
My intermediate students, like many typical middle schoolers, want to sound like accomplished pianists: they are always eager to play music with a big sound. But, although their hearts are fully engaged, their physical coordination is still adjusting to newly larger hands and longer fingers. Rollin and other composers who are fine teachers know exactly what these students need to motivate them: ample musical impact, powerful broken and blocked chords, and thoughtful technical challenges. These volumes play right into intermediate students' desires and practical strengths. (Alfred, $8.99 each)
(S6) Partita for Piano, by Anthony Iannaccone.
Accomplished composer, conductor, teacher, and violinist Anthony Iannaccone was born in 1943 in New York City. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Eastman School of Music, and Aaron Copland and David Diamond were just two of his notable teachers.
Iannaccone's Partita for Piano has recently been reissued by Tenuto Publications; interestingly, 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of its composition. For such an early piece in the composer's output, it displays an unusual mastery of twentieth-century atonal technique and counterpoint. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a characteristic of Iannaccone's music is that "organic growth inspires music of great strength and formal clarity, as opening bars generate the textural and thematic contours that forge contrasting sections of reflection and cross-rhythmic dynamism."1 This characteristic organic growth is evident in the Partita.
The nine-and-one-half minute Neo-Baroque composition is dedicated to Joseph Gurt, who first recorded the piece for Albany Records. The Partita consists of four movements—Prelude, Sarabande, Burlesca, and Gigue—all in ABA' form. The Prelude opens with a scampering, leaping theme quickly followed by imitation similar to that of a Bach invention. The expressive B theme is taken from a fragment in the A section, an Iannaccone trademark. The concluding section then evaporates into a humorous ppp ending.
The stately Sarabande begins with a simple set of hypnotic right-hand chords followed by a pensive duet between the hands. The tension builds to a climactic middle section featuring striking ninth chords in both hands, some of which may be difficult for pianists with small hands. The piece ends softly and lyrically and is the shortest and most approachable movement of the set, both for performers and listeners.
Iannaccone describes the vivacious Burlesca as rude and boisterous. Intervals of a major seventh and a minor ninth pervade the movement, as do unexpected rhythmic changes and syncopations. The middle section features continuous and striking use of hemiola figures and ends abruptly with a brief reference to the opening motive.
The final Gigue is a bravura showstopper. It is the longest piece of the set, and is also the liveliest and most elaborate movement. Here, Iannoccone's whimsical theme is comprised of several short, disjunct, and ascending fragments, which are then ingeniously incorporated into the movement. Imitation and contrapuntal manipulation and frequent changes of meter characterize the exciting two-voice structure. The concluding section features a breathtaking accelerando and a huge textural expansion that lead to final notes at the extreme ends of the piano.
This challenging-yet-delightful Partita is not for the faint of heart. Instead, it is for detail-oriented advanced students and concert artists with an affinity for twentieth-century atonal music. Because of the inherent rhythmic and technical difficulties, the reader is highly encouraged to preview each piece (see below) before undertaking this miniature masterpiece. (Tenuto Publications, $11.95)
(S4) Be Thou My Vision and (S5) Brethren, We Have Met to Worship, arranged by Wendy Stevens.
Wendy Stevens evokes the sounds of Ireland in these two "Celtic Hymn Transformations" for solo piano. Stevens is known for writing music that students love and teachers enjoy, and, according to her website, these two are the first in a complete series of hymns in Irish style. For students who enjoy Celtic sounds, these two solos will not disappoint; Stevens gives students enjoyable music with great pedagogical value.
Be Thou My Vision begins with a wistful introduction in the upper register of the keyboard. As students pass through different clefs and key signatures, they will learn to find new hand positions quickly. The main tune is introduced on the second page, and here Stevens incorporates arpeggiated figures in the left hand. Throughout the work, the melody is modern and clearly stated. Further, the tempo and expression marks are clear and—because they are in English—perhaps more immediately meaningful to English-speaking students. The piece is rhythmically accessible for early-advanced students (although the triplet sixteenth figures might be less familiar to some). Stevens's works are fairly lengthy, and Be Thou My Vision would work well either in a church service or as a featured recital selection.
Brethren, We Have Met to Worship, based on the tune "Holy Manna," is written in the style of a festive Irish jig. Right away, the 6/8 time signature and open fifths in the left hand evoke the sounds and sights of bagpipes and green Irish pastures. The piece moves through different time signatures and offers a few syncopated rhythms, creating opportunities for students to work on steady tempo and counting. Because Brethren, We Have Met to Worship is a little more difficult than Be Thou My Vision, it works well for the church musician or as a substantial solo or interlude for the early-advanced to advanced student.
Although these works are not in an anthology, they can be purchased and instantly downloaded from Stevens's website, ComposeCreate.com. Teachers can license copies for single or studio use, and purchase of Be Thou My Vision includes an mp3 performance track and three rhythm tracks. These pieces are filled with immense joy and character, and they are a pleasure for the performer and for audience members! (ComposeCreate.com, each $4.99 for a single-use license and $9.99 for a studio-use license )
This issue's contributors
Ernest Kramer is Professor of Music at Northwest Missouri State University. He teaches piano, harpsichord, advanced theory, and composition. His piano compositions have been published by Hal Leonard and Alfred Publishing.
Artina McCain, D.M.A., is an Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Memphis. She enjoys an active career as a solo and chamber performer, educator, and lecturer. For more information, visit artinamccain.com.
Peggy Otwell, D.M.A., teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she is actively engaged in building UWM's undergraduate piano pedagogy degree program. She has presented concerts and workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and is especially noted for her performances of French repertoire.
Suzanne Schons teaches piano at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, and at the K&S Conservatory of Music in Woodbury, MN. She is a frequent adjudicator and clinician, especially on the topic of the brain and learning for music teachers.
Susan Troutman See holds degrees from the University of Iowa and Truman State University, and has studios in Washington, IA, and at the Iowa Mennonite School. She is a performer, adjudicator, and clinician, and has published in Clavier Companion, Keyboard Companion, and Pan Pipes.