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9 minutes reading time (1837 words)

New Music Reviews: May/June 2017

(S3) Aurora: 5 Original Solos Inspired by the North, by Naoko Ikeda.

Japanese composer Naoko Ikeda composed five lyrical character pieces based upon "the Scandanavian landscapes of [her] own imagination." Aurora has the potential to motivate intermediate students, especially those who enjoy music with lyrical phrasing and expressive timing.

Ikeda includes brief performance notes, and each of these pictorial compositions is melodically oriented with artistic use of striking harmonies. "A Sea of Clouds,"for example, features a slow, minor, modal accompaniment and a melody that evolves out of parallel sixths. The rhythmic motive found in the left hand expands dramatically in the middle section, where cross-hand arpeggios roll up the piano to illustrate the "wind chasing away the dark clouds."In"Land of the Midnight Sun," seventh chords distinguish this mysterious solo, and the moderate pulse requires mindful use of tempo rubato.

Prior to learning this repertoire by Ikeda, the pianist should have developed control of overlapping pedal, and there is ample opportunity to explore more sophisticated, coloristic pedal techniques. Teachers also will be delighted to find a variety of musical and technical concepts. Key signatures use up to two sharps or four flats, and rhythms are dominated by an eighth-note subdivisions, with some use of sixteenth notes. The most rhythmically complex composition is "Ethereal Summer," which is in 6/8 and utilizes groupings of eighth, dotted eighth, and sixteenth notes. The writing for all pieces is layered—often with a texture of three to four voices—and is varied in accompaniment style.There is minimal use of arpeggios larger than an octave, and the hardest left-hand pattern is a waltz bass in the title piece.

This collection could serve as effective recital literature for the mid-intermediate performer who is not quite ready for the easier works of Chopin and Debussy. (Willis/Hal Leonard, $6.99)

—Sara Ernst 

(S3-4) Piano Extravaganza, Books 1-3, by Robert Vandall.

Each book in this progressive three-volume series features several enticing, creative piano solos that are sure to become student favorites. Throughout the books, appealing musical content will challenge students to craft finely detailed, exciting performances.

After a composer has written hundreds of student solos for so many years, one might expect a certain amount of repetition. But, in Vandall's piano
collections, that repetition just doesn't happen. Each of his books is chock full of new creative ideas—and this collection is no exception. The pieces are fresh, with ample technical challenges emphasizing important intermediate technical skills: broken chords, arpeggiated accompaniments, octaves, and alternating-hand rhythmic
ostinati, to name just a few. He exploits the piano's register contrasts quite well in these books, with several effective, powerful selections written almost entirely in the bass clef.

The faster solos often use themes built exclusively from rhythmic ostinato patterns. These pieces challenge students to develop finely paced coordination and encourage them to try out burgeoning virtuoso skills. In Book 1, for example, the Ballade eschews melody and features driving rhythms in an up-tempo, quarter-note pattern. Root-position chords make this a quick piece to learn, rewarding early-intermediate students with a solo that will impress audiences and provide a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment. In typical style, Vandall achieves considerable excitement with very simple structures—chords in root position, moving by step, along with strong open left-hand fifths that punctuate the right-hand chords.

In general, the slower pieces are lyrical solos that provide expressive contrast to the more energetic selections. Most feature flowing left-hand accompaniment patterns and legato melodies. In Book 3, written for late-intermediate students, two pieces are standouts. The first, "Missing You," moves from F Major to D minor to D Major, making for interesting harmonic color shifts. Throughout, Vandall spins out a wistful melody above a left-hand accompaniment of broken-chords that span a tenth. Another outstanding solo is "Empty Stage Rag." This piece has a suave, subtle character, reminiscent of Bolcolm's "Graceful Ghost Rag." It is in ABA form, with a nicely contrasted key structure: D minor to G major to D minor. The B section is significantly different from the A section, with a walking bass line in octaves. For a finely nuanced performance, students will need a good ear and a keen awareness of harmony.

It's always a pleasure to review music written by Robert Vandall, and these new books deliver the musical satisfaction and enjoyment that we've come to expect in his pedagogical music. Because of the composer's death in February, that pleasure is tinged with the regret that I won't be reviewing more new Vandall compositions. He will be greatly missed, but the rich and diverse musical legacy he has left us in his many wonderful student solos—vibrant echoes of his endearing personality—are a testament to his dedication to the art of teaching, and will remain with us for many years to come. (Alfred, Books 1 and 2, $7.99 each; Book 3, $8.99)

—Peggy Otwell

(S5) Favorite Mormon Hymns: 12 Contemporary Arrangements, arranged by David Glen Hatch.

The LDS Pianist series, recently launched by Alfred Music Publishing, is a welcome sight for piano teachers who work with students that belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which, with nearly seven million American members, is historically one of the faster-growing denominations in the United States. David Glen Hatch, long known as an accomplished arranger of both LDS and other sacred hymns, has released a new collection of hymns that will be familiar to members of the LDS church and to the Christian community at large.

Hatch's Favorite Mormon Hymns: 12 Contemporary Arrangements is an early-advanced collection of hymns that spans the histories of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and other Christian denominations, including early pioneer songs ("Come, Come, Ye Saints" and "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief") along with traditional Christian hymns ("Amazing Grace" and "Be Still My Soul").

The arrangements display an impressive variety of textures, harmonies, and voicings. While many sacred arrangers revert to a predictable single-line melody over an arpeggiated accompaniment pattern, Hatch explores bass-clef melody as well as a variety of homophonic and contrapuntal textures. The harmonic language is contemporary and fresh, and will appeal to pianists of all ages.

The early-advanced level of this collection requires students to be fluent in techniques including left-hand arpeggios (sometimes over a span of three or four octaves), multivoiced textures in the right hand, and thick chord patterns of up to eight notes between the two hands. Students playing literature such as Chopin's "Revolutionary" Etude or Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata will feel at home with the requirements of this music, but more intermediate-level students may struggle in some of the sections.

The only other minor concern I would have with some of the arrangements would be that the virtuosic elements may feel too showy and excessive for the conservative musical atmosphere in an LDS sacrament service. Students may certainly enjoy playing those arrangements on a piano recital featuring sacred music.

As a piano teacher of many LDS and other Christian students, I am always on the lookout for well-arranged hymns that will challenge students technically and musically, while providing opportunities for them to play publicly. I hope Alfred's LDS Pianist series is just the beginning of many high-quality publications to come, in a variety of levels and styles. (Alfred, $12.99)

—Kevin Olson 

(S5) Solos for the Sanctuary: Gospel, arranged by Glenda Austin.

Solos for the Sanctuary, a wonderful hymn collection of "oldies but goodies," features a mix of refreshing arrangements of worship music, from traditional Southern gospel to jazz and contemporary styles. Austin has chosen works by familiar twentieth-century gospel songwriters such as Andrae Crouch, Bill and Gloria Gaither, and Doris Akers. This mix of arrangements is not only easy for the church musician to sight-read, but is a healthy reading challenge for early-advanced students.

I immediately enjoyed playing and listening to this music; Austin is clearly a skilled pianist and thoughtful teacher. The arrangements are very pianistic, accessible both to church pianists and to those unfamiliar with the music.

Unfortunately, many sacred collections supply well-written arrangements that lack interpretive detail. Arrangers offer few musical instructions, or simplify common gospel harmonic progressions (and omit color tones). This is definitely not the case in this anthology. In addition, in her preface, Austin grants the pianist "special artistic license to express yourself in your own unique…way."

Pedagogically, there are many features to enjoy and explore throughout this collection. The tunes are short, making them ideal for recitals or for preludes or interludes during worship service. Virtuosic elements, such as forte chords, octaves, and chromatic runs, furnish students both a feeling of accomplishment and an opportunity to improve technique. The real difficulties are sight-reading accidentals and navigating signature changes.

Syncopated rhythms in gospel music can give students trouble, but Austin manages to keep the rhythms pretty straightforward, while still staying loyal to the gospel style. Sixteenth notes can easily be divided between the hands without extensive fingering explanations, and Austin keeps our interest through the colorful harmonic progressions in "How Excellent is Thy Name," "My Tribute," and "Sweet, Sweet Spirit."

Don't be misled by the inclusion of only eight songs; each arrangement is substantial. And, in "How Excellent is thy Name," Austin provides a medley including "Christ Arose," "I've Just Seen Jesus," and "Because He Lives." Whether you use this anthology as worship music or as pedagogical repertoire, Austin's arrangements will hold the interest of both the seasoned musician and the budding student. (Willis/Hal Leonard, $10.99)

—Artina McCain

This issue's contributors

Susan Geffen is a Managing Editor of Clavier Companion. She is active as an educator, editor, adjudicator, presenter, and critic. She recently served on the press jury for the 2016 Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition.

Stephanie Bruning is Coordinator of Keyboard Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD, where she teaches courses in piano, pedagogy, and accompanying. She frequently performs, adjudicates, and conducts master classes around the country and also specializes in Native American-influenced piano music from the early twentieth century.

Sara M. Ernst, Ph.D., teaches piano and piano pedagogy at the University of South Carolina. She serves as the Vice President of Conferences for South Carolina MTA and is a member of the College of Examiners for the Royal Conservatory.

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.

Kevin Olson, Ed.D., is on the Utah State University piano faculty, advising the nationally-recognized USU Youth Conservatory. He has been an exclusive writer for The FJH Music Company since 1994, with more than 100 published books and solos.

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. 

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