New music reviews: September/October 2017
(S1-4) We Three Kings, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Deck the Hall Hoedown, arranged by Wendy Stevens.
For teachers wanting some fun and creative options to spice up their holiday recitals, three new arrangements by Wendy Stevens are fantastic choices. "We Three Kings" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" even invite the audience to tap plastic cups in rhythm with the carols, thus getting everyone involved in the music-making experience.
"We Three Kings" is an elementary piece mostly in five-finger positions, with occasional shifts, a few finger crossings, and simple note values. The use of the Phrygian dominant scale (D, E-flat, F-sharp, G, A, B-flat, C) gives the arrangement a mysterious character. Should the teacher and student wish to include the cup tapping, audience members receive plastic cups and tap a four-measure repeating rhythm pattern. In this piece, the rhythmic tapping evokes images of a journey across the desert.
"We Wish you a Merry Christmas" is an intermediate work that lies easily under the hands, with mostly single notes and broken octaves in the left hand, and many three-note chords in the right. The syncopated rhythms and bouncing bass notes give the arrangement a lively, festive feel, and the harmonies are pleasing, with frequent use of pedal tones. Once again, audience members tap cups in a repeating rhythmic pattern, but they also "toast" one another in every phrase ending, "and a happy New Year." In addition to a sample video on her website, Stevens provides a helpful script on the score's back cover telling the teacher how to explain the cup tapping and lead the audience through the performance. (Free practice tracks for this piece and "We Three Kings" are downloadable at ComposeCreate.com.)
The late-intermediate "Deck the Hall Hoedown" does not include cup tapping, but it is a fresh take on a widely performed carol. The A section is bouncy and energetic, with a great deal of syncopation, that—along with frequent left-hand fifths—does indeed feel like a cheery hoedown. The first-section melody does not sound all that much like the traditional tune, but, in the slower and dreamier middle section, the melody is more recognizable.
All three of these pieces, each composed for a different level of student, are sure to engage students and audience members alike, and bring smiles and enjoyment to any holiday performance or performance class. (ComposeCreate.com, each $4.99 for a single use or $9.99 for a studio license)
(S3) Holiday Encores: Brief Piano Arrangements of Seasonal Classics, arranged by Glenda Austin.
During the holiday season, it can be nice to have short carols to play that do not require lots of learning time. Glenda Austin's Holiday Encores fills the bill, providing snippets of eight intermediate-level holiday pieces. The book offers a taste of each carol without unnecessary length that might cause the player or listener to lose interest.
In the foreword, Austin mentions that she composed these intermediate works by "accident" when she posted video recordings of her short improvisations on Facebook. After many "likes" and much positive feedback, she decided to publish the improvs. All eight pieces are brief works of one-to-two pages, with plentiful artistic markings, clearly stated melodies, and varying personalities. Austin arranges well-known carols such as "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night," along with less-popular pieces such as "We Gather Together."
There are several works in the set I really like , but one of my favorites is the two-page arrangement of "I Saw Three Ships." Austin begins the arrangement with a lilting rhythmic introduction that becomes a thread throughout. Often, composed pieces that are meant to sound improvisatory translate into extremely difficult written rhythms, but not so in this case: Austin achieves an improvisatory sound with very accessible (and teachable) rhythms. The melody is clearly presented in the right hand and moves from F major to G-flat major, the most difficult key signature in the book.
"Jolly Old St. Nicholas" is another highly effective arrangement. Austin begins with an innocent and plain hymn style in 4/4. Then, at measure 17, she presents the theme with a jazzy flair that will have the player working on complicated rhythms ranging from quarters and swinging eighths to quarter triplets. The ending is fun, with a predictable—yet effective—jazz stinger.
I love this set of miniature holiday pieces. I find them to be very gratifying for sight-reading and syncopated counting. Some pedaling is indicated throughout the book, and the performer should include additional pedaling as needed.
These holiday snippets will surely appeal to students and audiences of any age. I definitely recommend adding Holiday Encores to your carol collection.(Hal Leonard, $6.99)
(S3-4) A Grown-up Christmas List: 14 Songs of the Season, arranged by Phillip Keveren.
With A Grown-Up Christmas List, Phillip Keveren contributes more high-quality arrangements to his vast output of holiday music for solo piano. The range of styles and the popular origins of the melodies make this collection unique. Some of the selections, such as the 1955 tune "Nuttin' for Christmas," may only be known to enthusiasts, while other songs, such as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Sleigh Ride,"are well-known. Throughout, the difficulty is appropriate for late-intermediate students to practice and prepare, and for advanced pianists to read at sight.
The arrangements, predominantly written in C, F, or G major, closely adhere to the original melodies, with multiple repetitions of verses often requiring a change of key. Most of the selections employ eighth-note rhythms, often swung, with occasional sixteenths. While there are varied accompaniment patterns, infrequent use of arpeggio crossings keeps the left-hand parts technically manageable, and Keveren's use of right-hand, octave-based melodies is minimal.
One of the easier and more playful selections is "Santa Baby." The arrangement contains a single-note, swung melody with a jazzy, chromatic left hand that occasionally shifts from chords to a jump bassline. "Santa Baby" is set in G major, and the final verse transposes to A.
Sixteenth notes prevail in the title song, "A Grown-Up Christmas List." This expressive piece features a rolling left-hand accompaniment, more difficult key signatures, many chords, and double notes in the right hand. In addition, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and "Christmas in Killarney" are in compound meter. Care has been taken to provide fingering (in spare amounts), pedaling, and ample expressive markings, facilitating ease of playing and musical performance. This collection would contribute to the festivities of any secular holiday gathering, and would be an enjoyable addition to any pianist's library of fun, wintertime favorites. (Hal Leonard, $12.99)
(S4-5) A Traditional Christmas: 18 Arrangements Celebrating the Birth of Christ, arranged by Melody Bober.
Melody Bober is a master at creating reliable, original solos for recitals and special occasions. This new set of Christmas carols proves once more that she has a canny talent for using drama and flair to amplify the innate beauty of familiar songs.
Her creativity is especially apparent in the slower, more reflective carols in this collection. For example, her arrangements of "Away in a Manger" and the "Coventry Carol" keep the well-known melodies intact, but the artful reharmonizations make them sound fresh and contemporary. Her decision to place "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in 6/8 with a flowing left-hand accompaniment imparts a pastoral feeling that is a departure from the usual, festive mood of the carol.
The collection also includes several upbeat hymns and carols that provide performers with great material for festive fanfares or celebratory postludes. These arrangements have a rich, full sound, and therefore are particularly suited to church acoustics. Two standouts are a stride-bass arrangement of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and a decidedly jubliant rendition of "Joy to the World," with a crisply animated chordal accompaniment. (Alfred, $12.99)
(E4-5) Ukrainian Bell Carol for One Piano, Four Hands, arranged by Zach Heyde and Frank Tedesco.
Arrangements of the "Ukrainian Bell Carol" are almost as numerous as those of Pachebel's Canon, and, at times, both solos suffer at the hand of arrangers that are less than kind to the original score. So, when my review packet arrived in May, it was with some trepidation that I opened the score of this duet. I love this carol, and all my students want to learn it. Therefore, I'm always eager to find arrangements that do it justice. (In fact, a student who is now in high school loves this carol so much he's learned successively more difficult arrangements with each passing year.)
It was thus a joy to discover the rich content of Heyde and Tedesco's setting. To get an idea of the complete arrangement, I recorded the secondo and played the primo with the recording. As I began recording the secondo, my ear was pleasantly surprised by the arrangers' rich harmonies, imaginative use of register and texture, and unexpected key (E minor) and meter changes. The primo is equally complex and intriguing, and, as the parts fluidly exchange melodies throughout, the overall effect is complex and memorable. In fact, throughout the arrangement, which is in E minor, the arrangers vary the well-known bell theme creatively, crafting an unconventional duet at every turn.
Heyde and Tedesco mark one section "Playfully, like a polka," and shift among 4/4, 7/8, and 6/8. The section works—seamlessly! Next is an extended middle section marked "Mysteriously." Here, the arrangers tinker with the carol's repetitive opening motive, slowing it down and cleverly transforming it into the medieval plainchant "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath). The chant's unexpected appearance introduces a somber, almost ominous, mood. The duet then gradually moves to an exuberant finale, building intensity with ostinato accompaniments and well-crafted counterpoint of motives from the original tune. After a cascading flourish in broken, parallel octaves, the duet concludes with a fleeting, subdued solo iteration of the famous bell motive.
This gorgeously conceived duet arrangement would be stunning in a church setting or recital hall: The engrossing melodic, textural, and harmonic complexities will challenge and delight experienced performers. Patient practice and great ensemble skills will be needed to pull this duet together, but the result will reward accomplished duet partners amply. And the "Bell Carol" will surely please their audiences. (Alfred, $7.50)
(E4-5) News of Great Joy! Captivating Carols for Piano Four-Hands, arranged by Molly Ijames.
These duet arrangements of popular carols are quite effective and very enjoyable to play. I read through them all with a friend, and it was hard to pick our favorite of the collection.
The book contains only six duet arrangements, mostly of reflective carols: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," "On Christmas Night," "He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child," "As with Gladness Men of Old," and "Silent Night, Holy Night." Some are little known, and it is great to see them freshly arranged. The carols are extended sectional duets, each between six and eight pages long.
Ijames's emphasis on an integrated ensemble with equal responsibilities for melody and accompaniment results in finely detailed, well-orchestrated compositions. These duets could be performed by advanced high school pianists, but, in the hands of professional performers, their subtle nuances and vibrant textures would be simply outstanding.
Each duet begins with a brief, evocative introduction and then moves through several sections in various keys. The modulations transition smoothly and effectively. The slower-tempo pieces are beautifully expressive and quite meditative, with subtle accompaniments, creatively conceived harmonies, and rhythmic variants that provide interest and novelty. Ijames's keen sense of orchestral timbre and color is evident in each duet of the collection.
One festive selection is the lovely French carol "He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child." The primo and secondo support and enhance each other nicely, resulting in a rich duet with a full, orchestrated sound that is a joy to perform. Other carols demonstrate the arranger's fine sensitivity to texture and timbre; her voicing is commendable, and the slower duets benefit from Ijames's striking sense of harmonic color.
The publisher has opted to use a stacked primo/secondo format, rather than the more common side-by-side format. There is an advantage to the stacked format: Both parts are readily visible to each person in rehearsal and performance. And, although the layout may come with a visual learning curve for less experienced duet partners, stacking the parts like a chamber score has a clear advantage when it comes to fine-tuning ensemble work.
One issue in the printed score is that, in the two duets in 6/8, the metronome indication is set to the quarter note, rather than to the dotted quarter. Perhaps this was an editorial slip that can be corrected in the next print run. Further, the price of $19.95 seems a bit steep for a book that contains only six duets. Nonetheless, these are lovely arrangements. (Lorenz, $19.95)
(S5) Carols for a Starry Night, by John Turner.
John Turner's "Carols for A Starry Night" offers a collection of sophisticated hymn arrangements. These pieces are well-suited for the advancing student—or the professional musician—looking for fresh arrangements of old favorites for the sacred holiday season. Turner chose a collection of familiar tunes and arranged them in creative ways, while remaining true to their traditional roots.
"Angels We Have Heard on High" is a particularly interesting set of variations, and it is one of the highlights of the book. It begins in a very traditional rhythmic and tonal setting before traveling through several key signatures and tonalities. Turner then provides additional rhythmic interest by adding syncopated rock rhythms and capitalizing on the playful character of the treble register. In standard fashion, he closes with loud chords and octaves, thus providing a strong ending for a postlude or recital closer.
If you enjoy pieces with classical references, there is a nod to Gabriel Fauré in "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Here, Turner includes a very cleverly disguised Pavane, offering teachers a wonderful opportunity to address rhythmic ideas, left-hand voicing, and balance of texture.
In addition to technical challenges, several of the arrangements—"Carol of the Bells,""Carol of the Hay," and "What Child Is This?"—contain written instructions encouraging students to invoke particular musical colors. In fact, "Carol of the Bells" is labeled as an impression, with the mostly right-hand melody woven into sixths and thirds. "What Child Is This" uses arpeggiated figures, sensitive pedaling, and right-hand melodic voicing to invoke a meditation. Both pieces provide opportunities to teach voicing and, perhaps, discuss Impressionistic color.
While some of the pieces are predictable in their harmonic progressions and melodic lines, Turner also offers pleasant harmonic surprises. For the teacher, there are various opportunities to teach technique, voicing, and color. For the student, there are many satisfying musical moments to showcase phrasing, control, and technical command. This book would be a welcome addition to any collection of sacred music for the holiday season! (Ausburg Fortress, $21)
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.
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.