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Swales and Angels
An Evening of the Music of Beth Anderson

November 19, 2003 Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall New York

Reviews by Mark Greenfest & Karen Sharf

Beth Anderson's Three Swales was staggering, an over-the-top, exuberant set of flamboyant pieces in a post-Dvorak vein - - 'beautiful music' with a vengeance! (PGW)

- - friendly and accessible - but do not be deceived (MG)

These Belgian musicians, the Rubio String Quartet, launched into Beth Anderson's Pennyroyal Swale with such gusto, precision, and luscious tone that my jaw dropped. The rhythms of the swale, both renaissance and neoromantic, are enchanting, and the melodies are visions - it has the excitement of folk music and the beauty of classical.

Ms. Anderson's music is entirely friendly and accessible - but do not be deceived. This music is complex and difficult to play well. It is not the least saccharine - it's pure honey - and the darker hues and threads are woven together with the light. Although resident in Brooklyn, Ms. Anderson is a Kentucky-bred composer, and her music sounds like the Elizabethan melodies heard in the hill country, although newly composed by her, and brilliant.

I have listened to many remarkable programs in New York; in its own way, however, this one stands out. The New Mexico Swale, while clearly post-minimalist, has such lively flute and percussive elements in its soundscape. In The Angel, the harp-touches may have been a little florid, and the narrative recitative a little long, leading up to the vocalize and the Hans Christian Andersen poem, but the resulting poem and its performance, by soprano Jessica Marsten, hits the mark, with exceptional dramaturgy. Ms. Marsten's delivery and diction was a delight. The Flute Swale (1995) "takes you on a trip and brings you home in the end." Andrew Bolotowsky's (noted for baroue flute) modern flute solo, was rich and amiable. After excellent renditions of the January Swale (1998) and the March Swale (2000) by the Rubio String Quartet (the latter dedicated to Mary Rowell), the program concluded with the Piano Concerto (1997) with the powerful Joseph Kubera as an outstanding soloist. With Gary Schneider conducting, David Rozenblatt as marimba percussionist, the Rubio, and Darren Campbell, as bassist, all fine players, this jazzy but charming piece constituted a dessert to a wonderful meal. The audience agreed in its ovation - this concert was delicious.
(© MG)


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"Swales and Angels" was a major concert of this American composer. The spectacular Belgian Rubio String Quartet performed a series of Ms. Anderson's beautiful single movement string quartets. They were joined by seven musicians to create a quintet and two septets. The New York based composer, originally from Kentucky, has written about her use of the title Swale in so many of her works, "A swale is a meadow or a marsh where there is nourishment and moisture and therefore, a rich diversity of plant life. My work, since 1984, has been made from swatches (of newly composed music, rather than found music) that are reminiscent of this diversity. When a horse named Swale won the Kentucky derby in 1984, I discovered the word and have used it extensively"

The Rubio opened the concert with "Pennyroyal Swale" which was composed in 1985 and dedicated to Mr. James Roy, past head of the concert division of B.M.I., in gratitude for his dedication to assisting women composers, a cause close to Ms. Anderson's heart. Ms. Anderson has absorbed many influences from a variety of musical styles and genres and has shaped these influences into a new American classical music. Next up was "Rosemary Swale" a piece from 1986. This quartet was full of important inner parts, 5/4 meter, and a beautiful cello solo that contained echoes of shape-note singing. Ms. Anderson studied with John Cage and Terry Riley and their separate influences are apparent in the cutups (as in Cage's "Radio Music") and in the bright colors of the harmony.

Next on the program was "New Mexico Swale" for flute/piccolo (Andrew Bolotowsky), percussion (David Rozenblatt), violin, viola, and cello. Anderson composed this eclectic piece in 1995 to express a variety of styles that were descriptive of the diverse regions and people of New Mexico. It began with string octaves under a guiro followed by a spring drum that created a sense of wind across the desert. The percussionist, had a long section for cuica, an instrument rarely heard in concert and improvised a section using a diversity of instruments including the magical sounding Mark-tree, bowed suspended cymbal, woodblock, shakers, a talking drum and small tuned drums.

Gary M. Schneider conducted energetically, as he did each of the three larger works. The first half ended with "The Angel" from 1988 for soprano, string quartet, celeste, and harp, based on Hans Christian Andersen's 1844 story of the same name. The lyrics, by Anthony Calabrese, were appropriately childlike. Jessica Marsten, a sweet voiced soprano, brought this two and a half octave extended song to life. The elegant harpist Andre Tarantiles, Joseph Kubera, celeste and the Rubio String Quartet, assisted her. The modal music included a section akin to an old-time hymn (perhaps appropriate to the Salvation Army), a fugue, and a lot of vocalise and music appropriate to angelic flying. Different areas of the singer's range and production were used to represent the various characters (the narrator, the angel, the angel when he was a child, and the girl) in similarity to the way Schubert's "ErlKing" functions. The story was full of Victorian sensibility and had to do with an angel taking a child and some flowers to heaven. The composer said, "It is a story about the interconnectedness of all our lives (the stories within the stories), about the simplicity of miracles and the complications of daily life, about the possibility of multiple realities and the reality of life after death or rebirth, and the rewards for a life bravely lived." Her understanding of the story enlarged its meaning and gave it a breadth of vision that touched this writer and more than a few members of the audience.

Andrew Bolotowsky opened the second half with "Flute Swale", performed on alto flute with obvious enjoyment. It included a lively fiddle tune, a smoky, jazzy section, an Irish tune in which the flute implied its own harp, a section in which the flute implied its own drum accompaniment, and various cutups of the music that began earlier in the work than in most of the other swales. This was followed by "January Swale" and "March Swale", the final two string quartets on the program. "January" began with a short modernistic theme that was repeated in retrograde at the end of the work and included a disjunct minor section, and a small children's theme that reappeared later on in the piece in cut up form. "March" had an interesting string effect that created the sense of the wind blowing through the piece. It included a variety of rhythmic dance musics as though March were a month of exuberance.

The 1997 "Piano Concerto" closed the evening in style. It was performed by soloist Joseph Kubera, a renowned interpreter of contemporary music, along with string quartet, string bass (Darren Campbell), and percussion. Mr. Rozenblatt's showy marimba and drum set performance competed with Mr. Kubera's piano performance almost to the point of it becoming a duo concertant. It was a very American sounding work that grew out of the composer's experiences as a pianist including rock, gospel, ballet accompaniment, classical piano recitals and concerto performances. These influences and the resulting four sections cut into each other creating a rich tapestry of exquisite craftsmanship and fun. The "Piano Concerto" demonstrated especially well that Beth Anderson has developed a unique and authentic voice. (© KS)

(Mark Greenfest is editorial contributor to New Music Connoisseur,New York. Karen Sharf is a singer, completing her Ph.D. at New York University)

A CD of the music on this concert will be released on New World CDs in Spring 2004. For Beth Anderson's own thoughts about her radical change of style since the '70s see her essay Beauty is Revolution.

Pogus Productions just released a CD of Beth's text-sound, graphic, electro-acoustic, and electronic music from the 1970's entitled PEACHY KEEN-O. You can see it online and hear a little of it at http://www.pogus.com/21030.html.


© Peter Grahame Woolf