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Tag: Gowanus Arts Ensemble

A Colorful, Entertaining New Mix of Orchestral Works by Women Composers

Since the mid-teens, conductor Reuben Blundell has been unearthing one undiscovered American symphonic treasure after another, first with the Gowanus Arts Ensemble and most recently with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. His latest album with the latter, aptly titled American Discoveries, is streaming at Bandcamp. Fortuitously, he and the ensemble managed to wrap up the final recording sessions just a few weeks before the lockdown.

Blundell has been mining the vast archive in the Fleisher Collection of the Philadelphia Free Library for compositions which may not have been played in as much as a hundred years. This album features three women composers: an extremely rare work from 1928, and two better known, more recent pieces.

The orchestra open the album with Priscilla Alden Beach’s City Trees, a tantalizingly brief, triumphantly Romantic overture. The album’s liner notes mention Howard Hansen as a likely influence: Holst and Respighi also come strongly to mind. While Beach worked professionally in music for part of her life, she wore many different hats; tragically, most of her compositions have disappeared.

Linda Robbins Coleman‘s similarly colorful, Romantic 1996 pastorale For a Beautiful Land makes a good segue. Blundell evinces playful hints of birdsong over stillness, the orchestra rising to cheery bustle with hints of a fugue, Dvorakian sentinels amid the strings peeking across the prairie. The percussion section shimmer and shine, kicking off an ebullient, windswept waltz with the group going full tilt: Vaughan Williams is a good point of comparison.

The final piece is Alexandra Pierce’s 1976 Behemoth, an entertaining five-part suite inspired by the Biblical monster, even if it is not particularly monstruous. It’s a bit more modernist than the two preceding works. Portentous lows anchoring hazy strings, and tongue-in-cheek brass and percussion accents rise to heroic levels in the introduction. Puckish percussion flickers amidst alternating sheets of melody in the brief second movement, followed by a resonant, moody interlude, woodwinds and finally Suzanne Ballam’s harp precisely puncturing the amber.

The percussion section – Chris Kulp, Marshall Dugan, David Jamison and Susan Spina – get to indulge themselves in the very funny, fleeting bit of a fourth movement. Basses (Fay Kahmer, Barbara Brophy, Michael Carsley and Kurt Kuechler) take over the wary riffage beneath the lustre, cymbal crashes and blazing brass as the suite peaks out. Let’s hope for more from Blundell and this adventurous crew: Pennsylvanians seem to be getting restless, and the lockdown there looks like it’s on the ropes.

A Gorgeous, Historically Rich New Album of Rare American Works for String Orchestra

One of the most richly fascinating and historically important releases of recent months is the Gowanus Arts Ensemble‘s new album American Romantics: Premiere Recordings of Turn of the Century Works for String Orchestra. Reuben Blundell, who has enjoyed a productive association with the Chelsea Symphony, one of New York’s most enterprising, consistently entertaining orchestras, conducts this similarly enterprising group of Brooklyn string players, with meticulous attention to detail. On one hand, this album – streaming at Spotify – has immense value for rescuing these works, all by American composers, from obscurity. It’s every bit as enjoyable as a collection of lush, low-key, often moody Romantic nocturnes.

Eighteenth century Danish immigrant Karl Busch’s Omaha Indian Love Song, from his Four North American Legends suite, opens the album on a soberly waltzing, rather plaintive note. As stark as the music is, its colors are especially vivid, the low strings evoking a horn section. Later on, the ensemble makes precise work of his fascinatingly Asian-tinged Chippewa Lullaby, and finally his achingly understated Elegie. Fans of the Barber Adagio will especially enjoy discovering that one.

Julian Schwarz’ elegant cello takes centerstage along with some playful pizzicato high strings in German-born Paul Friedrich Theodor Miersch’s Pleasant Memories, which is far more dynamic than its blithe title would suggest. Best remembered in the organ demimonde, early 20th century composer Ludwig Bonvin is represented by his gently balmy Christmas Night’s Dream. A lullaby by German-born Karl Hillman, who enjoyed an unusually versatile career as a Chicago Symphony Orchestra multi-string player, takes a striking detour toward the somber before returning with a delicate triumph. Horatio Parker, another composer best known for his works for organ, is remembered with a lively rendition of his uneasily waltzing, Italian baroque-tinged Scherzo for Strings.

The ensemble takes graceful flight on the wings of prolific New Orleans creole composer Eugène Dédé’s picturesque waltz Abeilles et Bourdons (Bees and Bumblebees). Yet another esteemed American organist and composer, Arthur Foote, is immortalized here with his lush, enigmatic, canonic Air & Gavotte for Strings

Boston composer Frederick Shepherd Converse’s Serenade, yet another waltz, contrasts poignancy alongside the most lighthearted piece here, a scherzo by Milwaukee-born Henry Schoenefeld. What a fantastic album, with seamless and lustrous playing from violinists Hiroko Taguchi, Orlando Wells,Yuiko Kamakari, Elizabeth Nielsen and Sarah Zun; violists Entela Barci and Carla Fabiani; cellists Julian Schwarz and Alisa Horn; and bassist Rick Ostrovsky. It makes a valuable companion piece to organist Gail Archer‘s An American Idyll, a similarly historic collection of works by American composers working the “organ highway” from New York to Washington in the past century.

And the Chelsea Symphony – under the direction of Blundell and Matthew Aubin – play two concerts this weekend at their home base at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The centerpiece of both programs, Friday, Sept 9 at 8:30 PM and then the following night, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM is Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Friday’s bill is especially enticing, with Zhou Long’s orchestral arrangements of Chinese folk songs plus the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto with soloist Rachel Seiden. Saturday night’s program switches out the Strauss for the Elgar Cello Concerto; suggested donation is $20.