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.