Notes & Reviews:
In Eleanor's Words offers world-premiere recordings of three works by rising composer Stacy Garrop. Inspired by the revered American stateswoman Eleanor Roosevelt, the piece illuminates excerpts from the former first lady's syndicated newspaper columns addressing world peace, human rights, and personal experiences. Garrop has served most recently as composer in residence for the Albany Symphony and has received numerous grants and awards, including the Beverly Sackler Music Composition prize.
MusicWeb International - Byzantion
This is the first CD dedicated entirely to the works of American composer Stacy Garrop, who is Associate Professor of Composition at the Roosevelt University in Chicago.
The disc opens aptly with an aperitif: Silver Dagger, for violin, cello and piano, incorporates three variants of an Appalachian folksong, from which comes the title. A simple, straightforward work, but sultry too in its way, and played with poised passion by the Lincoln Trio, for whom Garrop wrote the piece.
The other two works are far more substantial. Garrop's Third String Quartet is subtitled 'Gaia', after the Greek goddess of the earth - the second 'eco-quartet' released this year, as it happens, following Ronald Corp's more modest String Quartet no.1 'The Bustard' on Naxos. Each of the generally programmatic five movements depicts a different aspect of the mythology, from the turmoil become pristine beauty of 'Creation of Mother Earth' to the earthy rhythms of 'Dance of the Earth', and from the weeping and SOSes of 'Lamentation', depicting humanity's relentless abuse of the planet, to the extended finale, '... et in terra pax', in which a positive outcome to humankind's so-called custody of Earth is wished for, in appropriately ambiguous music - though the final bars sound a lot like the planet's rainforest lungs finally giving out. Written for and expressively played by the Biava Quartet.
The final work lends its name to the CD, and gave rise to the curious jazz-style CD cover. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D, is the lady in question, and an appropriate choice, given Garrop's academic residency! In Eleanor's Words takes some of the former First Lady's words from her syndicated newspaper columns, arranged chronologically from 1936 to 1961, giving a brief but interesting personal view of unfolding pre- and post-war history. The texts are prose, not poetry, and Garrop sets them using a mixture of declamation, sprechstimme, sprechgesang and orthodox singing. How convincing the results are will depend a lot on individual sensibilities: American audiences will probably find the cycle considerably more appealing than most Europeans, because it sometimes shades into sophisticated-Sondheim-musical territory, whose appreciative audiences in the Old World are not most obviously found among aficionados of art music.
Nevertheless, Garrop's writing is undeniably imaginative, even innovative. Californian mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott's voice is in some ways ideal for the job - for one thing, she does sound eerily like a politician in the spoken parts! She recorded Garrop's Ars Poetica, a setting of Billy Collins, with the Lincoln Trio for another Cedille CD released in 2009... This time she gives a better performance than reported there in what is sometimes very difficult music, but her operatic voice, breath control and idiosyncratic phrasing will not be to everyone's taste. Kuang-Hao Huang, on the other hand, provides a thoroughly polished accompaniment throughout - the piano music sometimes calls for super-human feats of concentration and virtuosity.
The disc is beautifully recorded, and the CD booklet is exactly how CD booklets should always be, thoughtfully and clearly laid out, with as much information as the average listener needs, no more or less. There are also a few unobtrusive photos for good measure, everything printed on high quality paper - although, given the message of Garrop's String Quartet, it is surprising that no indication is given as to the eco-friendliness of the source of that paper!
Fanfare - Colin Clarke
The first piece is based on a folk tune called Silver Dagger (and takes its name therefrom). This tune exists in several versions and under different titles. There is no doubting the folk side of the theme when one hears it. What impresses is the way Stacy Garrop sets it against a bleak modernist tolling (inspired perhaps by the beginning of Mahler's "Der Abschied" from Das Lied von der Erde?). The original folk song dwells on a Romeo and Juliet-ish idea of love thwarted, in whatever way, by family circumstance. There is an intensity to the writing that is most involving. Expertly scored for piano trio, it moves to a fierce climax before the folk tune reappears quietly and played on harmonics by the string instruments.
The texts for In Eleanor's Words are all taken from Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day columns (Roosevelt wrote for newspapers from 1935 until 1962). The quirky, jaunty feel of the first song fits the subject perfectly (the strains and adventures of trying to honor a deadline). In total contrast is the sadness-infused "Are You Free," a seven-minute meditation on social injustices. Buffy Baggott is a fine mezzo, and she brings out the sense of defeat inherent in the words (emphasized by the traipsing piano part). There is humor here, too, in the third movement, "An Anonymous Letter" (the letter only says pleasant things, something that is new to the writer), and in the ensuing "The Supreme Power," which includes some lovely, spiky piano playing from Kuang-Hao Huang and rises to an overpowering high point as the Soviet people are warned to be wary of the U.S. The final song, "What Can One Woman Do?," ends with an eloquent plea for understanding. After a massive, ear-shattering climax, a coda attenpts to provide some tentative answers to the questions raised. This is a touching cycle of songs that bravely tackles vital questions of responsibility, both personal and governmental, that still have vital resonance today.
Garrop's Second String Quartet was recorded by the Maia String Quartet, also on Cedille, on a disc titled Composers in the Loft (Cedille 100) and reviewed by Robert Carl in Fanfare 31:4. Carl identified the shadows of Bart=k and Crumb in the first two movements of that piece. The Third Quartet is subtitled "Gaia," the Greek goddess of the Earth (indeed, many people today refer to the Earth as simply Gaia). "Gaia" is also the title of the first movement (of four), which sets out the musical materials in simple but highly effective fashion. The held-breath atmosphere is most appropriate. In "Creation of Mother Earth," Gaia emerges from chaos (harsh tremolandi usher in the most dissonant music on the disc) before creating the night sky. There is the sweetest violin melody around three minutes in. The power of Garrop's music comes from simplicity of gesture. Life is celebrated in "Dance of the Earth," the visceral element of the dance captured with amazing rawness by the engineers; there is tenderness here, too. The viola represents the cry of the planet itself in "Lamentation" (a musical depiction of Gaia's distress at the hands of us humans). Mary Persin's playing is undeniably eloquent, just as the climactic, rapier chords are undeniably powerful. There is some virtuoso playing here; ensemble is frankly awesome. The final movement, "Et in terra pax," speaks of a desire for peace in the tenderest of terms. There is a G=recki-like sadness here as well, though, reminding the listener that this remains, as yet, a dream. The technical prowess of the players in terms of sheer control toward the incredibly delicate end is surely beyond praise, as any hint of bowshake would destroy the atmosphere. Bravo.
The booklet tells us this is the Blava Quartet's final recording (public performances concluded in June 2010). A shame, as it was clearly a highly talented group whose dedication to contemporary music was eminently praiseworthy.
Fanfare - David DeBoor Canfield
Stacy Garrop received her degrees at the University of Michigan (B.M.), University of Chicago (M.A.) and Indiana University (D.M.), so she has a good pedigree (her teachers at these institutions are not specified), and her music certainly gives evidence of good training and natural inspiration. Its quality has earned her numerous awards and performances by the orchestras of Detroit, Albany, Charleston, and Omaha, among others. It is fluent and quite direct in its appeal, which explains her steadily rising star. From the very first notes on the present CD, my first exposure to her work, I was impressed.
Silver Dagger for piano trio was inspired when the composer heard the Appalachian tune of that name at a folk festival in 1994. Her interest piqued, she spent several years researching the tune, and discovered that it exists in several versions, all of which are based on an Appalachian variation of the Romeo and Juliet story. Opening with an iteration of the simple tune over repeated dense sonorities in the piano, the piece unfolds over its five-minute duration in increasing freely tonal complexity using quick scalar flourishes leading to a tonal statement of the tune in turn by the cello and then violin. All of this leads to a fortissimo climax on the low D of the piano. The work closes with the tune presented again in simple fashion using harmonics, bringing the work to a poignant close that fades to nothingness.
In Eleanor's Words is an extended song cycle intended to present Eleanor Roosevelt in a variety of lights, given the many roles (First Lady, wife, mother, ambassador, writer, and journalist) that she filled. Her journalistic efforts provided the direct inspiration for the present cycle, which sets excerpts of six of this noteworthy woman's essays. Arranged in chronological order, these columns span her entire career from 1935 until her death in 1962. "The Newspaper Column" introduces her byline, and relates an amusing incident regarding making the president wait for her while she dictated her daily column to her secretary. Garrop begins by having the column read by the soloist, adroitly shifting into song partway through. Roosevelt's strong feelings against prejudice come through quite directly in Garrop's setting of "Are You Free," while in "An Anonymous Letter," she writes of a communication she had received. "The Supreme Power" gives us a glimpse of the humor of this woman as she relates her wrangling over the details of one of her most notable achievements, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "The Dove of Peace" summarizes her trip to Russia during the Cold War, and the closing "What Can One Woman Do" presents her conviction that even one individual can make a difference in preventing future wars - something particularly pressing on Roosevelt after the invention of atomic weapons. All of these texts are skillfully set by Garrop, who uses pathos, humor, declamation, and musical sighs at appropriate moments in the cycle. Mezzo Buffy Baggott does an excellent job bringing these texts to life, making the most of the musical moods found in this cycle. Kuang-Hao Huang's piano accompaniment is very sensitively and expressively performed as well.
In her String Quartet No. 3, "Gaia," Garrop shifts gears stylistically, as it is cast in a rather more austere mold than are the two preceding works. Gaia is, of course, the mythical Greek goddess of the earth, and so this work constitutes Garrop's paean to our planet. The work was commissioned by Thomas and Nadine Hamilton, and Garrop's desire to embody Nadine in the work resulted in an ascending motive of the notes A and D (drawn from her name) becoming a building block of the piece. This is heard from the beginning of the work, the brief first movement, "Gaia," cast in the upper register of the quartet, drawing on gentle sustained tones for its substance. The opening of the second movement, "Creation of Mother Earth," is relentlessly dissonant, parallel to the discord by which Haydn in Die Sch÷pfung sought to portray the idea of chaos as described in the creation account at the beginning of Genesis. The dissonance is eventually relieved with a statement of the Nadine motive, and the movement closes with a gentle depiction of the glittering night sky. "Dance of the Earth" is a feast of pulsing rhythmic vitality, meant to portray a celebration of life. Garrop makes much effective use of pizzicato and glissando in this movement. In "Lamentation," the composer depicts Gaia's cry against the use and abuse of the planet, its doleful atmosphere enhanced through her use of portamenti and glissandi, some of the most effective use of these devices in quartet writing that I've heard. The movement builds up to a very effective climax that leads directly into the final movement, "Et in terra pax" (and on earth, peace), like the opening movement, a distillation of simplicity and quietude.
The performance of this quartet by the Biava Quartet sounds definitive to my ears, and should gain this work interest among other quartets. Regardless of what one thinks of mankind's use of the planet on which we dwell, and the composer's statement about it, this is a strong work, as are all the pieces on this CD. I hope to hear more music from Garrop based on this initial exposure to her work, and recommend this well-produced CD accordingly.
The Indianapolis Star - Jay Harvey
Let's consider the rise of new music by women composers, who benefit from the general rise in the status of women in American society, as conflicted and gradual as that has been. One of the most interesting (and a new discovery for me) is Stacy Garrop, a Chicago-based composer whose academic credentials and honors include a doctorate from Indiana University.
From Chicago's Cedille Records comes "In Eleanor's Words: Music of Stacy Garrop," a gathering of three of Garrop's works, with the title work being a fascinating setting of excerpts from Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day" newspaper columns, widely published in American newspapers between 1935 and 1962.
Garrop's excerpts are set to both speech and song, and the fairly complex piano accompaniment must be intended to suggest the wide world toward which Mrs. Roosevelt's gaze was always admirably turned. Her humor and the pleasure she took in people of high and low estate are reflected in Garrop's text settings, thrillingly sung by mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott. Kuang-Hao Huang is an accompanist of flair and sensitivity.
"In Eleanor's Words" comes in at just under a half-hour; String Quartet No. 3 ("Gaia") is an ambitious five-movement work lasting nearly 34 minutes. The Biava Quartet, much acclaimed in its brief career and now disbanded, plays the enthralling work in honor of the Greek goddess of Earth. It changes from grappling with the myth of Earth's creation, which is celebrated in a charming dance movement, then gets ferocious as it laments what humankind has done to Gaia's world. Finally, there is a daringly meditative "et in terra pax" finale.
This piece deserves to be on many Earth Day programs this weekend, but that's probably too much to hope for. I admire Garrop's expansive vision that issues in music whose breadth is not dependent on minimalist procedures but is psychologically acute and frankly reaching out toward the horizon.
The disc opens with "Silver Dagger," a reworking of a well-known Appalachian folk song for violin, cello and piano. The Lincoln Trio gives a fiercely committed performance.
Chicago Tribune - John von Rhein
CD of the Week
For my taste, Garrop's settings for mezzo-soprano (Buffy Baggott) and piano (Kuang-Hao Huang) of newspaper columns by Eleanor Roosevelt pale by comparison with her powerful Third String Quartet ("Gaia"). The score, which takes its inspiration and primal energies from the Greek earth-goddess, provides the Biava Quartet with an ideal outlet for its youthful vibrancy.
ClassicsToday.com - David Hurwitz
There's a very serious talent at work in this music by Stacy Garrop. Silver Dagger is a folk-song setting for piano trio, along similar lines to Vaughan Williams' Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, and it's extremely beautiful and quite fetchingly composed for the three instruments. In Eleanor's Words is a cycle of six songs drawn from the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt. The concept is a good one: Roosevelt's prose often approaches poetry, and her unfailing intelligence makes for texts that are worth reading on their own, and for which Garrop has found a similarly conversational musical style that fits them perfectly. The music is attractive and approachable, but not facile. There's a version for chamber orchestra that I would dearly love to hear, but it would be difficult to imagine a more affectingly sung performance than that by mezzo Buffy Baggott - and Kuang-Hao Huang accompanies beautifully.
Gaia is an ambitious string quartet in five movements lasting about 34 minutes, and only here do I feel it necessary to express a few reservations. So much contemporary music seems adrift without some sort of programmatic underpinning, and this piece is no exception. Don't get me wrong: the individual movements are effectively structured and often quite attractive. Dance of Mother Earth (silly name) is fun, and the Lamentation lives up to its title. However, the finale - ... et in terra pax - really is a bit conventional, and it's also the longest movement. Somehow the various sections don't quite add up to a convincing whole, despite some excellent playing by the Biava Quartet. Still, other listeners may be more willing than I was to succumb to the music's programmatic charms. I loathed Garrop's Second Quartet "Demons and Angels", and this one strikes me as far more appealing and successful. The sonics are just great, and irrespective of any quibbles, this disc makes an excellent case for exploring more of Garrop's music.
The sound is vibrant, well balanced and airy. All the performers are first rate, well-rehearsed, and obviously in love with this music. Get this disc - you will be too.
Recording information: Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, WFMT, Chicago.
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Works DetailsGarrop, Stacy : Silver Dagger, for violin, cello & piano
- Ensemble: Lincoln Trio (Piano Trio)
- Running Time: 5 min. 32 sec.
- Period Time: Contemporary
Garrop, Stacy : In Eleanor's Words, for mezzo-soprano & piano
- Performers: Kuang-Hao Huang (Piano); Buffy Baggott (Piano)
- Notes: Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, WFMT, Chicago (12/04/2009/12/06/2009)
- Running Time: 26 min. 39 sec.
- Period Time: Contemporary
Garrop, Stacy : Quartet for Strings no 3 ("Gaia")
- Notes: Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, WFMT, Chicago (02/03/2010/02/05/2010)
- Running Time: 33 min. 10 sec.
- Period Time: Contemporary