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In Our Own Backyard

Expect the unexpected from local recordings

By JOHN FLEMING
Published August 15, 2004

Morning rush hour on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park. A rainy midsummer Monday. I pop Beast into the CD player, and suddenly it sounds as if a monster truck is bearing down on me out of the mist. A grinding din fills the car, interspersed with bleats and blasts from the trombone, samples of mambo music, chatter in Spanish and relentless rhythm.

I should have known not to expect anything soothing. The recording, consisting of five "electro-acoustic" works for trombone, is the latest from David Manson, the St. Petersburg composer, trombonist and director of the Emit concert series. Manson has done orchestral arrangements of Frank Zappa songs, straight-ahead jazz and avant-garde computer and electronic works. Now he can add scary driving music to his resume.

You never know what might come out of the speakers when you go through a pile of CDs by Tampa Bay area composers and performers. Here's a survey of 11 recordings, all from the last year or so, ranging from the most conventional of brass band tunes to obscure Baroque duets to a soprano in settings of New England poetry to Beethoven's cello and piano music to a host of premieres.

Taken as a whole, this is a significant body of work that reflects the musical vitality of the community. A number of things tie the recordings together. One is the University of South Florida's music school, with present or past faculty responsible for four of the CDs and contributing to others. Another is the Florida Orchestra, whose members play (and in one case, compose) for many of the discs. And then there's the Tampa Bay Composers' Forum, which has cultivated an impressive amount of new music, and its performance in concert, since 1989.

Commercially released CDs are available through retail sources. For self-produced discs, contact information is included.

BEAST (www.cdbaby.com/cd/manson) is Manson's homage to his "all-consuming beast of an instrument," the trombone. Mambo Vinko, the opening work that took me by such surprise, is based on composer Javier Alvarez's experience hitching a ride from a Mexican trucker on the road between Puebla and Vera Cruz, and it's a wild trip indeed. Another big piece is Eric Lyon's Confessions of a Virtue Addict, which has some of the disc's purest, prettiest trombone playing, as well as black comedy in a spoken snippet about the Easter bunny, but it goes overboard on the annoying special effects. Less is often more when it comes to computer music, and that is demonstrated in Manson's dreamy, deftly engineered polyphony for trombone and laptop, Freund.

There's more brass on CONFLUENCES e-mails: brantley@arts.usf.edu jcoble@arts.usf.edu) which features USF professors Tom Brantley, trombone, and Jay Coble, trumpet. It's a mix of jazz (the title work by Chuck Owen, inspired by Mark Twain), infrequently heard trumpet-trombone duos by Boris Blacher, Jacques Casterede and Herbert L. Clarke, and Coble's arrangements of three opera arias, including a luscious O Suave Fanciulla from La Boheme. Especially enjoyable is the pair's blend in the slow middle movement of Owen's Confluences.

For some Salvation Army-style band music, the Sunshine Brass Band's SUNSHINE AND BRASS (www.sunshinebrass.com) has James F. Cheyne leading the 28-piece group in ditties such as Bugler's Holiday.

Robert Helps, who died in 2001, was the Tampa Bay area's best-known composer. SHALL WE DANCE (Naxos) opens with Helps, a superb pianist, playing the not very dancelike title track, a subtle work characteristic of his miniaturist style. There's excellent playing by pianist Daniel Blumenthal in Helps' Piano Quartet. Frank S. Dodge, who founded the Berlin concert series from which these performances are taken, is the cellist in a sparely scored string quartet, Nocturne. Helps winds up the disc with his elegaic rendition of The Darkened Valley by John Ireland. Liner notes include an extensive summary of the composer's career but neglect to mention his last big work, Symphony No. 2, premiered by the Florida Orchestra a year before his death.

Another longtime piano professor at USF, Armin Watkins, now living in North Carolina, and cellist Antony Cooke shine in a two-CD set, BEETHOVEN: THE COMPLETE WORKS FOR CELLO AND PIANO (Centaur). The five cello sonatas are not as popular as the violin and piano sonatas, but they include some great music, such as the Op. 102 sonatas, which share the rich complexity of the late string quartets. Watkins and Cooke were a popular duo in the 1970s, but they parted ways when the cellist became a studio musician in Hollywood. In recent years, they have reunited, and the Beethoven works benefit from their obvious affinity for each other's playing.

USF also is represented in a worthy project by composer Richard Rendleman Jr., with soprano and voice professor Kay Lowe as the soloist in POEMS OF MARGARET PROCTOR WOOD e-mail: richard_rendleman@unc.edu) Wood (1881-1971), a revered teacher in Danvers, Mass., wrote verse that is often wittily down to earth (My Checkbook, for example), and Massachusetts is a rousing hymn ("Make us unselfish, high hearted and free") to her home state. Lowe gives a warm, communicative performance in Rendleman's settings for voice and piano as well as for voice and orchestra. Scott Tilley accompanies her, both at the piano and on the podium with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. It's interesting to hear each of the songs in two different versions.

St. Petersburg composer A. Paul Johnson ranged from Argentina to Bulgaria to Poland to record the selections on THE DRAMATIC e-mail: wd4193@aol.com) A highlight is his Serenade No. 4, featuring the great clarinet player Richard Stoltzman along with Ed Staubach, the other clarinet soloist, and the Warsaw National Philharmonic. Johnson's Symphony No. 2 ("The Dramatic") lives up to its name, with booming brass over chirpy strings and winds, performed by the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra under Deidre Reigel. Argentina's Ensemble Rosario backs the unfortunately shrill soprano Karen Adair in arias from Johnson's opera Love, Ted.

Johnson also is heard on TAMPA BAY COMPOSERS' FORUM: MEMBERS' WORKS IN LIVE PERFORMANCE, 1989-2003 e-mail: wd4193@aol.com) with his Variations on Picardy, a solo cello piece. The two-CD set is an invaluable record of devotion to the cause of new music, and it includes some of the more accessible works from the forum archive, such as Vernon Taranto Jr.'s sprightly Head Games for woodwind trio and a lively dance movement from Joan Epstein's Arborvitae. Peter Blauvelt is at the keyboard for his typically knuckle-busting Piano Sonata No. 8. Among the 18 composers represented are James Lewis (Winter Water Sky Songs), Wayne Berman (Question), Dinos Constantinides (Trio No. 1) and Dawn Hutchinson (Interested).

One of the forum's most dedicated interpreters is cellist Theresa Villani, who, with her husband, church organist Robert Shone, has released A ROYAL DIALOGUE e-mail: VillaniCello@aol.com) a CD of mainly traditional works. They perform rarities by the likes of Francesco Guerini (Sonata No. 3), Flor Peeters (Elegie) and Joseph Jongen (Humoresque).

ABOUT FOREIGN LANDS AND PEOPLE e-mail: PGateaux@aol.com) is by Palm Harbor flutist Patricia Dominowski and Jude Mollenhauer, principal harp with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio. The title track, from Schumann's Suite of Six Little Pieces, sets the agenda for a program ranging from Denmark (Nielsen's The Fog Is Lifting) to India (Ravi Shankar'sL'Aube Enchantee sur le Raga).

Florida Orchestra members play in selections on 2003 ENCORE SERIES e-mail: brentpalladium@aol.com) recordings from the excellent chamber music series at the Palladium Theater. Notable is the premiere of orchestra principal bassoonist and composer Mark Sforzini's Octet, which went on to be played on a masterworks program. Unabashedly tonal and a fine showcase for principals in the orchestra, it struck a responsive chord with audiences.

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 12, 2004, 13:26:11]


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