Angels and Watermarks, a new release from Snow Leopard Music, features music of Californian composer Howard Hersh. California-based pianist Brenda Tom performs on all three pieces on this CD, two of which are for solo keyboard. This disc contains a delightful mix of musical styles set in the broad and colorful world of Hersh’s own modern musical language.
The final piece on the disc, Dream, for solo piano, was written as the composer was “exploring ways of incorporating tonal harmony.” Recalling, at times, some of the lighter music of Arvo Pärt, this piece unfolds slowly and delicately, repeating simple melodic lines in a manner consistent with its title. The overall effect is one of relaxation, but not without struggle. Resolution finally comes after the seven-minute mark, with the surprising introduction of a powerful bass note. This is the first point in the piece when low sounds of any heft are used; it is the only moment when the piece feels at all grounded. It is a brief moment, but quite satisfying and appropriate in the context of this largely ethereal solo. On this track, pianist Brenda Tom’s reserve and patience are laudable. She does not rush the development of this piece, but allows it to grow at the measured, steady pace that this type of music requires in order to be effective.
The preceding piece, Angels and Watermarks, showcases a completely different type of performance from Tom. Here, she wholeheartedly digs into multi-faceted music that displays the harpsichord in many different lights.
In Angels and Watermarks, for solo harpsichord, Hersh has built a suite that not only fulfills its goal of displaying the harpsichord’s “historical voice,” but that also takes the instrument into relatively new places, all of which work equally well. The title adds depth to this sonic exploration; it is taken from the title of an essay by painter Henry Miller, in which Miller describes his attempt to create authentic and personal art while inescapably conscious of the work of the generations of artists that came before. This connection seems appropriate for a suite that clearly references past sounds while branching out in new directions.
The outer movements of Angels are the most referential to classical harpsichord styles, complete with comfortably familiar (but slightly tedious) filigree straight out of the 17th century. Despite this traditional styling, the modern harmonies in these movements keep them interesting. The second movement is a romping perpetuum mobile that, among other devices, uses a variety of meters and cluster chords to keep listeners on their toes. The middle movement is perhaps the most challenging of the suite, containing the widest variety of sounds from disparate genres. Here live ghosts of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, 20th century minimalism, impressionism, and ragtime, along with a healthy dose of ancient sounds that showcase the almost lyre-like qualities of the harpsichord. Despite the mash-up, pianist Brenda Tom blends the styles beautifully. The fourth movement, designed to recall the toccata, is also particularly enjoyable. Continuing in the style-blending footsteps of the third, it includes, along with a healthy dose of straight-forward and exuberant chromaticism, a good deal of blues and an apparent (and charming) recurring reference to Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo a la Turk. Angels and Watermarks is successful in that it seamlessly blends harpsichord sounds, both old and new, in a pleasingly contiguous way. Hersh manages to transcend the unmistakable sound of the harpsichord in service of good music, an impressive feat.
The leading piece on this disc, Hersh’s Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments is the collection’s best example of the full spectrum of Hersh’s original musical language. As in the other two pieces, some genre-specific sounds (tango, swing, and bossa nova, mostly) do appear occasionally, but overall, the language here seems original and modern. When it comes to the accompanying ensemble, Hersh has chosen the instruments well; he manages to draw an impressively wide spectrum of colors from the mid-sized ensemble. Of particular note is the broad array in which the solo piano interacts with the ensemble; some passages are purely piano or purely ensemble, but are also a myriad colors in between in which the piano plays every role that could be expected, from melodic leader to supporting player. Brenda Tom, as in Angels, again moves effortlessly between styles and characters, further deepening the already engaging music of the Concerto.
One of the more enjoyable characteristics about the Concerto is the light and airy quality of many of Hersh’s melodies; they manage to feel free and easy without lacking substance. The tact of conductor Barbara Day Turner and the ensemble is notable here; such smoothness would not be possible without their adept support. Percussionist Patti Niemi, in particular, executes Hersh’s perfectly balanced percussion parts with exceptional grace and reservation.