Edward Smaldone: Three Scenes from "The Heartland"

Although the five compositions on this recording cover the fifteen-year period between 1980 and 1994, they are linked by a consistent compositional approach and a common set of core musical values. Although he composes in a modernist, free atonal idiom, Edward Smaldone is a classicist. Every work here is deeply and rigorously motivic. Within each piece, the composer develops music of very different sensibilities–it is by turns energetic, doleful, lyrical, exuberant, playful–from common motivic threads, imaginatively reconceived. There are no textures for their own sakes, that is, no sections that sacrifice thematic content to mere color or gesture, no passages of simple repetition, no minimalist "sameness" of idea. Rather, the Germanic values inherent in the challenge of "continuing variation"–challenging because of its demands on the imagination and connection-making processes of both composer and listener–is a guiding force in this music. Smaldone is also a classicist in the sense that his large-scale musical forms take their inspiration from eighteenth-century models. Exposition, development, and recapitulation–the components of the sonata form, that preeminent structure of all classical music–figure prominently in his work, as does the flavor of such prior musical forms as the scherzo. Even contrapuntal techniques associated with Baroque music surface from time to time, when they may convincingly further Smaldone’s musical intentions. Steeped as he is in the learned traditions of the past, the composer is equally concerned with transmitting the energies of the present. "My first experiences were with rock and popular music, and my aim as a composer has been to create the immediacy and excitement of those kinds of music while eluding the pitfalls of either simple-minded populism or a too precious academicism."

The decade-and-a-half development in the composer’s life documented in this recording reveals expanded musical means rather than a sea change in stylistic direction or any radical shift of approach. The earliest works recorded here, the Solo Sonata for Violin (1980) and Trio: Dance and Nocturne (1984), embrace, albeit in different ways, a Schoenbergian aesthetic, the first piece serious, rigorous, and demanding, the second more playful and gemütlich. The three later pieces–Two Sides of the Same Coin (1990), Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1993), and Three Scenes from "The Heartland" (1994)–admit other musical influences and embrace a wider range of musical means, especially the syncopated rhythms, harmonies, and textures of jazz, and a broader gestural range that includes the harmonic and melodic sweep and climactic underpinnings of Romanticism. One hears over the period covered in this recording a continuing enrichment of musical language within a modus operandi that remains firmly located in the values of rigorous traditional craftsmanship and a visceral delight in sound.

Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1993) was commissioned by the Queens Symphony Orchestra in celebration of its fortieth anniversary, and was premiered in that year with Michael Boriskin as soloist and Arthur Fagen as conductor; pianist, conductor, and orchestra are its dedicatees. Though working in a free atonal harmonic idiom, Smaldone’s affection for jazz-tinged harmonies is apparent in the Rhapsody, producing a tonal palette that the composer has characterized as "McCoy Tyner meets Arnold Schoenberg." The opening measures serve as a telling introduction to the composer’s work. Marked "Inciso con fuoco" (incisive, with fire), ascending melodic couplets force their way upward by semi-tone intervals, this motivic ur-material serving not only as the building block for the opening theme but in the creation of music of quite different characters, including the playful music interwoven throughout the work. Even accompanimental filigree, such as the piano’s arpeggiated music, is developed from the same motivic tissue. The result is a piece in which diverse themes are informed by the same unifying source material. As with all of the compositions on this recording, a traditional approach to extensive thematic development on the local level is mirrored in the choice of formal structure: the rhapsody corresponds roughly to the sonata form in a later, freer incarnation. At its entry, the piano extends the opening theme and develops it in imaginative and unexpected directions, introducing elements by turns playful and romantic, and later juxtaposing both.

The developmental tendencies of the exposition leave the composer free to strike out in adventuresome new directions in the development proper (at the 5’16" mark). The tempo slows as the mood turns mysterious and this section is more volatile than the first, with intense climaxes, sudden changes of thematic direction, a colorful and ghostly re-presentation of the opening theme against piano trills, and a solo cadenza that further explores the various character potentials of the expository material.

The recapitulation (at 13’57") intensifies the substance of the exposition, juxtaposing themes more sharply and reducing the gestures to their essences, a strategy that ratchets up the intensity and provides a compelling and dramatic gloss on the work’s expository material.

Trio: Dance and Nocturne, for violin, clarinet, and cello (1984), was composed almost a decade before the piano rhapsody. In its motivic rigor, contrapuntal orientation, even in its pitch usage, the piece’s voice is unmistakably Schoenbergian. Nevertheless, guided by an unfailingly light touch and sensitive ear, Smaldone is able to coax from an atonal palette the kind of graceful music that has eluded many composers working in a similar language. The trio is compact, excellently crafted, and "breathes" comfortably and naturally. In A-B-A’ form, the work features breezy dance music in the A section, with the darker, slower "nocturne" creating contrast and comprising the B section (at the 1’32" mark). Despite a sharp change in mood between these sections (attenuated by a skillful transition and retransition), the motivically consistent source material serving both A and B creates a unifying link, in the tradition of the best 19th- and 20th-century German music. The abundance of intervals of the second and fourth, the typically upward trajectory of the melodies, especially the upward or downward hop of a perfect fourth proximate to the top of a line, create strong and consistent thematic profiles common to both sections. In addition, A and B feature sinewy, contrapuntally independent lines; similar rhythmic values despite the difference of tempo; and the kind of attuned responsiveness, each instrument to the other, that suggests musical "conversation."

The recapitulatory A’ section (commencing at 4’24") demonstrates a well-schooled familiarity with the synthesizing tendencies of 19th-century music, as found, for example, in the short late piano works of Brahms. The A’ section smoothly combines the music of A and B, subtly reintroducing A with a new version of the opening (invoking the Classical "false recapitulation") and altering and developing the music from the B section (at 4’45") as well. The return of a more recognizable version of the work’s opening music (at 5’29") creates a liberating momentum that is sustained through the trio’s blithe conclusion.

Three Scenes from "The Heartland," for solo piano, was commissioned by and is dedicated to pianist Donald Pirone. Composed in 1994, almost a decade removed from the composer’s student days, the work leaves behind more homogeneous and exclusively "high art" models to embrace a wider world of beloved styles. It is a mature and confident voice that permits the composer to range over disparate musical terrains, and Smaldone invokes the landscapes of jazz piano, quasi-fugue, and Chopinesque Romanticism, within an essentially free atonal language, with equal sureness. Nevertheless, the piece is a convincing amalgam of these stylistic elements, well blended and richly flavored, rather than a piercing disjunction of untenable musical bedfellows.

The musical styles redolent of America–explicitly, the rhythms, harmonies, and textures of jazz, and implicitly, the spaciousness of the American frontier–dovetail smartly with the work’s nominal program, Amy Clampitt’s poem "The Heartland." Smaldone writes, "The land that the poet evokes, the wonder and space as well as the violence and volatility of the place we occupy, found their way into the sound poems that comprise the work."

The first movement, "Introduction," derives its inspiration from the poetry that evokes the majesty and wildness of the uncharted prairie, where there are "no roads/no landmarks to tell where you are,/…or whether you will ever find a place/to feel at home…only waves of chlorophyll in motion." Marked "maestoso, con rubato," the work opens with a two-chord statement, Wagnerian in its use as a building block and point of departure for subsequent accreting statements, and a strong identifying motto that resurfaces throughout the movement. The block chords eventually throw off melodic tendrils that gain independence and boldness, until the truncated recapitulation restores the wall of chordal sound and, with it, an aura of spaciousness.

The Introduction’s commingling of Romantic phrase building with jazz piano harmonies and "improvisatory" melodic figures gives way to the good-natured "Scherzo," marked "rambunctious." Through this movement, the composer hoped to convey, in his words, "the freewheeling and confident nature of the American spirit, so blindly ambitious, confident, and optimistic" in its willingness to tackle what Clampitt describes as "the involuted tantrums of Spring and Summer[’s] sacksful of ire," "wind and rain…swigging up whole farmsteads," where "luck and cellar hole were all/a prairie dweller had to count on." The movement emphasizes the brash confidence of these pioneers in the propulsive motion of the music through jagged, syncopating changes of meter. Smaldone hears jazz as a metaphor for the buoyancy of the American spirit in the face of such overwhelming odds. Embedded imitation is made explicit in a clever episodic two-part invention on the main subject–Ellington meets Bach–at the thirty-six second mark.

The concluding "Nocturne" invokes the "pure astonishment" found in Clampitt’s paean to the American heartland, realizing in musical form the sense of awe and understated passion suggested by the poetry. Sweeping arpeggios accompany lyrical lines, and the work’s only flirtation with tonal harmony conveys hushed majesty. Just prior to the final cadence, the atmosphere is shattered by a jagged, quicksilver melody stated in octaves, the spirit of jazz imposing itself with irrepressible energy on the emotional landscape. A faint echo of the opening motive returns in the highest register and then sweeps into silence, before octave c’s in the bass bring the work to a close.

Written in 1980 and dedicated to the composer’s wife, Karen, the Solo Sonata for Violin is the earliest composition on this recording, and is an ambitious essay in a challenging genre. Smaldone’s concentration on musical materials firmly within an atonal modern aesthetic is especially perceptible when heard in this context, following the lushness and expanded stylistic palette of Three Scenes from "The Heartland." Nevertheless, the absence of eclectic stylistic means should not imply an absence of gestural variety. This work demands a violinist with the skill to differentiate between sharply contrasting gestures; negotiate the entire range of the violin; realize unusual meters and complex rhythmic figures; and play the copious pizzicati, arco with simultaneous pizzicato, and harmonics, all without sacrificing the lyrical and expressive flow of the music. The piece is cast in three movements, the outer two of which mirror each other. Like all the other pieces on this recording that return to opening material, this "recapitulation" radically reconceives the music to which it refers. In this case, some of the many elements common to the first and third movements include their pace and character (both are marked "dramatic"),

the opening figure of an ascending semitone (the Piano Rhapsody develops out of the same initial gesture), concluding poignant stratospheric bowed notes against left hand pizzicati in the lower register, similar angular melodies using the entire range of the instrument, and an alternation between what the composer calls "gentle phrases and chordal outbursts," between "lyrical statements and aggressive ones." Unlike later pieces by the composer, however, which distill expository essences in dramatically truncated recapitulations, this movement three is more a companion piece to the first than an intensification of it, reconfiguring all the elements of that movement while still retaining its shape and character.

The inner movement, a "scherzo," employs the traditional three-part (A-B-A) form to which it refers, with playful outer sections framing a lyrical slow section (at the fifty-five second mark) of contrasting gestural and melodic character. The return of the scherzo is not a mere repeat of the opening material, but is a shortened version that still manages to incorporate the essence of the B section to create a summarizing synthesis of all that has come before.

Two Sides of the Same Coin (1990), for clarinet and piano, was commissioned by Sounds from the Left Bank, and was premiered at P.S. 1 (Project Studios 1) in Long Island City, New York, in May, 1990. Aptly named, the single-movement work develops music of radically different sensibilities from common motivic and harmonic material. The A section is energetic, with rarely a silence interfering with the propulsive character of the music. The piece begins with three distinct gestures in as many measures–syncopated chords, pointed staccato arpeggios, and a jazzy figure comprised of an eighth note and two sixteenths–and the entire A section spins out in an exploration of these basic ideas. Eventually exhausting itself, A gives way to a contrasting and dream-like B section that transmogrifies elements from its predecessor. Now the propulsive rhythms of the A section are translated into a nearly ubiquitous and steady stream of eighth-note quintuplets in the left-hand of the piano (against which the clarinet plays long, angular lines "as though in a haze"), and just as the A section loses steam and collapses, the B section’s basic eighth note pulse steadily slows to near stillness. A short coda restores the energy and material of the A section.

Dedicated to his eldest daughter, Laura, the piece was intended to reflect life at home with an eighteen-month-old child. "Her boundless energy (when awake)," writes the composer, "and dreamy tranquility (when asleep) were two sides of what now seems like a blissfully simple experience of parenting, especially compared with the current scenario of three children, ages twelve, nine, and six!"

As the five pieces on this recording demonstrate, Edward Smaldone has evolved a musical language that is as visceral as it is intelligent, an accomplishment prompting the American Academy of Arts and Letters to observe that the composer’s "serious concern with the foundational aspects of musical coherence never conflicts–indeed, it becomes a means of achieving–a compositional language that is vital, expressive, and original."

–Perry Goldstein

(Composer Perry Goldstein is a member of the faculty of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.)


MICHAEL BORISKIN, piano, has performed throughout the United States and in over thirty countries. He appeared as soloist with the San Francisco, Seattle, and Utah Symphonies, Polish National Radio Orchestra, Bavarian Symphony of Munich, American Composers Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, UNAM Philharmonic of Mexico City, and many others. Boriskin has performed at venues including Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, BBC, Theatre des Champs-Elysèes in Paris, Vienna's Arnold Schoenberg Center, and others. His innovative National Public Radio series, Centuryview, was heard regularly for three seasons across America. Boriskin's extensive discography ranges widely from Brahms and Tchaikovsky to the present on a variety of labels. Boriskin is presently Artistic Director of The Copland Heritage Association.

DONALD PIRONE, piano, enjoys a distinguished career as soloist, chamber musician, and concerto performer. Pirone has appeared throughout the country and in several major concert halls, including Carnegie Recital Hall. Pirone has premiered and commissioned several new works throughout his career, including Edward Smaldone's Three Scenes from "The Heartland." Mr. Pirone, who resides in New York, is a member of the performance faculty at the Aaron Copland School of Music, at Queens College, and heads the piano and chamber music departments at The Center for Preparatory Studies in Music at Queens College. He has recorded for Koch International, Musical Heritage Society, Grenadilla Records, CRI, and Capstone recording companies.

ARTHUR FAGEN, conductor, has conducted more than sixty operas in prominent houses throughout the world, including The Lyric Opera of Chicago, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Vienna State Opera, and the Munich State Opera. Equally active on the concert podium, Fagen has conducted the Czech Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, Jerusalem Symphony, Prague Symphony Orchestra, among others. A native New Yorker, Fagen studied at Wesleyan University and the Curtis Institute. He served as first conductor of the Kassel and Brauschweig Operas as well as Chief Conductor of the Flemish Opera Antwerp and Ghent (1983-86). He has been the Music Director of the Queens Symphony Orchestra since 1989.

For almost thirty years, SPECULUM MUSICAE has been internationally recognized for its meticulously prepared and passionately rendered performances of the music of our time. Allen Blustine is a longtime champion of new music and has performed dozens of premieres, including works by Milton Babbitt, Donald Martino, Elliott Carter and Wayne Peterson. Blustine is Executive Director of Speculum Musicae and is on the faculty of Columbia University. Curtis Macomber, violin, has appeared in recital and as soloist at Carnegie Recital Hall, the Kennedy Center, and many other venues here and abroad. Macomber was a member of the New World String Quartet for eleven years (1982-1993). He is on the faculties of the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. Andrè Emelianoff, cello, is a member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, principal cellist for the New York Chamber Symphony and a member of the faculty of the Juilliard School. He has worked closely with many leading American composers, including Joan Tower, George Perle, and Elliott Carter.

The MUNICH RADIO ORCHESTRA was founded in 1952 with the expressed aim of creating an orchestra which could perform the most challenging "serious music" as well as jazz and lighter popular fare. To that end the orchestra has an enormously varied repertoire which includes opera, operetta, musicals, popular compositions, rarely heard symphonic works, film music and "jazz meets symphony." Through a busy and varied concert and recording schedule the orchestra has performed with such noted artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Lalo Shifrin, Grady Tate, Bobby McFerrin and has appeared in both traditional concert settingssuch as the Salzburg Culture Festival at the Vienna Music Association and at the Lucienne and Zurich Jazz Festivals.