I like Barnaby Rayfield’s description of Laura Elise Schwendinger’s music, in his feature article in Fanfare 36:4 as “not girly music.” I would go further and add an emphatic this is “so not girly music.” Punchy, imaginative, subtle,
stirring, evocative—all these terms apply. She studied with John Adams, which doesn’t seem to have harmed her much. Schwendinger’s music is worth more than anything Adams has churned out so far. The 2002 piece High Wire Act was inspired by the circus figures of Alexander Calder. There are
five movements. The first, also called “High Wire Act,” is remarkably effective given the careful depictions given by the composer about what the music actually represents—not only the artists themselves but also (in the high string harmonics) the sounds of the trapeze apparatus itself. The performance itself is acrobatic indeed, and beautifully managed. It stands on its own perfectly without a priori knowledge of the program. The frozen second movement (“The Rope Walker”), finds stasis perhaps representing the hesitancy of the walker. The writing for the instruments is expert. The third movement, “The Aerialist,” is a love song for flute and viola, here played by a real-life husband and wife (the two, love song and marriage, aren’t exclusive in America yet, are they?). A shimmering trapped bird features next, fighting for its freedom: wonderfully written, wonderfully played. The very brief finale uses rhythmic unison used to good effect. The Nonet (2003), played here by its dedicatees, the Chicago Chamber Musicians, is a tribute to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, specifically a tribute to those works’ “exuberant tutti style writing.” The link to Stravinsky is particularly apparent in the
acerbic language and pithy use of motifs. The central slow movement presents needed calm, along with the occasional nod to Copland. Jasmine Lin’s solo violin is particularly noteworthy here, miraculously pure and expressive. The finale is less outgoing than one might expect from what has been heard so far, while keeping the Stravinskian links intact. The flute and cello duet Rumor of 2004 intrigues not only in the combination of instruments, but in the counterpoint, which the composer herself describes, aptly, as “sinewy.”
Lasting a full 15 minutes, the Sonata for Solo Violin (1992) is a work of some substance. Schwendinger sets out her expressive credentials in the opening Lullaby, beautifully played by a close-miked Katie Wolfe. The central Arioso takes the lyricism and effectively interiorizes it still further. All credit to Katie
Wolfe’s bow control and sensitive phrasing here, not to mention her perfectly judged stoppings. Her playing is simply mesmeric. The first two movements are perfectly counterbalanced by the show of the finale (marked Con bravura). The final piece we hear,
Two Little Whos (2006) is another reference to marriage (the title is taken from E. E. Cummings) and is played by another husband and wife team, Beth Ilana Schneider-Gould and Matt Gould. The dialog between the players is often complex, sometimes confrontational. There is a particularly effective use of a repeated gesture of pizzicato violin in tandem with guitar that is most endearing.
In short, a most fascinating disc of chamber music by a composer who I hope to hear more of. - Colin Clarke
In Fanfare 36:4, I wrote of being impressed by three concertos composed by Laura Elise Schwendinger. Now that Centaur has issued a representative sample of her chamber music, it s possible to get a broader sense of the skill and imagination she brings to her creative efforts. These are earlier works from her portfolio, and while they share with the concertos an inherent lyrical nature, a chromatically tinged harmonic context, and use of instrumental color as an
element of formal design, they are also much more compact in shape and succinct in statement.
The album takes its name from the five-movement High Wire Act (2005), for flute, violin, viola, cello, and piano. Each movement essays a different rhythmic effect—buoyant contrasts, overlapping and drifting voices, ostinatos, soaring birdsong over animated like—and although the composer has attached to
them titles meant to suggest circus acrobatics, it’s just as easy to think of them as evocations of Nature, especially as the melodic contours, emphasis on the flute, and the tension between impressionist and Expressionist perspectives here were, to my mind, reminiscent of the nature-inspired music of Toru Takemitsu. On the other hand, Schwendinger acknowledges the influences of Bach and Stravinsky on the Nonet (2003), and beyond the vibrant rhythms of the opening and closing movements, there is more than a trace of Stravinsky’s harmonic tang and, specifically, paraphrases from and allusions to Le Sacre du Printemps woven through the hypnotic slow inner movement. Likewise, it’s tempting to listen for references to Bach in the Sonata for Solo Violin (1992), but this is not a neobaroque exercise; these three movements project an eloquent, angular, gripping, and decidedly modern point of view without overindulging in elaborate figuration, offering a dignified use of virtuosity. If I am less taken with the briefer duos, Rumor (2004) for flute and cello, and Two Little Whos (2006) for violin and guitar, it’s not due to a lack of charm, but ather a lack of development; Schwendinger’s music is more impressive in an expansive, rather than concise, mode.
Once again, Schwendinger has attracted performers who put her music in the best possible light. My only reservation occurs in the Nonet; while the playing of the Chicago Chamber Musicians is undeniably elegant, I think the opening and closing movements might have benefited from a bit more vigor. But that’s a minor quibble to what is otherwise a program of deft and inventive music, worthy of notice.
- Art Lange, FANFARE Issue 37:1
The first composer to win the American Academy in Berlin Prize, Laura Elise Schwendinger, is a Professor at UW-Madison. Her music, described as "evok(ing)..serene mystery and infinite beauty” (Fanfare), “evince(ing) an acute sonic imagination and sure command of craft.” (Chicago Tribune), “darkly attractive, artful and moving…” (NYT) and “shrewd composing, the genuine article. Onto the ‘season's best’ list it goes.” (Boston Globe) has been performed by leading artists of our day including Dawn Upshaw (on tour 1997-2013) and on Voices of Our Time, a TDK/Naxos DVD) , Janine Jansen, Matt Haimovitz, the Arditti and Jack Quartets, Trinity Choir, the New Juilliard Players, the Franz Liszt chamber orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra, at venues including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tullyat Lincoln Center, Wigmore Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Ojai, Aspen, Tangelwood and Ravinia music festivals, and Off-Broadway in the acclaimed Sounding Beckett project. Her honors include those from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Fromm and Koussevitzky Foundations, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, two from the American Academy of Arts of Arts and Letters (including a Leiberson Fellowship given to“mid-career composer of exceptional gifts”), the Harvard Musical Association, Chamber Music America, NewMusic USA, the Copland House, the MacDowell, Yaddo colonies and the, Bellagio and Bogliasco Centers, as well as first-prize of the ALEA III Competition. Upcoming commissions and performances for the Lincoln Trio, JACK Quarte, Miranda Cuckson, Curt Macomber, and Matt Haimovitz’s Ucello Ensemble. Her C’è la Luna Questa Sera?, recorded by the Lincoln Trio, and released on Cedille’s Notable Women in 2011 (described as a "hidden gem" in the UK Guardian), received great critical praise. William Zagorski (Fanfare) wrote of it“it evokes a sense of serene mystery and infinite beauty.”
Her Albany CD, 3 Works for solo Instruments and Orchestra, featuring Matt Haimovitz, Curt Macomber and Christina Jennings-- reviewed as "ballsy, confident music making in both writing and execution and proves that serious music does not have to dumb down to be immediately accessible and emotional. Highly recommended." by Barnaby Rayfield in Fanfare, was just released in December 2012. Her CD, High Wire Acts will be released by Centaur in July, 2013.