The downside of labelling music easy listening, accessible, having audience appeal, is that it often turns out to be going nowhere. The technique that goes into creating high octane ideas that will drive a symphonic score through all its stages of development to a conclusion that leaves the discerning listener elated takes time and most particularly a self-critical and objective awareness.
The problem for Karen Amrhein is that she does not appear to have been challenged by rigorously robust creative standards. She certainly has some compositional competence, and the ballet music Little Nemo in Slumberland that occupies the first seven tracks of her 2004 CD Fresh Produce provides some evidence of her facility in the making of attractive melodies, with neat instrumental colouring and fundamental harmonisation. As ballet music it works quite well
[listen -- track 4, 0:00-0:40],
and yet in more extended passages it wanders in an improvisatory fashion
[listen -- track 3, 0:00-1:28].
This is not too serious; a lot of ballet music, like film and TV music, does the same. It is when such a composer calls pieces sonatas, concertos and symphonies that the aimless wandering proves an insensitivity to the concepts of structural organisation and thematic development. There is a violin sonata here, dating from 1996 (the earliest music on the disc); a concerto for guitar called Hamilton Street Concerto of 1998 (played very well by Oscar López Plaza) which has some appealing sounds but in which the soloist is rather under-recorded
[listen -- track 11, 0:00-1:20];
and Event Horizon, a strange clarinet concerto (Richard Stoltzman as soloist) for which the sleeve notes seem far more obscure (it relates to William J Kaufmann's Black Holes and Warped Spacetime) than the music. The idea, worthy of the late György Ligeti, is not matched here. There is some breadth in the opening to the movement called Night but it too soon gravitates to the folk spiritual
[listen -- track 22, 0:46-2:07]
and there is potential in the imaginative use of rhythm and tuned percussion in the final movement
[listen -- track 23, 0:01-1:03].
Like the ballet, the Symphony of Seasons was originally written for the Peabody Wind Ensemble and orchestrated in 2003. In attempting symphonic structure it takes on more than its composer can manage in succinct musical discussion
[listen -- track 34, 0:00-1:31].
Amrhein is fortunate in having the Slovak Radio Symphony with conductor Kirk Trevor providing such committed performances of all the orchestral works (Trevor has recently -- 10 June 2006 -- directed a concert performance of Little Nemo with the Missouri Symphony in Columbia).
It is difficult to find any biographical information on Amrhein beyond her age (36) and American nationality; no details are given in the brief sleeve notes. After a couple of hearings, I came from the CD feeling all the fine players deserved more skill from their composer, but perhaps she's successful enough without that. Pleasant sounds!
Copyright © 5 August 2006
Patric Standford, Wakefield UK
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'Fresh Produce' - Music by Karen Amrhein
8 25346 41202 3 Stereo FIRST RELEASE 72'16" 2004 Karen Amrhein
Nicholas Currie, violin; Lisa Rehwoldt, piano; Oscar López Plaza, guitar; Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Mariner String Quartet (Nicholas Currie; Phanos Dymiotis; Michael Strauss; Adam Gonzalez); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kirk Trevor, conductor
Karen Amrhein (born 1970): Little Nemo in Slumberland (ballet for orchestra); Hamilton Street Concerto (for guitar and chamber orchestra) (Allegro; Episode 1; Autumn Woods; Episode 2; Episode 3; After Purcell); String Quartet No 2 (Fanfare; Reflection; Danse Rêve; Variations); Event Horizon (for clarinet and chamber orchestra) (Prelude; Night; Event Horizon); Symphony of Seasons (for orchestra) (Autumn; Anthem & 7 variations; Winter; Spring; Summer)
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