EWAZEN: Classical Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra. Ballade for Clarinet, Harp, and String Orchestra. Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra. Chamber Symphony. 
James Houlik, saxophone; Charles Neidich, clarinet; Marya Martin, flute; Eric Ewazen, piano; Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Paul Polivnick, cond.

ALBANY TROY 477 {DDD} TT: 75:29
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Delightful. I don't know why I like this music so much. I know I was predisposed to like it because Eric Ewazen comes from my home town, so I was rooting for him before I heard a note. How's that for shallow? But, of course, Ewazen's place in the world, fortunately, doesn't depend solely on me. Ewazen has had, for a contemporary composer, a fairly good career. He teaches at Juilliard. He's garnered some nice commissions. The soloists on this program all have notable careers themselves. The music is eminently tonal, with much of its interest stemming from startling harmonic progressions. On the evidence of this CD, I'd say that Ewazen has an original voice, albeit one with a rather modest range. Still, the artistic modesty remains a chief attraction for me, mainly because it seems part and parcel of his composing personality.

The Classical Concerto, written for Houlik, opens with vigorous rhythms and harmonies that leap miles very quickly, all within a strong tonal context. The concerto asks for an heroic soloist with a singing tone, and Houlik fills the role superbly. The slow movement sings beautifully, if a bit eclectically, with a strong modal flavor that reminds me a bit of Hovhaness, Rózsa, and Vaughan Williams now and again. The finale, with its composite rhythms against a large backbeat, recalled Creston, but probably only because I'd been recently listening intensively to Creston. If the influences occasionally peek out, nevertheless, the mix is both original and effective. The concerto itself has a strong profile, much stronger than, for instance, Ward's concerto for Houlik.

Ewazen has also written a Ballade for Trombone, Harp, and Strings. It may turn out, as with the Swiss composer Frank Martin, a series. The Ballade for Clarinet, however, seems to have been inspired by a particular landscape: the rural shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where Ewazen lived as guest composer of Maryland's Tidewater Music Festival. Again, the music, at least the opening and closing, dreams a bit like Rózsa, particularly the Notturno Ungherese, while the orchestration calls to mind Hanson's Serenade and Pastorale. This music sandwiches an exceedingly quick and lively near-moto perpetuo for the clarinet. The quick and the dreamy combine, before the dreamy wins out. The pattern repeats without sinking into dullness. A beautiful work, beautifully played by Neidich, who gives his clarinet the singing quality and gorgeous, heartfelt tone we normally associate with the oboe.

The flute concerto disappointed me somewhat. So much of it struck me as the composer on "automatic," without a clear sense of movement forward, so outstanding in the sax concerto and the Ballade. On the other hand, I'm not terrifically fond of the sound of a solo flute, so this may account for my lack of enthusiasm. The first movement seemed almost mired. Ewazen's "normal" (and I'm really in little position to say what Ewazen's normal is, since I've heard only these works) devices -- the asymmetrical rhythmic skips, the near-willful diatonic chord progressions -- don't pack the same punch as in the other works on the disc. My favorite movement is the scherzo second, which worries a little figure on the flute and manages to sustain momentum from first note to last. The slow movement is okay and certainly well-written but, compared to the Ballade and to its counterpart in the sax concerto, small beer. We already know that Ewazen sings better than this. In character, it reminds me of the Griffes Poem and, for me, exudes an air of "settling," even (or especially) in its initial inspiration. Things get back on track with the attractive finale, which has a gorgeous secondary "big" tune and a charming surprise in its presto coda.

Right now, I think of Ewazen as a composer who knows his limits and keeps within them. But he's still a relatively young man. The Chamber Symphony, from 1985, shows that he may be capable of more. It opens with a roar and a bigger set of ambitions than any other work on the disc. The first movement bounds from the gate in a wide-spanning three-quarter time. One hears the same harmonic and rhythmic quirks, but the composer has turned them to larger expressive ends. Ewazen gives the piano a prominent, though not strictly speaking a soloist's, part, something similar to a continuo, which tends to beef up the sound. The slow movement puts forward a real symphonic argument, rather than just a sweet song. I've nothing against the latter, but it's nice to learn that Ewazen isn't stuck with it. The slightly eerie ending with celesta and cymbals raptured me out. The finale, "big-shoulders" music, nevertheless manages to dance. My one quibble with the work is that the composer too often doubles the orchestra with the piano, rather than create a separate, contributory part.

The Chamber Symphony counts as my favorite work on the program. I hope Ewazen can build on it, because modesty is all very well, but it tends to wear after a while, if that's all you do. I compare Ewazen with someone like Arnold Rosner, who uses many of the same tricks and manages to produce a much wider emotional range: from charm to epic. Unfortunately, this isn't really something an artist can will. The empty epic is ponderous, even ludicrous. The best advice any artist can take is the old chestnut, "To thine own self be true." You express what matters to you in the way that suits you best. If Ewazen is truly an American FranÁaix, rather than a Poulenc, so be it, but he won't know until he takes the chance.

The recorded sound is a bit raw, too heavy on the treble. The playing of the Prague Chamber Orchestra reminded me a little of the orchestras from odd corners of Europe on the old CRI recordings: acceptable, if not great.

S.G.S. (May 2002)