Friday, October 11, 2019

Music and Message Get Muddled on Oboe Album

from the Web page for the album being discussed

Recently my attention was brought to an album of music for oboe and English horn (cor anglais) that was released by MSR Classics this past May. The title of the album is Botanica; and the soloist is Sara Fraker, accompanied at the piano by Casey Robards. The advance material on the Web page for this album calls it “a musical entry point into current conversations around environmental and social justice” through “intersections between the human and botanical worlds.”

Explicit evidence of those intersections can be found on two of the compositions on the album, an elegy for oboe and piano composed by Glen Roven shortly before his death in 2018, whose two movements are entitled “Blight-Killed Eucalyptus” and “Pale Pink, Dark Pink,” and “Braiding: Lessons from Braiding Sweetgrass,” completed by Asha Srinivasan in 2017. Somewhat of a stretch may be found in Hugo Godron’s 1939 Suite Bucolique, whose title may reflect the botanical world but whose movements have more to do with latter-day reflections on Baroque forms and rhetoric. On the other hand, any “conversations” to be found in Vladimír Soukup’s oboe sonata probably have more to do with Paul Hindemith and that composer’s predilection for composing for as many different instruments as possible than with the “botanical world.”

Most enigmatic, however, is the framing of the album by two compositions by Pavel Haas. His 1939 three-movement suite for oboe and piano was written in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Moravia; and it is hard to imagine that his mind was occupied with anything other than getting as far away from Europe as possible. Sadly, the opportunity to move to the United States came only after he had been deported to Theresienstadt, which is where the first selection on this album was composed, a set of four songs based on Chinese poetry, originally composed for baritone and piano and transcribed by Fraker for English horn and piano.

Ultimately, this is an album based on good intentions that do not go very far. The attentive listener would do best to dispense with conversations and intersections and simply appreciate the quality of Fraker’s intonation, instrumental sonorities, and a sense of rhetoric that may well be more capable in serving the abstract, rather than the concrete. After all, most listeners are likely to be unfamiliar with every composition that Fraker has chosen to perform; and, among the composers, the name most likely to be recognized is Haas by virtue of his connection with Theresienstadt.

Note to Fraker: If you wish to hold a conversation “around environmental and social justice,” the best way to draw attention is to find just the right words with the same sort of skill that enabled composers like Haas to find just the right notes, even in the face of catastrophic adversity.

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