This review should open with a disclaimer. Alexa Still is a member of the Flute Journal Editorial Board. As such, we might appear to be prejudiced towards her. However, the reasons for her inclusion on our team are precisely the reasons I would hold up these recordings for great admiration. There are three of them: quality, quality and quality. Not only that; they exactly fulfil our stated goal of expanding horizons for all flutists. A New Zealand born, USA based artist here interprets the work of a Venezuela born, USA based composer to produce music of depth, color and vision.
Referred to as an “International flute icon” Alexa Still has studied with Samuel Baron and Thomas Nyfenger in the US, taught at universities in the US and Australia, graced orchestras in New Zealand and America, been the recipient of a Fulbright Award and was president of the National Flute Association. She is now settled as a tenured professor at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where she is greatly admired. “Few individuals so brilliantly combine superb musicianship with a unique capacity for mentorship” writes the conservatory’s dean David H. Still, It has been, in my opinion, a brilliantly managed career as she has allowed herself to achieve a breadth of vision while building a great foundation for teaching and performing. If these recordings are anything to go by, her time at Oberlin will also produce a permanent archive of fresh, exemplary flute performance, not too mention some significant additions to the repertoire.
A) SYZYGY – Alexa Still Plays The Flute Music of Efrain Amaya. Oberlin Music, 2018
The Oberlin Conservatory has its own record label, Oberlin Music, and a group of top-level artists on the faculty eager to contribute to it. Alexa takes advantage of both for this, her second recording for the label. It is her choice of material, however, which distinguishes this session. Efrain Amaya is a composer and conductor, originally from Venezuela but currently residing in North Dakota (Minot State University) after an extensive stint at Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Amaya brings extensive roots in Venezuelan music, modified by training in composition and conducting in Indiana and Texas and a subsequent 30 year involvement with teaching, composition and performance in the USA.
This has resulted in a unique music, relatively free of the excesses of contemporary compositional practice, while no longer Latin music as such. Alexa Still credits fellow flutist Jeanne Baxtresser with introducing her to Amaya‘s music over a decade ago, while she was still teaching at the Sydney Conservatorium. Her response was immediate: “The very first time I encountered the music of Efraín Amaya, I fell in love with the soaring melodies, the raw energy, the emotion, and the stories.” It has taken some time, and a move to the USA for her to act on it, however. “. . . it needed my wonderful colleagues and the environs of Oberlin for this project to come to life.”
Come to life it has. The resulting CD consists of six pieces written by Amaya between 1997 and 2014 and is named after a movement in the recording’s opening piece, Jubilee. Syzygy means “working together toward a common goal.” This initially referred to flutist Carlyn Lloyd and pianist John Warfel as the piece was originally written commemorate their 20th anniversary of working together. As the other selections unfold we do indeed experience that same syzygy between Prof. Still and her colleagues — pianist Robert Shannon on Malagagi The Sorcerer (along with Tasiaeafe Hiner on wine glass and rainstick), Duo Ami and Archipiélagos, cellist Darret Adkins on Pre-sent, flutist Aram Mun on Pathways, and, of course, between Alexa and the composer Efrain Malaya. And we do indeed hear soaring melodies, raw energy, almost raw emotion and, throughout, the telling of stories and painting of pictures.
Alexa Still and her colleagues have produced something of real value here. Quite apart from the immaculate interpretation and execution of the music by all concerned, the thought that has gone into this production, the selection of new music expands the repertoire without venturing into, and beyond, the “varicose veins of incessant chromaticism” or the “military discipline of atonalism” complained of by Paul Henry Lang, does a great service to modern music. Efrain Amaya shows that the introduction of influences from traditionally overlooked music traditions such as those of Venezuela brings a freshness and vitality to an orthodoxy growing increasingly sclerotic, while an artist of the stature of Alexa Still demonstrates that story-telling, color and passion still hold a central place in music. As Still relates:
All of my projects are of music that I think people don’t know well enough or don’t know at all. I want to be making a contribution. I don’t see the point in making another Mozart concerto CD. Recordings are really a great way of making the repertoire available to a much bigger audience, and I think the chances of people listening to this and deciding to go play it are really high.
Congratulations to Alexa Still, Efrain Amaya and Oberlin Music. Highly recommended.
Oberlin Music 2018
Alexa Still (flute), James Howsmon (piano), Robert Walters (cor anglais), George Sakakeeny (bassoon), Richard Hawkins (clarinet), Robert Walters (oboe)
Along with her explorations of Efrain Maya‘s music, Alexa Still and her Oberlin Conservatory colleagues have made further contributions to the enrichment of the contemporary repertoire with a recording of the wind sonatas of Paul Hindemith. Not that Hindemith is unknown or, in any way, obscure, but I would challenge readers to recall the last time they found his name in any concert program. Music, like many things, has a way of going in and out of fashion, and the wide-ranging innovations and meticulous craftsmanship Hindemith exhibits in his work has somehow become alienated from contemporary concerns. Realising this, the Oberlin group decided to give fresh readings to a series of sonatas for wind instruments that Hindemith originally wrote within a five year period between 1936 and 1941, as part of his own efforts to add quality material to the instrumental repertoire, an effort that resulted in sonatas for the complete string, woodwind and brass families.
The common denominator here is pianist James Howsman, Oberlin professor of instrumental accompaniment, who was the driving force behind this project, and the pianist on all the selections. The first piece featured is the first one written by Hindemith, the Sonata for Flute and Piano from 1936, here performed by Howsman and Alexa Still. Claiming that he could master any orchestral instrument if he put his mind to it (he was known as a violist, pianist and clarinetist), Hindemith attempts to bring out the essential characteristics of each instrument in his writing. For the flute this is a wind-ranging exploration of melody and color, in his typical neoclassical style with its unexpected internal twists and turns. “Rather than being a huge innovator,” writes accompanist Howsman, “Hindemith took his inspiration from past eras, and yet he had a really wonderful approach to it. He took old models and made them look new, and no matter how wild he gets, you can always find where his starting point was, and it was always 150 years before. He’s like a master furniture builder- a total craftsman. There have been others who have done that, of course, but to me he is the best of them.” As with the Amaya pieces, Ms. Still applies the same breadth of sound quality and expressiveness to this work, creating a soundscape exactly suited to Hindemith’s mix of meticulousness and quirkiness.
Beneath the neoclassical sheen there lurks an innovative approach to tonality that Hindemith explored throughout his life, one which brought him an impressive list of followers and students, both in Germany and the USA where he settled after escaping Nazi persecution in 1940. This leads his muse away from the mathematical complications of the post-war atonal school while providing a freshness that is accessible to contemporary interpreters. (I became aware of Hindemith through his extensive correspondence with the Pythagorean theorist Hans Kayser, and their mutual interest in what Hermann Hesse was to call the Glass Bead Game.) It is most invigorating to pull back from these intellectual pursuits, however, and experience these concepts turned into pure music.
There are a good number of performances of this sonata available, but Alexa‘s new contribution is as beautiful executed as you could wish for. The other sonatas in the collection are delivered at an equally high level, and the collection is rounded off with Prof. Still‘s rendition of a little coda, named Echo, written for flute and piano by Hindemith in 1942.
Given the added value of the rigorously prepared program notes, this is a high-quality product on every level. Even for a flutist, focused on flute repertoire and perhaps interested in performing the Hindemith sonata, attention to the whole collection should be part of your preparations and this is the place to find it.
We can only look forward to the next offering from Oberlin Music. Hopefully, Alexa Still will influence them to produce some more essential items of flute repertoire.
Review by Peter Westbrook
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