Heretofore, my exposure to Carson Cooman’s music has been to his organ and chamber music, of which I’ve positively reviewed several CDs. Consequently, I was glad for this opportunity to hear some of his larger-scale works, four of which are included in the present recital. All of these works feature a string orchestra. First heard is In Beauty Walking, a setting of five poems by Mary Austin that adds a soprano to the strings. Austin was a nature writer who specialized in writing about the American Southwest. From the beginning, one’s interest is captivated by arpeggiated solo lines in the strings, underpinning the lyrically expressive vocal line of the cycle’s opening “Morning Song.” The following “Star Song” is beautifully effective in its simplicity: Harmonies are disarmingly direct, and at points the soprano even sings under a solitary sustained D harmonic in the violins. The third piece, “Rain Song,” owes something to the driving pulsation of John Adams, and is wonderfully depictive of a desert storm. Throughout the cycle, Cooman has effectively captured the spirit of the region in his subtle and evocative writing, and his handling both of string instruments and the human voice is masterful. Aiding in the effect of the piece is soprano Leah Crane, who handles these songs with loving care as she caresses the texts with a warmly burnished voice.
Next heard is Sinfonia Concertante, a lovely lyrical exercise full of lush modal chords in the strings, over which the solo violin soars. This work is the most recent of the four, having been written in 2013, and some of the writing reminds me a good bit of the Brook Green Suite of Gustav Hoist. Additionally, the third movement, entitled “Echo Gigue and Cadenza,” has a good bit of Irish lilt and swagger to it, and indeed ends with a cadenza, containing both lyrical and virtuosic elements. Violinist Chloe Trevor, daughter of conductor Kirk Trevor, demonstrates consummate skill in all the important parameters of violin playing. Her bright and expressive tone will please aficionados of the instrument.
Cooman’s Symphony of Light effectively demonstrates the warmth that massed stringed instruments can produce. Its opening movement, “Winter Brightnesses,” could in my opinion just as easily be entitled “Summer Twilight,” but never mind: Its gentle and subdued spirit produces a gorgeous effect, as does the equally gentle following movement, “Eternity Canticle: First Light.” This movement is similar enough to the preceding one that if you’re not paying attention, you might not notice that a new movement is underway. I’m not saying that this is a structural weakness in the work, given the beauty of the music in both movements. With the final movement, “Dawning,” the pace of the piece picks up a good bit, forming some nice contrast to the preceding two movements. Lyrical lines float above the rhythmic activity to splendid effect. I’m not sure I’d call the work a symphony, though, as there seems to be little in the way of symphonic development. I would have opted for a title along the lines of Mystery of Light.
Chloe Trevor makes a reappearance in the final work, Folk Fantasies, to which Cooman also adds some discrete percussion. As in his Sinfonia Concertante, I hear influence of the folk tunes of the British Isles, both in the melodic contours of the lines, and the modal harmonies employed. There are, in fact, folk tunes utilized in this work, but they are all original tunes by Cooman himself. I guess he considers himself one of the “folks.” The British Isles influence isn’t surprising considering that the first movement is entitled “Highland Ballad (Scotland),” but this influence seems to infiltrate the final two movements, “Ceremonial (Nigeria),” and “Circle Dance (America),” as well although somewhat less overtly.
These well-performed works do not make too many demands on the listener, but have substance that will reward repeated auditions. The mood of most of the pieces is such that this would be a perfect CD to unwind to after a hard day’s work. Definitely recommended.