Fanfare

The incredibly prolific Carson Cooman—no stranger to these pages as both a Fanfare reviewer and as a composer—has almost reached (and by the time these lines appear in print, likely surpassed) the milestone of 1,000 opus numbers (virtually all works of brief duration) in his personal catalog at the age of only 31. That statistic of compositional fecundity is likely to invite skeptically raised eyebrows as to the quality of his work. On that score (pun intended), previous opinions in this magazine has been somewhat divided, though mostly favorable. His work has met with high praise from Michael Cameron (“Cooman has a compelling and personal voice”), David DeBoor Canfield (“Simply put, the more of Cooman’s music I hear, the more I like it.”), Robert Carl (“… despite this unremitting rate of production, each piece sounds quite fully formed and polished, doesn’t fall back on cliché, and strives for real expressive connection with the listener.”), and Walter Simmons (“… one of the most fascinating of today’s youngest generation of composers”), with Canfield placing one CD he reviewed on his 2011 Want List. Even the dissenting voices of Phillip Scott (“… the time and effort that went into composing these fragments … might have been better spent working on a single, knockout opus. He has the talent and facility in spades to do that.”) and Ronald E. Grames (“The works are attractive, accessible, well crafted,…[but] are rarely challenging to the listener or technically progressive. And sadly, since Cooman is clearly a composer with skills and energy, they do not—at least based on the small sample I have experienced—create any coherent picture of a mature talent.”) clearly believe that Cooman is a composer of great promise who has the ability to go much farther. My own reaction here falls somewhere in between.

This disc opens strongly with the song cycle Chasing the Moon Down . Dating from 2009, the work was commissioned by trumpeter Chris Gekker; the lyrics are a cycle of four poems by his sister, Katherine Gekker. Bearing the titles of the four seasons and beginning with “Winter,” each poem uses that season, and the activities of the family dog in them, as mirrors for reflection upon some personal tragedy or misfortune—the suicide of a friend, an unspecified but grave accident that has left deep physical scars, the destruction of a garden by a storm, an undefined illness. The texts are skillfully crafted, the images and allusions highly effective, and they have called forth music worthy of them, in tonal language highly reminiscent of Samuel Barber at his best. This composition is a genuine masterpiece—no other word will do—and ought to take its place immediately in the pantheon of great American art songs. One only regrets that the unusual need for a trumpet player in addition to a pianist (a magnificently imaginative stroke) may preclude that from occurring. Cooman is most fortunate to have a marvelous vocal exponent in mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sadej, who is nothing short of enthralling. Hers is a stunningly rich, beautiful voice, with a deep, perfectly centered vibrato and pitch allied to profound expressiveness. Judging by the booklet photo she is still quite young; I dearly hope she goes on to the major career her performance here suggests she deserves. Trumpeter Chris Gekken and pianist Jeffrey Grossman, both of whom have championed Cooman’s music on past releases, are quite able if less remarkable collaborators.

However, while most of the rest of this disc proved enjoyable to varying degrees, none of the other pieces on it come even close to matching the outstanding opener. The one other work that has really caught my fancy is the Autumn Sun Canticle for trumpet and piano, composed in 2005 to commemorate the recently deceased jazz musician Bob Stata. Contrary to the expectations that connection might raise, it has no jazz character whatsoever, but is instead a quiet, reflective elegy. I find it quite appealing, and it makes a fine addition to the trumpet repertoire. I am somewhat less taken with Quidnet Shadows and Woodbury Sestina , both works dating from 2009. The former is a musical sketch of a region of Nantucket Island, “inspired by beach shadows cast in evening light.” The usual combination of flugelhorn and harp in it actually works well enough sonically, but the music itself, while unobjectionable, meanders without much purposeful direction. As for the latter work, Cooman succinctly states in his booklet notes that “the piece unfolds as a single modal melody with an improvisatory character.” It comes across as a fragment rather than a finished piece; a trumpet counterpart to Debussy’s brilliant miniature Syrinx for flute it is not. Like Autumn Sun Canticle , the three short piano pieces (all dating from 2011) are also all of a more quiet, meditative character, with Cantus II and Yizkor also written to commemorate the passing of loved ones of the persons who commissioned those works. Of these, I liked Cantus II rather less than the other two, but all three are pleasant if unmemorable.

The other major work on this disc (and almost certainly the reason why I received it for review, as a onetime player of lower brass instruments) is the Tuba Sonata, composed in 2007. This is as severe a disappointment as Chasing the Moon Down is an unexpected joy. As Ralph Vaughan Williams in particular has proved, the tuba can be a wonderfully melodious and expressive instrument. Here, however, it is treated as merely a grumpy, grumbling noise-maker, as if Cooman decided he needs here to produce something atonal and discordant to prove his “street cred” with certain mandarins of musical academia. The three movements, titled “Speaking of Sunsets,” “Build Me a Garden,” and “Rising at Dawn,” are not even remotely descriptive of how the work sounds. (I won’t state here the alternative and far more accurate titles that came to my mind while hearing this; suffice it to say that they would win me a mention in an updated version of Nicholas Slonimsky’s The Lexicon of Musical Invective .) The first and third movements employ much pointless eruptive bluster from the tuba and angry jangling at the keyboard; the slow middle movement has some latent appeal, but not a great deal, certainly not enough to offset the disagreeable contents of the outer two movements.

For me, the most telling point about this disc is that, except for the song cycle and the Canticle , it has not worn particularly well with repeatedly hearings. The first time I heard it, I was prepared to give a very positive review to everything except the Tuba Sonata, which I found repellant from the start; but as I kept going back and listening again, the other short pieces impressed me more and more as being ephemeral. Unlike Grames, I am not particularly concerned with whether or not the works “challenge” me or are “technically progressive”; nor am I concerned with how “original” the composer’s voice might be. I am only concerned with whether the music is good, for what it purports to be. On that, I render a split verdict here. Chasing the Moon Down is stunning; Autumn Sun Canticle is very good; the various short pieces are agreeable though not remarkable; only the Tuba Sonata is a real disappointment.

The production values are high: the booklet provides the song texts, notes on each of the works, extensive biographical sketches of the composer and each of the performers, a color photo gallery and a striking cover photo taken by the composer, and full technical details regarding production of the recording. (The back tray card has one minor typo: it omits noting that pianist Jeffrey Grossman also plays in track 8, the Autumn Sun Canticle , though that fact is duly noted on the inside front cover.) Despite being recorded in three different venues over three years, the sonic results are quite uniform, being warm, clear, and well balanced. All the participating artists give fine performances that reveal their commitment to Cooman’s music, though again Sadej is in a class all by herself.

On the whole, then, I find my verdict here lining up most closely with that of Phillip Scott. Cooman is clearly not just a talented composer, but a genuinely gifted one who has potentially a tremendous amount to offer. But he needs to step back, be more self-critical, and refrain from publishing every musical thought that comes to mind. If he does that, and takes the time to hone his craft and produce fewer works of greater substance, rather than a great many occasional pieces on commission, I believe we could all be in his debt for some genuine masterpieces of the first rank. I am sorely tempted to recommend the disc solely for the sake of the song cycle—it’s that good—but that is less than 15 minutes of music, with the Canticle adding only another five to that. I also feel dissatisfied with myself here; I wish I could have stuck with the much stronger endorsement I would have given the disc on a single hearing. As it stands, it’s your call whether or not Chasing the Moon Down is worth the investment.

—James A. Altena