Jazz Age, Harlem Renaissance, Irish Airs Mingle On CD

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Anthony McGill, Demarre McGill and Michael McHale have recorded an album of works for flute, clarinet, and piano. (Photo by Matthew Septimus @mcgillab)

Portraits: Works for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano. Chris Rogerson: A Fish Will Rise. Valerie Coleman: Portraits of Langston. Guillaume Connesson: Techno-Parade. Sergei Rachmaninoff arr. Michael McHale: Vocalise. Paul Schoenfield: Sonatina. Philip Hammond: The Lamentation of Owen O’Neil. Irish Traditional arr. McHale: “The Lark in the Clear Air.” McGill/McHale Trio. Demarre McGill, flute. Anthony McGill, clarinet. Michael McHale, piano. Mahershala Ali, narrator. Cedille CDR 90000 172.  (MP3 and FLAC also.) Total Time: 66:17.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – Since 2014, when the brothers Anthony and Demarre McGill – clarinetist and flutist, respectively – first teamed up with Irish pianist Michael McHale, the three have been touring together as the McGill/McHale Trio, anyway in the weeks that the McGills have been able to get away from their orchestra commitments.

Anthony McGill is principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic and his brother Demarre McGill  holds the principal flute chair in the Seattle Symphony. Portraits is a thoughtfully assembled album of mostly contemporary American music that’s sure to win them many new friends.

As there is very little literature for a flute, clarinet and piano combination, the McGill/McHale Trio has had to dig deep and get creative. It has unearthed some neglected pieces and developed some useful arrangements of others. It is debatable whether there are any masterpieces on this CD, but each piece is well worth a hearing and some are richly rewarding and even surprisingly entertaining.

The longest and in some ways most compelling piece is Portraits of Langston by Louisville composer Valerie Coleman. This is a six-movement suite in which each section is preceded by a reading of the poem that inspired it. Langston Hughes (1902-67) was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and a prominent black activist and poet whose poems are read beautifully on this recording by Mahershala Ali, the artist known for his prominent roles in TV’s House of Cards and the 2016 movie Moonlight, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Coleman’s music avoids the obvious cues in “Le Grand Duc Mambo” and “Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret” and instead provides music that is by turns reflective and joyous.

Belfast-born Michael McHale plays both core and contemporary works. (©Leon Gerald)

Another piece on this CD also takes its inspiration from the Jazz Age. Paul Schoenfield’s Sonatina comprises three movements, each of which is based on a dance style of the 1920s. Vaguely reminiscent of Poulenc, this music is much more complex both rhythmically and harmonically, and it is often very funny in its effect, though probably not to the performers who must deal with a wide range of technical challenges.

Demarre McGill is principal flute with the Seattle Symphony. (acm360artists)

French composer Guillaume Connesson’s Techno-Parade, one of the shorter pieces on the CD, is probably also the most daring and exciting selection. The tempo is very fast throughout its four and a half minutes, with both the flute and clarinet often playing in the extremes of their registers; at one point the pianist turns percussionist, running wire brushes across sheets of paper placed inside the piano. This is music that requires the services of three top-notch virtuosos, and that is exactly what it gets on this fantastic recording.

Anthony McGill, on tour as principal with the NY Philharmonic. (acm360artists)

 

 

Rachmaninoff’s familiar Vocalise, surprising in the company of all these recent works by American and French composers, makes an ideal vehicle for the McGill/McHale Trio. We finally get to hear the lyrical side of the flute and the clarinet, and the McGill brothers are more than equal to the task. Even better is a traditional Irish song, “The Lark in the Clear Air,” surely one of the most beautiful melodies one could ever hope to hear. Again, Demarre and Anthony McGill provide ideal beauty of sound and sensitivity for this exquisite gem.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.

Date posted: November 21, 2017

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