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Holding On To What We Can--New Chamber Music from David Biedenbender


Just a quick thank you for bearing with my July absence. It was the first extended vacation we've had in a very long time. Back to mostly regular posts here now starting with this new chamber music release.



Biedenbender: All We Are Given We Cannot Hold Lindsay Kesselman, soprano. Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble; Mingzhe Wang, clarinet. Garth Newel Piano Quartet; Haven Trio Blue Griffin Recording BGR 649 Total Time: 77:54 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****


Michigan-based composer David Biedenbender has a host of works for stage, dance and multimedia. His music blends a diverse range of styles but here we are invited into a more personal set of pieces dealing with important emotional moments or reflections. There are four works here composed across roughly a decade with pieces from 2018 bookending an earlier and later work respectively. The sequencing allows for two settings of poetry by Robert Fanning and music for piano quartet.


The album opens with Shell and Wing (2018), a two-movement work that touches on parents raising children in a world where school shootings are becoming the norm. Underlying the piano lines here are abstracted references to works by Robert Schumann dealing with childhood (Traumerei and Kinderszenen). The opening movement focuses on the harmonic movement of the Schumann but stretched into more intense directions in a lullaby-like vocal line that is often quite stunning. That can be said as well of the way the voice is handled in the second movement as well here which uses a chaconne as a foundational form as a vibraphone adds a hazier, dreamy quality. It is a quite engaging work with gorgeous performances by Lindsay Kesselman. The other setting of Fanning’s work is the album’s title, all we are given we cannot hold (2022). Here she is joined by the Haven Trio for this meditation about the small moments in life across seven different observational texts. The music here is a bit more abstract with some unique contemporary techniques and effects that lend the texts a more dramatic quality. One can also hear the way Biedenbender transforms these slight lines by shifting them through the ensemble and interweaving them with the vocal line.


Clarinetist Mingzhe Wang is joined by the Garth Newel Piano Quartet for the brief chamber work, Red Vespers (2014). The piece has an appropriately reflective quality with a repeated rhythmic and pitch outline out of which sustained notes become a growing blend of sounds that gradually grows ever outward into a poignant blend of sounds. The final work on the album, Solstice (2018), is a four-movement piano quartet. Each movement provides an unique essay on different seasons and is also inspired by the ensemble’s home in the Allegheny Mountains. A bit of Appalachian fiddling is also referenced here in the midst of equally beautiful writing. The opening has a rather interesting rich piano harmonic idea with little figures representing insects-transferred across the ensemble. The motives here are equally at play across the ensemble and there is a fun sense of play as things are moved around the ensemble with different instruments adding perspectives on the ideas of the work. Each season has its own character that comes across well here from the warmer harmonies of Summer to the bleaker moments of Winter and the return of Spring.


Biedenbender’s music invites the listener in often with a slow harmonic base upon which slight motives are placed to provide forward motion into the respective work’s meditation and survey of emotion and response. The warmer harmonic ideas, often blended with a minimalist-like repetition of threads or harmonic progression, helps anchor the music well and often has a warm musical quality that is quite beautiful even when something might try to shatter that sensibility, or ask us to question what the texts or musical lines are saying.


The performances throughout here are quite engaging and committed and they are captured in excellent sound throughout with the ensembles balanced well in the sound picture. This is all quite interesting chamber music that has slight modernist effects within an accessible musical language.

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