Valerie Coleman: Shotgun Houses; Richard Danielpour: Four Angels; James Lee III: Clarinet Quintet; Ben Shirley: High Sierra Sonata
Anthony McGill (clarinet); Pacifica Quartet
Cedille CDR 90000 216 72:58 mins
New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinettist Anthony McGill writes in his note that when making an album you are ‘sending the world a message in a bottle to the future’. The weight of good intentions certainly can’t be ignored in a programme where every work consciously reflects the composers’ feelings about injustice towards African-Americans and Native Americans, about the life lessons learned on a marathon run in the High Sierras, and the formative experiences of Muhammad Ali.
Putting the album’s agenda to one side, easily the most satisfying piece is James Lee III’s eloquent Quintet, which muses on Native American traditions and experience with imagination, wit and grace, and gives plenty of chances for virtuoso display from McGill and the ebullient Pacifica Quartet. Its third-movement lament, bristling with tension, is especially welcome after the droopy elegy of Richard Danielpour’s Four Angels, a musically underwhelming response to the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
The remaining two pieces have their ups and downs. Valerie Coleman’s skill at writing for winds brightens her patchy Muhammad Ali tribute, Shotgun Houses, a particular beneficiary of the album’s excellent recording. Ben Shirley’s High Sierra Sonata isn’t a sonata, but its meditative clarinet solos certainly evoke high altitude grandeur, and the changeable moods, plus one cheerful tune, keep the listener moderately engaged if not always convinced. Whatever the future gets from all this, goodness knows; but I’ll stick with today and cherish James Lee’s Quintet.