Music Monday: Galbraith: Bassoon Sonata

Generally, when I discover a work via a recording instead of a live performance, it’s a recording on Spotify. I still like CDs, but my budget is limited, and if I bought a physical copy of every album I listened to online, I would literally be unable to afford rent or food. (I’d probably be able to build a pretty sizable room from all the jewel cases, tho.) Today’s piece is an exception: I first encountered it on a CD I bought on a whim at the final concert of the 2016 Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition at the Colburn School, and on my very first listen, I fell in love. When I decided to write about it for Music Monday, I assumed that I’d be able to find it to link to on Spotify. The good news is that there is indeed a recording I can link to, but the bad news is that it’s a different recording, and one that I’m not very fond of. I’m still sharing it, because I think the piece holds up, but if you’re on the fence about it and have $10 to spare, the Nicolasa Kuster recording is superior in every way, and comes with a bunch of other interesting bassoon repertoire to boot.

Assessments of recording quality aside, Nancy Galbraith is a force to be reckoned with in the contemporary United States composition scene. Born into a musical family in Pittsburgh in 1951, she received her first piano lessons at the age of four from her mother, the pianist and organist Alverta Hoffman Riddle. Her family was actively involved in their Christ Lutheran Church, and Galbraith sang in the church choir, which drew heavily from the music of JS Bach; Galbraith enjoyed this so much that she often stayed for the second service just so she could sing the music again. By the time she got to college (Ohio University), she had started playing clarinet as well as piano, but when she took a class in composition, the professor, Karl Ahrendt, insisted that she switch from performance to composition — prior to that point she hadn’t realized that writing new classical music was even a thing that a person could do.

Later studies would take her to West Virginia University before she returned to pursue advanced composition back in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon, where she is currently the Chair of the composition department. Despite being back close to home, her works have gained international acclaim, with regular performances in Europe as well as Latin America in addition to all those she receives in the United States. Her chamber and choral catalogues are extensive, but she feels most drawn to larger ensembles, especially the wind ensemble for its range of colors (including a large percussion section) and eagerness to play new works. In addition to her work writing music and teaching her students how to do the same, she’s been actively involved in the engineering process for many of her recordings, and regularly speaks on the issue of women’s underrepresentation in the field of composition.

Bassoon performance as a field is also not free of such gender imbalances, and the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition is dedicated to redressing them by hosting an international competition for female bassoon players. (It’s not clear from their website whether they exclude trans women — given the general paucity of transfeminine bassoonists, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the issue has never come up.) Galbraith didn’t write her bassoon sonata specifically for the competition (she wrote it for Eric Goldman, who premièred the work in 2005 at Carnegie Mellon), but in 2007 it was included in the repertoire that the contestants had to learn, so it makes sense that there would be a recording of it on sale at the 2016 symposium. And it also makes sense that Kuster would have recorded it: She is a Founding Co-Director of the competition. It really is too bad that her recording isn’t on Spotify.

Rather than hers, we get Christin Schillinger’s, which is still solidly serviceable. The first movement starts with a burst of piano chords that unfolds with deliberate awkwardness into a short fanfare before the first bassoon entrance, playing a long line full of large leaps and short sequences. After a second pass thru this music, the opening fanfare returns in condensed form, ebbing into a gentler, more lyrical section. There’s a brief outburst where the bassoon tries to relaunch the more vigorous opening material, but it is to little avail, at least until the bassoon takes several dramatic tumbles down across several octaves. In the rhythmic dance that ensues, Schillinger pulls back just before the final rush, but I think it’s more compelling to keep it forte all the way as Kuster does.

As with the first movement, the second begins with a piano introduction, tho this one is less a fanfare and more a distant chiming of bells. Fragments of melody flit about in the upper register over deep pedal tones, creating an air of crystalline mystery. When the bassoon comes in, it too is limited to fragments at first. Gradually a melody emerges out of these, but the air of tranquility remains. As the melody lengthens, the piano begins a series of upwards arpeggios, which seem to break the freeze and usher in music of greater motion and warmth. This thaw accelerates until a sweeping out burst brushes away the tumult and leaves the music to fade back into haunting silence.

In the whirlwind finale, all such haunting is left behind. The rhythmically ambiguous opening sets the energetic stage, the meter finally snapping into focus when the bassoon enters playing a jovial, bouncy theme. After the initial perpetual motion machine runs down, it re-starts in a higher octave, the bassoon now playing a joking kind of march. An unaccompanied interlude ensues, leading to a broader, impressionistic wash of rolling arpeggios and smoother lines. This material tumbles together in a light-hearted development (including a plaintive singing interlude in unpredictably shifting meters). There’s another petering out, and the bassoon plays a short cadenza before the opening theme returns back in its original guise to lead the piece to a resounding close.