Atmospheric poetry

The Minneapolis-born composer Libby Larsen’s output is as varied as it is distinctive. Operas, symphonies, chamber music and songs flow easily from her pen, although her work is far from facile. The strongest piece on this recording, “Songs of Light and Love,” is based on atmospheric poems by May Sarton, which are set to music with an obvious affection for (and understanding of) the text. Employing an unusual cluster of instruments — strings, English horn, harp, vibraphone and marimba — Larsen’s searching music expertly clarifies the text. Most satisfying are “The Snow Light,” with shimmering strings that seem to imitate the play of light, and the reflective “A Light Left On,” which Larsen sets with exquisite delicacy, using washes of harp glissandos and a plaintive English horn. “Songs from Letters” takes its inspiration from letters Calamity Jane sent to her daughter, Janey, a girl apparently sired by Wild Bill Hickok. Reflecting the spunky, salty spirit of Calamity Jane (who was at various times a gambler, sharpshooter, stagecoach driver and prostitute), the orchestration is bold and colorful, save for the last song, “All I Have,” in which a resigned and regretful Jane says goodbye to her daughter. Soprano Benita Valente sings both song cycles with feeling and overall subtlety, but her excessive vibrato knocks her pitch off at times.

The 1998 String Symphony is a well-designed piece in three relatively brief movements, the last of which, subtitled “Ferocious Rhythm,” contrasts nicely with the more lyrical preceding movements. Joel Revzen coaxes the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to play vividly throughought.

George Bulanda writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].

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