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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, January 2011

Beyond the limits of my voice, I have significant disadvantages as a singer. Although I love singing in parts, I hate performing. Church choirs, therefore, seem to me a perfect solution. The choir, usually out of sight or in back of and above the congregation (so members must awkwardly twist around to see), gives me near-perfect cover. As a result, I’ve also heard a lot of organ music in the wild, so to speak. In general, I’ve been fairly lucky in the caliber of the organists associated with “my” choirs. Unlike the dear lady parishioner who’s been at the pedals for years and has trouble with anything but hymns, these organists have done the classics (Bach, Buxtehude, Franck) and explored new stuff. In this way, I first heard the music of Dan Locklair.

It intrigued me. I also liked what I had heard. I’ve since encountered scores I consider bland, but so far no more than three. The music is tonal, for those who care, closer to American neoclassicism than to postwar developments. Locklair studied with Ezra Laderman, Joseph Schwantner, and Samuel Adler, among others. However, his music reminds me most of early scores by Robert Ward. It’s more intricate than Ward’s, for sure, but I feel the same “Eastman” atmosphere—sincere, modest, psychologically uncomplicated, concerned primarily with direct communication. Eastman has produced, unfortunately, many “faceless,” genteel composers, but Locklair has apparently escaped the curse.

Locklair has played the organ professionally since the age of 14, and this influences his thinking somewhat. Often, he builds his work around hymns or pre-existing popular tunes. This certainly holds true for the Symphony #1, inspired by the 18th-century poet James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons, also a source for the Haydn oratorio. The symphony has four movements: “Autumn,” “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer.” I noticed the orchestration first of all—bright, individual. Virgil Thomson once sniped at “organist orchestration” by which he meant to hit composers like Rheinberger and Franck, who think in terms of stable “registers” rather than in shifting points of color. Ironically enough, the greatest composer-organist of all, J.S. Bach, does think in terms of individual colors. Organist orchestration seems to have afflicted the nineteenth century and after. Perhaps the conflation of ever-larger instruments with the orchestra encouraged this. However, Locklair has skirted this snare, if he ever thought about it. In general, his music is bright as new paint, sharing much with the American neoclassicists between the wars.

The first movement opens with a bounding fanfare-like idea in shifting meters—to me, very similar in feel to the opening of Virgil Thomson’s Cello Concerto, although rhythmically more intricate and more elaborately scored, or perhaps a Walter Piston allegro. Locklair strives to create a “jovial” mood. Unlike most symphonic first movements, it doesn’t really stick to sonata form. It’s really a giant A-B-A, with almost no interpenetration of its two principal ideas: the bounding theme and, in the B section, riffs on the chorale “Nun danket alle Gott.” Locklair does refer to both in the brief final A section, a nice way to knit the sections together. The second movement, “Winter,” is a chaconne consisting of a 12-measure chordal sequence repeated 12 times (12 months=1year—get it?). It reminds me of a junior high-school algebra word problem: “If the theme is 12 measures long and is repeated 12 times, how many measures in the movement?” But that’s just Locklair having architect’s fun. Like most variation forms, the chaconne game is played at two levels—the integrity of the individual variation and the cumulative narrative of all the variations. Bach’s famous chaconne for solo violin probably represents this dual progression best of all. Some composers neglect one for the other. Locklair does not. He even throws in a further complication. Lines from Thomson’s Seasons inspired him:

See, Winter comes, to rule the vary’d Year,
Sullen, and sad, with all his rising Train;
Vapours, and Clouds, and Storms.

Locklair creates a symmetrical dramatic structure assigning groups of variations to vapors, storms, and clouds in the following way:

Vapours     Clouds     Storms     Clouds     Vapours

None of this gets in the way of—indeed, it enhances through its dynamic arch form—the emotional effect of his music. Thus, the architecture becomes a means, rather than an end. The orchestration explores a wonderful variety of dark timbres. The psychological complexity of this movement generates great power.

The “Spring” scherzo tries to capture the brightness of the colors and sounds in mostly a swinging triple time—“mostly,” because Locklair throws in a couple of 5/8 measures in as a subtle tic, now and then.

“Summer” begins soft, lush, and lazy in mainly the strings. Woodwind solos join and intertwine. Eventually, “Sumer is icumen in” joins in, and then, almost imperceptibly, “In the Good Old Summertime.” The two tunes proceed simultaneously on different planes, and eventually the opening material mixes with them as well. It’s a sumptuous gathering up, and even an old chestnut like “Good Old Summertime” glows. I can’t say whether this symphony will endure. It has very little Angst. It goes against all sorts of strictures about serious present-day art. In a certain sense, you could even call it naïve. But, then, so is the Beethoven Sixth. If it doesn’t last, it points to a lack in ourselves.

Lairs of Soundings, a song cycle for soprano and string orchestra, sets poems by Ursula Le Guin. It surprised me to learn that Le Guin wrote poems, although a title like The Left Hand of Darkness should have told me something. The first song, “Invocation”—I haven’t a clue as to what it means. It fluctuates between very precise images and windy blather. It seems a “sound” poem, rather than a “sense” one and evokes mysterious forces. I have the feeling Locklair didn’t know what to make of it either. The string writing is blazingly imaginative, especially in evoking non-string colors by an inventive use of registers, the vocal writing grateful. Nevertheless, this one just sort of goes by. The second movement, “Voicings,” is simply a vocalise. The singer becomes another color in the string ensemble as she sings vowels. The movement opens with a string color that, I swear, sounds like an oboe. How Locklair pulls this off, I have no idea. In its way, the writing is spare. Nothing complicated happens, but every note, it seems, pierces one’s core. The final movement, “Wordhoard,” brings us back to Le Guin again. It’s a bit Holstian, which isn’t a bad thing, along the lines of the Fugal Overture. The poem is a corker, about a dragon guarding its horde. The strings bite and sting with venom. The soprano doesn’t get that easy a time of it, but the setting spits sparks. The latter two movements, unfortunately, shows how far the first has missed its mark.

Wake Forest commissioned Phoenix and Again for its Sesquicentennial in 1983. Locklair’s on the faculty, so it made sense to give him the gig. It turned out well. He produced an overture, based on the Wake Forest alma mater, “Dear Old Wake Forest.” I must say Locklair’s treatment a lot livelier than the original, which suffers from the droopy-drawers nostalgia of most alma mater hymns. The orchestra chirps as brightly as a mockingbird. The overture is in A-B-coda form, fast sections playing with fragments of the hymn sandwiching a contemplative middle that incorporates the entire hymn. The harmony of the middle impresses with its incisiveness and its impressive distance from the original.

In Memory—H.H.L is the composer’s memorial for his mother. The opening phrase didn’t sound promising, since it comes uncomfortably close to Barber’s Adagio for Strings—the same sort of suspension, rather than an identical one. I worried that Locklair was going to write the musical equivalent of the generic pieties preachers who didn’t know the deceased come up with as eulogies. But Locklair does find something of his own to say. At the very end, one hears little plucks that subtly hint at Mrs. Locklair’s favorite hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.” Overall, it does well by her by conjuring up someone specific.

I’ve always considered a harp concerto, even harp writing in general, a supreme test of composers born into the Modern era and beyond. For one thing, it can’t compete with the volume of a modern orchestra, so a composer writes for fewer instruments, keeps the lid on, or does his best to fool the ear. Thousands of years old, harp technology hasn’t changed as much as music itself has. After all these years, even with the addition of so-called “chromatic” pedals, it remains essentially a modal instrument. With its pedals, the harp both transposes and modulates, but it takes some very fancy footwork indeed to accomplish a straight chromatic run. Furthermore, I don’t believe you can’t have three adjacent half-steps in a chord. The instrument isn’t suited to highly chromatic music like dodecaphony, for example. The Hindemith and Krenek harp sonatas, the Ginastera concerto for harp, and the harp writing of Britten are all tours de force. Most composers—as diverse as Debussy, Ravel, Hovhaness, Grandjany, and Salzedo—work with the harp’s modal character.

So does Locklair. The concerto depends heavily on modes. The first movement (Mixolydian on G), “Dialogues (Heralding and Joyous),” begins with fanfare ideas of largely fourths and fifths, quickly taken up by the harp. It’s another Pistonian allegro, with irregular striding rhythms and meters, and temporary key shifts. Locklair leaves most of this kind of heavy lifting to the orchestra, and he tends to keep the lid on in order to let the harp sound. In his notes to he work, he likens the form to a sonata, but with a difference. Contrary to usual practice, all of the key-switches occur in the exposition, rather than in the development. I read that with a huge grain of salt, but when I listened, Locklair won me over. The development is pure Mixolydian on G (G to G’ on the white notes of a keyboard). However, a highly active motific argument justifies the term “development.” This results in a curious feeling of suspension. The herald ideas return at the end.

The slow second movement, “Variants (Still and Gently Moving),” resembles a chaconne in conception, founded on a harmonic progression that uses chords based on each note of the 12-tone scale. So it’s a tonal pun on dodecaphony. Locklair claims that the entire concerto rests on this progression, but I haven’t been able to hear it. I have only one complaint: Locklair doesn’t give the harpist much to do, confining the instrument largely to accompaniments and arpeggios.

“Contrasts (Very Quick and Vibrant)” is a more-or-less traditional sonata-rondo with two themes—a rhythmically vibrant A section in Lydian mode (F to F’ on the white keys of a keyboard); a more relaxed, pentatonic theme—plus a relatively substantial cadenza for the soloist: A B A’ B’ cadenza A’. It doesn’t hit me as a particularly profound work, but it is indeed attractive and closes the concerto in a convincing way.

Kirk Trevor and his Slovakians let all the color of Locklair’s writing come through. They do well enough to do the composer a good deed. On the other hand, they don’t reveal hidden depths. At this point, I don’t know how many depths remain hidden, but I suspect a better performance could occur. However, you probably won’t hear it in your lifetime, especially not from an American orchestra. It says volumes about the state of our national musical health that a Mittel-Europa orchestra performs this. I like harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett’s work, but I wish the engineers had placed her more forward, and to hell with a “natural” acoustic. Soprano Janeanne Houston, however, knocks me out. She sings Le Guin’s poetry as if she understands it and she gets down to the intense nub of beauty in the vocalise. This is an attractive disc., October 2008

Much of his music expresses a direct, modern lyrical impulse. He has a good ear for instrumental color and line. The biggest problem I’ve had with Wuorinen’s music in the past is that I’ve often found his rhythmic style in conflict with his pitch vocabulary—the rhythms feel much more tonal than the harmonies and melodies would seem to suggest.

The accompanied trombone solo that begins the first piece on this Naxos disc, Ashberyana, (written in 2004 for baritone, trombone, string quartet, and piano, on poems of John Ashbery) reveals a composer whose style has resolved the tensions within his musical personality. Or a critic who is hearing better. At any rate, the trombone’s lyrical line (played with style and power by James Pugh), with its fleeting but unmistakable tonal references, is accompanied by sharp, dissonant chords on the piano.

Wuorinen’s text setting is clear, though the vocal line is often more angular than the trombone line, but this is appropriate for Ashbery’s poetry, with its ellipitical imagery and complex structure. Baritone Leon Williams gives a strong performance of the difficult vocal part, and the composer leads Da Camera of Houston in a solid, authoritative performance.

The rest of the program, consisting of a solo piano work (very well played by Sarah Rothenberg), two brief song cycles on poetry by James Fenton (sung with intense conviction by Lucy Shelton), and some Josquin arrangements, is solid and musical. Naxos’ sound is very good, and Sarah Rothenberg’s notes are informative.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, January 2008

Performances are excellent and the recording quality top notch. Jacquelyn Bartlett (for whom the harp concerto was composed) plays with style and finesse. Janeanne Houston’s soprano takes a little getting used to: she certainly has the range, and sings with full commitment… © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times, November 2007

Northwest soprano Janeanne Houston, noted for the stratospheric clarity of her voice, is one of the soloists in a new disc of five works by composer Dan Locklair (spanning 1982-2004). Houston dispatches the daunting solos in "Lairs of Soundings" with an airy alacrity that belies their difficulty. Locklair's music is hard to pigeonhole, but the loveliest pieces recall the warm tonality of Samuel Barber. With the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Kirk Trevor.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, November 2007

Splendid work – rich and rewarding

Dan Locklair’s Symphony of Seasons comes out of the starting blocks as vibrantly and capriciously as anything in Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s life-enhancing Etruscan Concerto. It positively bursts with colour and open-air freedom. The orchestration is big, rich, romantic and full of well-timed percussion. In short it’s handled with taste and a keen ear for texture – an amalgam of Glanville-Hicks and balletic Copland. There’s hymnal writing here as well, exultant brass, urgency and excitement. The second movement is a recurring Chaconne, opening tersely but widening and deepening stormily – there’s skirl here and natural buffeting. This is immediately contrasted with a festive scherzo which itself presages a verdant finale, Summer, which occupies just a little of the opening’s vibrancy but ends with contented generosity and withdrawal in which Locklair puts Sumer is icumen in to good use. A splendid work – rich and rewarding.

Lairs of Soundings (A Triptych for Soprano and String Orchestra) was written twenty years earlier and I found it less appealing. Some of the writing is very testing; the soprano soloist is rather squally and her diction is not especially good. The central movement is not sung to a text, but to wordless vowels. It’s noticeable that in the outer movements her intonation wanders off beam.

The overture Phoenix and Again (An Overture for Full Orchestra) is a juicily celebratory work and redresses the balance with its strong brass and free play of winds and strings and use of folk song; a lighthearted, traditional sounding but well crafted affair. In Memory – H.H.L is an elegy written for the composer’s mother. Let’s forget the well-meant but wrong-headed reference to Barber’s Adagio. This is instead a warmly expressive and very attractive work that shows once again how well Locklair writes for strings.

We end with the Concerto for Harp and Orchestra. It’s crafted in three movements; the first sounding not unlike the fresh air of the Symphony’s first movement, the second decorated with rippling arpeggios and solo wind lines; and the finale which sounds rather Irish, foot tapping, and terpsichorean. The slow movement is especially attractive but overlong.

The performances of Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under frequent Slovak and Czech visitor Kirk Trevor are lean and incisive, maybe lacking some tonal heft and the ultimate in precision. Rehearsal time was probably limited but the forces do very well indeed and serve Locklair’s music sensitively.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

Kirk Trevor comments that after playing through In Memory H.H.L, he realised that he had discovered a worthy successor to Barber's Adagio. Only time will tell, though it does spell out the fact that Dan Locklair is still composing in a style with its roots dating back fifty years. A native of North Carolina and internationally regarded as one of North America's leading organists, Locklair completed his musical education at the Eastman School in Rochester, having become a professional organist at the age of fourteen. Now a highly prolific composer working in many genres including opera, ballet and symphonic music, and with a sizeable output for organ, he belongs to that North American school who work within a listener friendly idiom. Locklair owes a debt to no one for his style of writing, though it has Americana ever flowing through it, the Symphony of Seasons a vivid four movement picture of rural North America through the year, Winter creating a very dramatic movement. I wish Locklair would revisit Lairs of Soundings to remove some of the awkward writing for the soprano soloist, Janeanne Houston a highly persuasive advocate with a beautiful voice, though it does not take kindly to one intense high passages. Phoenix and Again is a pleasing overture, and Trevor's high estimation of In Memory to the composer's mother is well founded in this ardent performance. Using the harp almost as tinkling bells, and at times with an oriental flavour, the Harp Concerto is here performed with consummate skill by the driving force behind the original 2004 commission, Jacquelyn Bartlett. I am sure many harpists will look with envious eyes at a score that places the instrument to such good use. The British-born conductor, Kirk Trevor, obtains deeply committed performances from the Slovak orchestra who sound in particular fine form. As with the Headley release reviewed above, this is a disc that will gladden those who remain wedded to tonality in the 21st century.

Steve Hicken, September 2007

When Aaron Copland created the orchestral sound of America in Billy the Kid (1938) he triggered a musical movement that has yet to be exhausted. Elements of the sound remain in American orchestral music of otherwise wildly divergent styles, in film music, and even in popular music. So it is with the music of Dan Locklair.

Locklair’s music (at least in the compositions on this disc) moves among three distinctive modes of expression:

• Exuberant and joyful—marked by lively rhythms, open, fifth-based harmonies and ringing orchestration;
• Elegiac—darker harmonies, led by rich string sectional writing; and
• Muscular and rhetorical—phrases that build towards climaxes and resolution, with grand gestures.

In the symphonic works on the program, Locklear deploys these expressive modes in the service of the long-standing tradition of symphonic discourse. The Symphony of Seasons and the Harp Concerto are both solid and safe additions to the repertoire. The Concerto is not a virtuosic display piece, but rather an obbligato work in which the harp is a leading voice in the orchestral texture. Jacquelyn Bartlett gives an expressive performance of the solo part, which seems to be very well-written for the instrument.

The Symphony displays Locklair’s skill and manipulating his materials and the expressive modes as well as providing a showpiece for the orchestra. It would sound really well in performance.

Soprano Janeanne Houston shows remarkable range and musicality in Lairs of Soundings, a setting of three poems of Ursula K. LeGuin. Locklair’s settings of the texts are is clear and expressive. The two shorter works on the disc, Phoenix and Again and In Memory—H.H.L fill the program out nicely. The Slovak Radio Symphony, under the baton of Kirk Trevor give a good accounting of themselves, and Naxos’ sound is clean and warm.

Gwyn Parry-Jones
MusicWeb International, September 2007

This is, as the liner-notes suggest, a CD of attractive and colourful music. Though most of the works are very recent, Locklair writes in an idiom that is perfectly accessible to anyone who has even a quite limited knowledge of 20th century music. His influences are fairly easy to discern – not only Copland, but other more international voices such as Martinů and Shostakovich occasionally shine through. However these soon fade from the attention, as Locklair has his own strong stylistic personality.

The Symphony of Seasons is, naturally, in four movements, proceeding from a ceremonial opening ‘Autumn’ to a warm and expansive ‘Summer’, via the longest movement, ‘Winter’, and a sprightly ‘Spring’. Locklair uses some well-known melodies along the way, notably the Lutheran chorale Nun danket alle Gott, which is heard in ‘Autumn’, and the round Sumer is icumen in, which duly appears in the finale.

The most striking section for me is ‘Winter’, an extended slow movement cast in the form of a Chaconne, that is to say variants over a repeated harmonic sequence. Though I could probably have done without the wind machine - especially after the summer we’ve had in the UK - I nevertheless found this a powerfully atmospheric movement. Also striking is the restraint with which ‘Summer’ is treated; it begins in a magically hushed vein, with a fine, broad melody, and, though Sumer is icumen in brings life and dance rhythms into the music, it dies away in an atmosphere of mystery.

The earliest work on the disc is Lairs of Soundings, a three movement piece for soprano and strings dating from 1982. Movements 1 and 3 are settings of parts of poems by Ursula Le Guin, and are both fraught, nervous pieces. They are offset by a strikingly lovely slow central section, in which the voice is wordless, the ‘text’ being pure vowel sounds. Attractive music, though the work as a whole seems a little short – perhaps it needs one more movement. Janeanne Houston is the soloist, well able to deal with the very high tessitura, but slightly unsteady in tone and intonation here and there.

Phoenix and Again is a short, straightforward occasional piece, while In Memory – H.H.L. is an elegiac movement for string orchestra paying tribute to the composer’s mother. Like all the music on the disc, it is well crafted and carefully planned. To claim, however, as the disc’s conductor Kirk Trevor apparently has done, that this is a ‘worthy successor to the Barber Adagio’ is the sort of wild assertion that really does the piece no favours at all, and does call the conductor’s musical judgement somewhat into question.

The concluding item on this enjoyable and entertaining disc is the three movement Harp Concerto, delivered with great aplomb by Jacquelyn Bartlett. This is a charming work, with a beautiful central slow movement, Variants, in which the soloist often provides a soft yet sumptuous accompaniment to woodwind and string melodies. This underlined for me the impression that Locklair is most himself in his slow music, where he often achieves a rarefied atmosphere that is very affecting.

To be fair to Kirk Trevor - having taken him to task above! - he does a fine job of steering the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra through this inevitably unfamiliar music. They mostly play very well, with some excellent woodwind playing. The brass occasionally show the strain, particularly in more demanding parts of the Symphony, and the strings sound as if they could perhaps do with a couple more desks in each section. But these shortcomings are not serious, and the strong personality of Locklair’s music is projected successfully throughout.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group