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Robert R. Reilly
Crisis Magazine, May 2012

Daron Hagen…has a very heartfelt quality in his Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger”…It is very touching and directly affecting. Anyone who thinks that modern American composers do not write music that, without condescending to any sloppy emotions, goes straight to the heart should listen to this work. The equally attractive Piano Trio No. 4, “Angel Band”…has a strong Appalachian feel to it. It, too, is very moving and, at times, ecstatic. The Finsterra Trio delivers what sound like definitive performances…There is a real joy of discovery here… © 2012 Crisis Magazine Read complete review

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, January 2011

Four Piano Trios by Daron Hagen (b. 1961), the first two dating from the mid-80s, the second two written in the last few years. Hagen studied with David Diamond at Juilliard in the 80s, a time when change was in the air but pressures and awards committees were still happily pushing their pedantic weight around. As may be seen from the two student pieces recorded here, Mr Hagen acquitted himself well in that thorny arena, writing impeccably crafted music harmonically turgid enough to the ruling forces of the time but uncompromisingly musical anyway. He seems today all too happy to embrace tonality unabashedly now that his career and the times allow him to comfortably do so.

Trio 1 (1984), subtitled Trio Concertante, is built with the “major-minor third” set so ubiquitous in the music of classical atonality. In three movements of structurally quasi-classical bent (a rondo, a song form, and a passacaglia) the piece reflects Diamond’s influence in its favoring of classical structures, and its opaque harmonic language was academically acceptable enough to gain the piece Columbia’s Bearns Prize in 1985—but it is considerably more romantic than what one might normally expect from what usually comes out of that competition (at least in those days).

Trio 2 (1986), subtitled J’entends after a Nadia Boulanger quote (“I hear a music without beginning or end”), is in four movements; and all point toward the last, which contains a melody toward the end that served to generate all of the previous events. The first movement rondo juxtaposes a variety of contrasting ideas, and eventually became the first movement of his Second Symphony. II is said to have been inspired by Degas’s ‘Interior—the Rape’, though Hagen’s explanation for that seems pretty obscure. A very brief scherzo follows containing a shadow of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The closing Quodlibet offers a convincing summation. The piece won the Barlow Prize for chamber music in 1987.

Come the 21st century, Hagen, like so many of his colleagues, bids farewell to the dissonances of his youth and finds himself feeling comfortable writing expressive tonal music. Trio 3 (2006), subtitled Wayfaring Stranger, contrasts variations on the folk tune with a gentle opening Mazurka and a quirky Fandango, with a beautiful Aubade acting as introduction to the final variations set. The piece’s unusual structure results in a dreamlike extended fantasy, meditative and quite striking.

Trio 4 (2007), subtitled Angel Band, is the most recent work on the program. Like the Trio of the previous year, this one is also based on a folk tune—a gospel hymn—and like the previous work it brings a fresh approach to variation form, combining it with the idea of a biographical tone poem on the life of backwoods Kentucky violin prodigy Joyce Ritchie Strosahl, who eventually founded a music festival in Yakima, Washington (the Finisterra Trio hails from Seattle). The piece opens with four variations on the tune (here representing youth and innocence), continues with a dreamy waltz (adulthood), a clangorous rondo (life experience), a noble Chaconne (maturity and wisdom), and finally more variations on ‘Angel Band’ overlaid with material from the previous movements (the recollections and summaries of old age). It is absorbing and effective. Both of the recent Trios contribute nicely to the contemporary Americanist chamber music literature. The collection as a whole is imposing and confirms Hagen as a significant voice. The Finisterras play brilliantly, though engineering is a bit close.

David Wolman
Fanfare, January 2011

In a perverse way, new music, that is, contemporary classical music (or whatever pet name you would like to give it), is a non-plastic art form that exists without an audience, or, at least, without an audience comparable to that of any popular medium. In that sense, much of new music is like trees falling in forests, music meant either to impress colleagues with its lack of capitulation to custom or music based on arcane concepts known only to theory geeks. Sometimes, therefore, new music resembles the inbred procreating with the inbred. However, there are happy exceptions to the dreary rule; here is a CD that provides a sublime compromise between the elite snobbery of academic music and the facile music of Minimalists like Philip Glass.

Daron Hagen, notable, among other accomplishments, for being the composer of no fewer than seven operas, presents his complete piano trios in this elegantly produced Naxos release. If this collection of his work is any indication of what we have in store for us in the future, he’s one for the history books and a candidate for my composers’ Hall of Fame.

Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger” (2006), is based on the hymn Poor Wayfaring Stranger. As we enter Hagen’s ethereally harmonious world, the music blooms into a gorgeous swell of tonalities yet retains the somber, pensive mood of the hymn. I suppose variations on hymns tend to be evocative because there is a built-in gravitas and transcendence to so many folk melodies of the religious, work, or fable variety. But few such variations on the familiar achieve the unfamiliar results that Hagen here achieves. After a more or less recognizable adaptation of the hymn, Hagen’s “Fandango” movement opens mysteriously with pizzicato against the piano and violin runs followed by a somewhat angrier version of the hymn that is insistent and raw. The fourth movement returns to the same hymn, restating a nostalgic sense of grief and loss along with a rich, tonal, romantic-sounding passage, then a restatement of the “Fandango” movement with harmonics on the strings and a quiet piano ballad. A blissful theme on violin with an underpinning of block piano chords leads to another surprising restatement of the basic hymn theme. Along the way, there’s plenty of meat for the gifted members of the trio, whose performance seems fully committed and intense. The result is richly romantic without falling into easy sentimentality. The final reiteration of the hymn is poignant, as if a voice is stilled and yet continues in perpetuity. It is important to note that there are moments in this piece that are so moving, almost breathtaking, that I can accept Ned Rorem’s homage to Hagen: “To say that Daron Hagen is a remarkable musician is to underrate him. Daron is music.” What would otherwise seem hyperbolic is apparently self-evident.

In his earlier, more academic Piano Trio No. 1, “Trio Concertante” (1984), the 20-years younger Hagen demonstrates a somewhat less self-assured approach. Unfortunately, new music over the years, especially in the 1960s through 1980s, has assembled its own vocabulary of musical clichés; besides atonality or seriality, which can be clichés in and of themselves, there is randomness, disparity, and the deliberate and often clumsy avoidance of the familiar. That even Hagen’s early work avoids many of these pitfalls is all the more impressive. An example is the movement titled “Ritornello-Romanza,” where Hagen’s tapestries and blends are, at times, transcendental. The third movement deconstructs into a jaunty dance that travels into a complex development section with strings against piano chords and a return of the opening statement from the first movement, a theme that refers to late Beethoven.

No less precocious is Hagen’s Piano Trio No. 2, “J’entends” (1986), which begins with a freewheeling skip and jump theme, then moves into a playful violin episode with bending pitches and rhythms. After a second movement, “Interior—After Degas,” inspired by a Degas painting, and the sequential scherzo, a final movement, “Quodlibet,” creates a pastiche of what has preceded it. The music erupts into the central theme, a very exciting cello solo, followed by the emulating violin with strongly bowed chords, ending mysteriously with a clock-chime fade.

The final offering is a return to Hagen’s more recent romanticism, which seems to demonstrate that Hagen is now less inclined to prove himself and more inclined to be himself. Piano Trio No. 4, “Angel Band” (2007), is also based on a hymn. The second movement begins with a violin solo with an underpinning of piano and cello morphing into a waltz on piano against harmonics on violin. The resulting haunting, ghostlike waltz with an expansive theme played on the violin proves shimmering and profound. The third movement follows with a rushing, pressed melody with roughly plucked strings and a driving tempo, then the return of the hymn theme cleverly reintroduced subterraneously. The result is jazzy and retro. The same hymn theme is reprised over a kind of walking bass with piano chords and taken over by the cello. The fifth movement is a finale with yet another restatement of the Angel Band hymn, marked by Hagen’s hallmark apotheosis of rich harmony and exalted interweaving of themes and sonorities. All in all, it’s a deeply emotional work, accessibly emotional though not excessively emotional.

The four trios make a neat package, two from the 1980s and two more recent works. That I prefer the more recent works is neither here nor there, since the two less-recent works show us the other side of the composer’s mind—a right brain, left brain duality that only adds to Hagen’s fascination. The fact remains that in all four trios there are spine-tingling, hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-standing-up moments of sheer astonishment, greatly enhanced by the virtuosic playing of the Finisterra Trio.

Daniel Gilliam
National Public Radio, December 2010

It’s been a big year for Daron Hagen. His opera Amelia was premiered by the Seattle Opera, and then there’s this Naxos release of his piano trios. The trios represent two periods: the 1980s (Nos. 1 & 2) and the 2000s (Nos. 3 & 4). This separation provides a broad perspective on Hagen’s voice, and reflects his fluency in many musical dialects. He convincingly moves between the tonally sublime and biting angularity. The Finisterra Piano Trio, with its prowess and finesse, deserves every second of your attention.

Sterling Beeaff
KBAQ, November 2010

CD of the Week

The Finisterra Trio performs the complete piano trios of Milwaukee-born composer Daron Hagen, including “Wayfaring Stranger”, “Trio Concertante”, “J'entends”, and “Angel Band”.

James Manheim, October 2010

Composer Daron Hagen, a student of Ned Rorem, is eclectic in the current American fashion but manages to attach his various stylistic influences to a rigorously conceived core based on some manipulation of a small set of pitches. He is best known for vocal works, but these chamber pieces showcase his style attractively. Hagen is unusual in that he can mix music infused with American vernacular elements—here, the folk hymns “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Angel Band, ” but also classic blues and even bluegrass music—with extended-tonal idioms that have nothing to do with folk and popular music. Even the most folkish piece of all, the Piano Trio No. 3, “Wayfaring Stranger,” which includes two different sets of variations on the hymn, also includes an angular mazurka, a fandango, and an aubade as an introduction to the finale. The highly expressive feel holds it all together. The compact Piano Trio No. 1, “Trio Concertante,” of 1984 has no vernacular elements at all; nor does the Piano Trio No. 2, “J’entends,” based on Nadia Boulanger’s supposed final words, “J’entends une musique sans commencement et sans fin.” This is perhaps the least persuasive piece, presented by Hagen with the argument that he is “attempting to manipulate time the way a visual artist manipulates space,” a statement too general to mean much. The final Piano Trio No. 4, “Angel Band,” however, is gorgeous, and its programmatic use of the hymn material to depict stages in the life of the work’s dedicatee, Kentucky-born violinist Joyce Ritchie Strosahl, is clearly audible. The Finisterra Trio, of international origins and based in Washington state, does well with Hagen’s lush idiom. Recommended as an example of academic composition that manages a broader appeal.

Kevin Sutton
MusicWeb International, October 2010

Daron Hagen is a prolific American composer whose music was until now, completely unknown to me. Educated at The Curtis Institute and at the Juilliard School, Hagen has an impressive catalogue that ranges from operas to songs, to chamber and orchestral works. He has taught on the faculties of several prestigious institutions and his music has been commissioned and performed by many of the major artists and ensembles active today.

The 2006 trio, subtitled “Wayfaring Stranger” was doubly inspired by the composer’s late brother and by a trip through the grounds of the Civil War battle of Bull Run. While passing through the historic site, the composer heard the American folk hymn and was inspired by the tune. All four movements have some element of the tune in their fabric, but it is in the beautifully lyrical second movement that the tune is most prominent. At times quasi-impressionistic, at others rather shamelessly romantic, this brief but substantial four movement work is full of contrasting colors, such that the ear is always piqued with interest. The Finisterra trio delivers a confident and well balanced performance.

The “Trio Concertant” is much more academic, composed while Hagen was a student of David Diamond. Considerably more serious than the folksy third trio, this student work is more of a challenge to the ear. More dissonant, it is obviously geared toward pleasing the jury more than the audience. Having said that, it is filled with creative gestures and original thoughts. In spite of the generally tangy harmonies and angular rhythms, there are lyrical moments of repose, and these moments are what save the work from the ivory tower.

Inspired by the last words of Nadia Boulanger (“I hear a music without beginning or end.”), Hagen’s Second Trio from 1986 is both angular and lyrical, dissonant and melodic. Even though some of the terse harmonies are a bit challenging to the ear, the use of intricate counterpoint and some wonderfully virtuoso writing for violin harmonics in the second movement make this work a fascinating listen.

Perhaps my favorite of the program here is the Fourth Trio, “Angel Band” from 2007. Based on a blue grass hymn tune and further inspired by Appalachian folk instruments, the work is a tribute to Joyce Richie Stosahl, a violinist and impresario who grew up in Kentucky during the depression and went on to have a remarkable career as a soloist and orchestral musician. Set in five movements, the work is full of folksy color while still maintaining Hagen’s unique harmonic voice. It is evident though to these ears that the older Mr Hagen gets, the more lyrical his music becomes. Some of the melodies in this, the newest of the works presented here are downright gorgeous; a trait that sharply contrasts with the more academically oriented pieces from the 1980s.

This is one of those discs that present both challenges and delights. And it is a happy occasion to report that the Finisterra Trio perform with a deft hand. The trio is obviously committed to the music and they have a fine sense of ensemble and balance. It is difficult to comment on interpretation when these works have had little recorded exposure, so I will simply say that these are convincing performances that sell the works quite well. They definitely merit repeated listening.

As for Hagen, this is my first exposure to his music, and with all first hearings, my first tendency is to ask “do I wish to hear more?” The answer is definitely yes. If Mr Hagen can compose music this diverse for just three instruments, it will be a very exciting adventure to hear what he does with a full orchestra. Viva Naxos for their continuing commitment to bringing out the best music, whether it be widely known or not!

Gapplegate Music Review, September 2010

American composer Daron Hagen (b. 1961) may not be universally recognized for his chamber music. The recent release of his Complete Piano Trios (Naxos 8.559657) may do much to rectify that. There are four trios written between 1984–2007. Each has its own character. I must say I do quite like the third, based on the folk melody “The Wayfaring Stranger.” His music is lyrical, “neo” more than avant garde, idiomatic and well thought out.It's the sort of music one knows will take quite a few listens to absorb fully and before such work-pleasure is complete, some ultimate or semi-ultimate judgement will not be on the personal program. At least that's how it is with me.

This is music that is “serious” in the same way that Aaron Copland's chamber music was. It is not given to pleasantries. There is a depth to these pieces I've yet to fully plummet. I will say that the performances by the Finisterra Trio seem marvelous to me. Detailed and passionate interpretations prevail.

I do recommend this recording. I reserve final judgement on the music itself however, until I've lived with it for a longer time. One thing is clear. Daron Hagen's Piano Trios are formidable works.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

I played Daron Hagen’s ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ four times yesterday, thinking that this had to be one of the most beautiful and moving modern piano trios I have come across. Composed in memory of his brother, the third piano trio marked his untimely death came shortly after Hagen had written a duo piece for him using the hymn, Poor Wayfaring Stranger. Born in 1961, a graduate of the Curtis Institute and Juilliard School of Music, Hagen has become a highly prolific composer in many genres, his works being fruitful as award winners. Today his career also combines concert appearances as both pianist and conductor. If I described the Third as rather British of the early 20th century, this is still a very personal document being both tonal and modern. Composed in 2006, it is the disc’s opening track, and we leap back twenty-two years to the First trio coming out of Hagen’s student days when he was working with David Diamond. It could well be the work of a different composer from mainstream 20th century radical modernism. Atonal, with tricky rhythms to occupy the listener’s mind, it does not, for me, stand out from the crowd, but like the Second, composed two years later, it is well crafted, interplay between instruments creating fresh sonorities. Back to the present time for the Fourth, completed in 2007, and subtitle ‘Angel Band’ having used the gospel hymn of that name for its inspiration. It was also with the story of Joyce Ritchie Strosahl in mind, who against all odds became a famous American violinist. Like the Third, its speaks in a language readily understood by the wider listening public. Commissioned by the Finisterra Trio, whose connection with Strosahl is explained in the booklet, their playing throughout is highly persuasive and adds to Hagen’s standing as a composer. Please buy it for the Third Trio, the engineers having produced excellently balanced sound.

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