Saturday, August 15, 2020

Frank Felice's 'Reflections and Whimsies': Well-grounded spiritually, with plenty of room for caprice

I began to get some feeling for Frank Felice as a 21st-century composer whose Christian faith is deeply embedded in the bulk of the pieces on the CD "Reflections and Whimsies" (Enharmonic), as well as
Frank Felice, protean and devout.
in his revealing, amiable program notes. It also came to me in one place in particular, with the aptness of Felice's musical response to the prayer that concludes the short book of Habbakuk in the Old Testament.
A portion of the prayer is included in the booklet for the listener's reflection upon "Were You Angry With the Rivers,'  because Felice's interpretation of the  text is nonvocal — for solo double bass, played  by David Murray with  his usual flair and energy.
The declamatory vigor that opens the piece, and then fuses a steady blend of assault and appeal before calming near the end, has a famous forebear, also for double bass: the orchestra section's recitative in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that foreshadows the baritone soloist's commanding "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne, sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen."
Felice's solo bass is also addressing fractious but ultimately friendly interior voices, echoing Beethoven's appeal on the heels of discord: "O friends, not these tones, rather let us sing something more pleasant, more agreeable."  And that directive, when applied to Felice's sacred muse, puts in the forefront resolving the individual's argument with God through more pleasant forms of expression that provisionally arm the soul for struggles that inevitably recur in this life.
"Were You Angry With the Rivers" is not alone on this recording insofar as it makes vivid both polarities of the relationship. There is the mordant humor of a "radio edit" from "Proverbial Wit," in which quotations from the Book of Proverbs, are spoken with conspiratorial intensity by Mitzi Westra (the composer calls for a "dusky mezzo-soprano") against a rambunctious cello line (performed by Kurt Fowler) that seems to embody both the chummy wisdom and the blunt warnings of the text.
Felice's concoction touches on  recipes for Belgian wit beer, as well as "some definitions of tangents, all discombobulated, tweaked, folded spindled and blended into a stream-of-consciousness rumination." Resorting to Felice's own language here acknowledges, with admiration, that his verbal command of the material is almost equal to what he does with it musically.
Moving up from the lower portion of the string family, we enter serene territory, the "angenehmer" part of the Felice spectrum. That is "Reflections on a Hymn of Thanksgiving" for two violins, recorded smartly by Davis Brooks, thanks to overdubbing. This well-knit song without words has one line proceeding in agreeable counterpoint to the theme, an original by Felice that sounds as if it has always been around,  like some of the melodies of Dvorak or Bartok that give the illusion of familiarity when first heard.
The work echoes Felice's demonstrated skill with music for voice. The disc has three examples: "If Ever Two Were One" is the piece that least successfully escapes its occasion: the wedding of two close friends. The text is a poem by the 17th-century New Englander Anne Bradstreet that's often used to grace nuptial ceremonies.  Gracefully performed by soprano Esteli Gomez with the Indianapolis String Quartet, Felice's setting seems weakened by the decision to repeat some phrases; this is the kind of poem that to me suggests direct communication without the need to underline bits by having them sung again. I particularly find that the integrity of the verse is violated by Felice's interpolation of "I love you" several times, an unnecessary declaration given that Bradstreet's six couplets convey that message completely. Then there's an alteration in the next-to-last line that mistakenly allows "persever" to become "persevere"; Bradstreet's less usual version of the word allows both meter and rhyme to match. The effect is wiped out in the Felice version.
Yet I like the way the string quartet dutifully yet imaginatively reinforces the voice, a skill given sustained attention in "Preserve Me, O Lord," a setting of Felice's delicate paraphrase of Psalm 16. Here some text repetition works well. But most amazing is the fervor and poise of Westra's singing, which first impressed me years ago when she was alto soloist in Handel's "Messiah" at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church and performed the great aria "He was despised" about as well as I ever expect to hear it. The partnership with the Indianapolis Quartet is inspired, and richly rewarded by Felice's writing. The skill with which he constructs phrases that allow the words to glow is unfailing: I especially admired "The lines are laid for me in pleasant places; indeed I have a beautiful portion!" Talk about the "angenehm" side of Felice: Here it was at the pinnacle.
The CD is bookended by two string works from the composer's secular side that are comfortable enough without bearing a hint of background music. "Two by Four" carries the artisanal implication of its title; a musical carpenter sets to work and comes up with two linked pieces for an unconventional string quartet: three violins and a viola. The musicians are Zachary DePue, Joana Genova, Sherry Hong, and Michael Strauss, who deliver a crisp, playfully intense account of the piece.
The Indianapolis String Quartet hits the children's books charmingly in Felice's "Five Whimsies."
The finale allows Felice to release his inner child: "Five Whimsies for Non-Grownups," a winning string quartet when heard in concert (where I first encountered it) receives full commitment by the Indianapolis Quartet here. Each whimsy refers to a place in a favorite children's book that clearly resonates with the composer across the years. I won't go into detail here, but the work amounts to twelve delightful minutes of frolicsome variety. It delves deep to a degree, in that the openness to mystery typical of children is also captured in the music. At certain ages, we are receptive to both scary and comforting things. Either can be "angenehm," given a child's unimpaired sense of wonder, with which you as a grownup seeking your inner "non" can connect throughout this captivating composition.
All told, Felice, as represented by this disc, may be summed up as a prayerful pixie, somewhat on the order of Francis Poulenc, but with an unmistakable American accent. His whimsies and reflections ultimately proceed from the same idiosyncratic place, and that makes this diverse anthology of Felice works a felicitous listening experience.

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