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CLASSICAL  July 2008

CLASSICAL July 2008

Subject:

Kent Kennan

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 18 Jul 2008 18:52:42 -0700

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text/plain

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Kent Kennan
Chamber Music

*  Sonata for Violin and Piano, "Sea Sonata" (1937) 1
*  Night Soliloquy for Flute and Piano (1936)
*  Scherzo, Aria, and Fugato for Oboe and Piano (1949)
*  Threnody for Violin and Piano (1992) 2
*  Quintet for Piano and Strings (1935) 3

Felicity Coltman, piano
Richard Kilmer, violin1
Megan Meisenbach, flute
Kathleen Turner, oboe
Adrianna Hulscher, violin2, 3
Jennifer Bourianoff, violin3
Ames Asbell, viola3
Margaret Coltman-Smith, cello3
Pierian 0017 Total time: 54:07

Summary for the Busy Executive: Jewels.

Like Harold Shapero, the composer Kent Kennan (1913-2003) stopped writing
music with many potentially productive years to go.  Because I don't
know why, Kennan seems to me mysterious, a subject for Erle Stanley
Gardner - The Case of the Curious Composer, perhaps.  Kennan stopped in
1956.  Although he turned out the occasional morceau, he never attempted
a large piece again.

The Night Soliloquy of 1936 in its orchestral dress introduced me to
Kennan through Howard Hanson's classic recording.  Several brass-playing
friends of mine learned the trumpet sonata.  These two works probably
constitute Kennan's hits.  However, I should also say that most of
Kennan's work hasn't had enough of a chance with listeners.  Based on
what I've heard here, other pieces in his catalogue may stick.  Kennan
studied at Eastman and learned a great amount of craft.  Indeed, he
became the author of two widely-used textbooks: Counterpoint (which I
once worked through) and The Technique of Orchestration.  I must say
that I have heard only one big score by Kennan, the violin sonata on
this CD.  Consequently, he strikes me as a lyric, rather than as an epic
poet, although I've heard rumors of a symphony.  Only one of the pieces
on this CD lasts beyond fifteen minutes.  So his later confinement to,
in effect, Albumblaetter seems in keeping with his more active career.
He probably just turned out fewer of them.

The "Sea Sonata," a curiously old-fashioned piece, in places reminds
me a little of Bernard Rogers, although I doubt Kennan studied with
him.  It's more a matter of an "Eastman attitude" than anything else.
Nevertheless, one feels a hard nugget of originality at its core.  Even
at this early date (1937), one finds a characteristic elegance, the drive
to say as much in as few notes as possible - this, despite the late
nineteenth-century idiom.  There's no filler or padding in any of this
music.  Kennan works conscientiously.  That may be why so many of the
pieces are so short.  Kennan generates the entire sonata from a small
kit of ideas, extending his economy, even as he evokes the turbulence
of the sea.

The earlier piano quintet strikes me as an odd mixture of Brahms and
proto-Impressionism.  The first movement has that heavy, three-quarter,
juggernaut movement characteristic of Brahms, but the harmonies are very
French.  The second movement tolls funeral bells, with modal ideas heavily
colored by a flatted seventh.  The finale is a quick scherzo. It doesn't
last long, but it sums up the quintet satisfactorily.

Night Soliloquy leans even more to the French side of things, a more
astringent version of Griffes's Poem for flute and orchestra. It's nice
hearing the chamber version for flute and piano. In fact, it slightly
changes the character of the piece to a more pronounced tartness.

Kennan didn't stand still.  Even in his last pieces, he was appropriating
the techniques of much younger writers, but always with a concern for
expressive poetry.  The oboe piece here adopts a neoclassical, Hindemithian
point of view and sound-world.  The Threnody knits twisty little lines
(Kennan seems eager to use all twelve tones of the scale) to create a
chromatics of grief.  Nevertheless, it's the grief that's important, not
the technical means.  Kennan always submits his craft to the service of
expressivity.

The performances are okay, with the wind players coming off better than
the strings, some of whom have minor intonation problems.  These hit
Richard Kilmer in the violin sonata, and his tone sounds dull, like a
singer suffering from a bad head cold.  Adrianna Hulscher does better
in the Threnody.  The first movement of the piano quintet sounds slightly
out, although the situation improves as the ensemble goes along.  The
real rock here is pianist Felicity Coltman, who lays down a carpet of
support for everybody.  But these are all minor issues.  The star of the
recording is Kennan's music - honest, graceful, and poetic.

Steve Schwartz

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