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"Rick Sowash: An Important Contemporary American Composer "

by Ray Silvertrust in The Chamber Music Journal Vol. XIV No. 4 Winter 2003

Rick Sowash (1950-) is an American comoser from the Midwest, Ohio to be exact. He has composed more than 200 works which have been performed and broadcast all over the world. He is also a music publisher, primarily of his own works, and a producer of CDs for his own label.

Living classical composers do not often generate much excitement in large part due to the acerbic and inaccessible style in which most choose to write. As a result, it is close to impossible for them to get a hearing today and their future is darker yet. But the music of Rick Sowash does not fall into this category. To the contrary, while its style is eclectic, he never eschews tonality. Most importantly, this is music which upon hearing immediately convinces as to its value. It is a pleasure to review two recent CDs of his music.

The first is Rick Sowash: A Portrait at 50. There are two chamber works on the disk; the first is A Little Breakfast Music for oboe, clarinet, and two violins, composed in 1976, "purely for the fun of it," as Mr. Sowash tells us in his notes. It is in five movements. The first, Orange Juice, is as you might expect from the title, a short, quick and perky pick-me-up, which whets the appetite for what is coming next -- in this case, French Toast, an altogether longer affair. The music shows some affinity with French impressionism; hence the title. It is calmer, less angular and playful but still quite charming. I can't, however, say I was reminded of French Toast. Mr. Sowash writes that the second movement, Eggs and Bacon, was inspired by a combination of the music of the Renaissance and Aaron Copland. This is a heady brew -- but hold on, brew, that's no the next movement, no, the next movement is Honey on English Muffins, an homage to Vaughan Williams. My English friends tell me that the muffins we Americans eat for breakfast are not English. Well, anyway, breakfast is completed by A Variety of Herb Teas, which begins somewhat serenely just as do certain herbal teas, but other are zesty and full of zing and so is the music. This breakfast is not "little," but a real feast.

The other chamber work is the Cape May Suite for oboe, violin, cello and piano. Composed in 1993, Mr. Sowash writes that it was inspired by the time he spent on vacation in Cape May, a New Jersey resort town on the Atlantic. The first of the four movements, Morning at Seaside, begins as a quite revelry with the cello. As this gorgeous music gradually becomes louder, one can imagine a magnificent sunrise. It is a substantial movement, very romantic in conception -- lovely and personal. Victorian Garden is quiet and introspective with duets by the oboe and violin creating an exotic musical effect. Dinner at Louisa's reminded me of entering an upscale country inn and hearing a piano playing. It turns out that this is exactly what Mr. Sowash had in mind, Louisa's being a restaurant and not a person's house. The movement begins with a classy and refined solo piano introduction. When the cello joins in, we have a full-blown romantic duet. The music of the finale, Ghostly Waltzes at Congress Hall, is also highly evocative of its title. What follows is a series of waltzes, some charming, some haunting, some grotesque and spooky, but each engaging and wonderful in its own way. This excellent music deserves to be heard in concert and to be played by amateurs who will certainly enjoy it.

The second CD of Mr. Sowash's music is entitled Eroica. The first work presented is entitled Sunny Days for violin, clarinet and piano. It was composed in 1994 for an ensemble known as Sonsa, which means sunshine in Russian. The ensemble wanted a piece to take with them on tour to Belo-Russia. The opening Moderato begins tentatively before syncing into a jazzy sort of eastern European, Hebraic dance. The middle section is an upbeat and lyrical American type melody which starts slowly but then picks up steam before a tremolo section suddenly heralds the return of the original theme. Shortly thereafter, the two are cleverly blended. This is very fine writing. In the second movement, Allegretto, the piano begins witha brief but romantic introduction before the violin and clarinet embark on the dreamy main theme which sounds rather like a cross between an Irish folk tune and a melody from the old American West, seasoned very lightly with French impressionism. This is followed by another Moderato, which begins much in the same vein as the preceding movement and which becomes more lanquid and reflective as it goes along. The final movement, Vivo, though not particularly fast, is lively and has one of those energetic "can-do" themes that conjures up someone walking confidently down a New York street on their way to an appointment. Again, a first rate work which will delight amateurs and should be programmed by professionals.

The next work, Impressionist Suite No. 1 for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, is subtitled Three Major Painters. Mr. Sowash, in the booklet notes, states that this trio was written for a friend who is the clarinetist of a French wind trio. Because the group would mainly be performing before French audiences, he thought they would find a work evoking French painters to their taste; hence the titles of each of the three movements. The first, Monet, a seascape, starts quietly with the bassoon and clarineet in their lower registers. The bassoon plays a prominent role throughout in establishing the tone color of this short piece. One can easily hear the intentional influence of French impressionism without being reminded of any specific composer from that period. The very short second movement, Renoir, the play of colors, is more lively and playful in a neo-romantic style; the color is mostly created by the oboe, which is shadowed and echoed by the clarinet throughout. The last movement is the most substantial and striking of the three. Entitled Manet, Spanish subjects, this movement has the most memorable melodies. It begins with a catchy dance tune in what sounds like 6/8. Here and there, one can glean traces of a fandango mixed up with elements of jazz. The clarinet is given a real chance to shine. Mr. Sowash succeeds marvelously in creating just the kind of music he intended. It is pleasing, accessible and very well-written. His clarinetist friend and the wind trio must have been very pleased indeed. I know I would be to receive a piece as fine as this one.

The final chamber work on the disk is Sowash's Piano Trio No. 5: "Eroica" which started out life as a cello sonata. Begun around 1980, it was never completed. In 2000 Sowash returned to it and created this trio. Mr. Sowash notes that the music is about the courage of those who are afraid but persist despite their fears. The massive first movement, Allegro, begins in a very un-heroic fashion with the strings caught almost in mid-phase, as it were, with some inconsequential rambling. But after only a few seconds, the music quickly builds to a majestic opening. The main theme is of great breadth and power. the writing is unabashedly romantic, but neither cliched nor derivative. Sowash "paints" on a huge canvas, taking us on a vast journey. The contrasting middle section features some unusual effects such as ponticello. The middle movement, Adagio, begins at first with the cello alone and sounds elegaic, if not funereal. When the violin joins in, the pitch and tension gradually rise and the tonality becomes quite wayward. This is followed by a lovely but ery sad middle section. The bouncy main theme of the finale, Presto, sounds the most modern. It is full of twists and turns but shot throughout with rays of hope. This piano trio is yet another top notch work. In Mr. Sowash's hands, the combination of violin, cello and piano sounds as if it presents the composer with no problems whatsoever, least of all of balance. You are never aware of any one instrument to the detriment of the music. It is as if the trio was an instrument with three distanct voices.

Also on the disk is a first rate Duo for violin and cello.

I have devoted a fair amount of space to Mr. Sowash's music not only because it is, in my opinion, of such a high caliber but also because it is of our time. It shows what a creative composer can still do to make chamber music relevant and appealing to audiences today. I would like to hear and play more of this music and I think yoiu will as well. I highly recommend Mr. Sowash's CDs. You will need to know the name of the CD when ordering since they do not have numbers. They are produced and published by Mr. Sowash and can be purchased either in music stores or directly from him at www.sowash.com. I believe parts are also available there.

 

   
"I have devoted a fair amount of space to Mr. Sowash's music not only because it is, in my opinion, of such a high caliber but also because it is of our time. It shows what a creative composer can still do to make chamber music relevant and appealing to audiences today."
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