COOMAN: NEW DAWN (Song Cycles and Piano Music).

COOMAN NEW DAWN (Song Cycles and Piano Music) • Amanda Forsythe (sop); Jeffrey Grossman (pn) • ALBANY TROY1053 (72:33)
Gold into Diamonds. Seven Haiku. Lingering, Lonely Callings. New Dawn. Chorale Preludes. Bell Mosaic. Oakdale Sketchbook. Aria: Yet Brighter Light. Rainshower. Kahlenberg. Winter Sonatina. Mountain Toccata.

Although one can easily lose count, this may be the fifth release (including three on Naxos) to have appeared during the past twelve months alone, entirely devoted to the music of the prolific young American composer Carson Cooman. (Previous reviews can be found in Fanfare 31:3 and 31:5.) Cooman’s output embraces the full range of musical genres—operas, choral works, songs, orchestral music, chamber music, solo keyboard works, etc. But what is more remarkable is this composer’s broad stylistic range, which extends from consonant, purely diatonic pieces all the way to atonal or quasi-serial works, not to mention many that combine those two poles in unusual ways. Most of Cooman’s music is written on commission, and is explicitly intended for practical performance, of which there have been many. (In addition, he is active as an organist, performing only new music; and he produces recordings and writes criticism—for Fanfare as well as other publications.) 

This latest is the most rewarding of the all-Cooman discs I have heard. Comprising three song cycles and assorted short pieces for piano solo, the program concentrates on the most tonal, consonant aspect of his output. (His larger works, for larger forces, tend to represent the less tonal, more dissonant side of his compositional voice.) I hasten to add that it is not the conservatism of its language per se that I find so appealing about this music, but rather, how sincerely and meaningfully Cooman is able to express himself within this language. The music is largely warm and uplifting, with an unmistakably American flavor, suggesting an intersection between the styles of Copland and Rorem in their simplest, most direct pieces. A particularly personal device is the frequent use of cluster-chords as sonic enrichment within diatonic contexts, rather like the overtones of a carillon. Some pieces, e.g. Bell Mosaic and Kahlenberg, display a sense of serene tranquility that suggests an openness to recent, more meditative or contemplative styles. Some, which seem to emphasize pure harmonic sonority, occasionally call to mind the music of Messiaen. 

The most ambitious selections represented here are the three vocal works. The largest of them—Lingering, Lonely Callings, a cycle of eight songs dating from 2004-05, set to lovely, poignant poems by Elizabeth Kirschner—is the most compelling and consistently rewarding music I have yet heard from Cooman. These songs reveal a consistently fluent lyricism and exquisite sensitivity, conveyed through the simplest of means, resulting in a beautifully touching group of songs, shaped into a coherent cycle. Given both their simplicity and their immediacy, I would imagine that these songs—both individually and as a group—will prove to have great utility for voice students. One might argue that such direct, straightforward expression is a fundamental pre-requisite from which a legitimately meaningful, more sophisticated compositional voice may be derived.

Comparably rewarding is the shorter, more recent (2007) cycle entitled Gold into Diamonds. This group of four songs was commissioned by soprano Amanda Forsythe as a gift for her mother, Rebecca Forsythe, whose poetry serves as the texts. Perhaps slightly more complex harmonically, these songs are no less affecting than the earlier group. The poetry is verbally direct, yet subtle and profound in meaning, and Cooman’s settings are aptly suited to them.

Seven Haiku were written for the wedding of the soprano and her husband in 2005. They are sensitive micro-miniatures set to texts by the Welsh-American composer-poet Hilary Tann. 

Soprano Forsythe has a light, flexible voice whose lovely, intimate quality is very well suited to the spirit of Cooman’s vocal writing. Only at the most stressful moments does her control begin to fray. Pianist Jeffrey Grossman remains a sensitive and fluent accompanist throughout.

The nine short piano pieces, played with flair and conviction by Grossman, are largely examples of Cooman’s Gebrauchsmusik, pieces just a few minutes in duration that he often composes to commemorate special occasions, or as gifts for friends. Some of these “occasions”—the program notes for Rainshower describe it as “a musical postcard on a particularly rainy day in Cambridge, Massachusetts”—call to mind the comment, attributed to Milhaud, that simply coming down to breakfast was for him sufficient inspiration to prompt a musical composition. However, Cooman’s pieces of this type are rarely trivial, usually displaying real care, sensitivity, and a convincing expressive impetus; some are real gems. The music they call most readily to mind are Bernstein’s Anniversaries, or perhaps Virgil Thomson’s series of musical “portraits.” Cooman’s efforts clearly hold their own in this company, comparing favorably in many cases. Especially effective is the recent Mountain Toccata, a rough-hewn, Appalachian-flavored piece written for pianist Grossman. Oakdale Sketchbook is, as Op. 52, one of Cooman’s earliest (age 15) efforts, a group of ten tiny pieces intended for children. These are, again, remarkably evocative, imaginative, and varied, in view of the simplicity of their means, although several are beyond the technical reach of most beginning pianists. Only the Chorale Preludes (1999) do I find to be less than satisfying.

This release is an excellent introduction to the music of Cooman, one of the most fascinating of today’s youngest generation of composers. It is recommended especially to those who wonder whether there is anything that remains to be said within a purely tonal, diatonic musical language.