by Walter Simmons
LEACH O Magna Vasti Creta. Call of the Dance. Ariadne’s Lament. Windjammer. Tricky Pan. Song of Sorrows – NY Treble Singers et al., Virginia Davidson, cond; Libby Van Cleve (ob), Patrick Burton (cl), Klyph Johnson (bn); David Lee Echelard (t, ct); Rooke Chapel Ch, William Payn, cond. – NEW WORLD 80525-2 (55:43)
Mary Jane Leach is a 50-year-old composer, originally from Vermont, who has been living and working in New York City since the 1970s. The pieces on this recent release — all composed between the years 1993-97– represent the only music of hers with which I am familiar, so I cannot place them within the context of her work as a whole. On the basis of this disc, one might describe Leach’s music as an outgrowth or elaboration of the style and techniques of the “mannerist” composers of the medieval Ars Nova, a kind of early polyphonic music that flourished in France during the 13th and 14th centuries. This places her music within the contemplative, tonally static realm associated with composers like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Except for one — Windjammer — the compositions offered here concentrate on the human voice, and occupy the high end of the vocal range exclusively. The melodic lines are decidedly modal and diatonic, their tonal stasis supported by much use of sustained drones. In fact, the interaction of the melodic lines with the drones comprises the chief focus of attention, and leads at times — especially in O Magna Vasti Creta, the most active, or “dramatic” of the pieces, and the one in which an actual “climax” can be perceived–to considerable dissonance. But, for the most part, the music is pervaded by what Anthony K. Brandt calls “a luxurious stasis” in his intelligent and highly sympathetic program notes. The connection with antiquity is further reinforced by the use of texts in ancient languages, as well as by the absence of dynamic and expressive markings in the scores. Four of the works reveal an ongoing fascination with the myth of Ariadne, and one even draws upon Monteverdi’s Lasciatemi morire.
Mary Jane Leach’s music displays a serious talent and a sincere commitment to authentic musical values. Yet for many listeners — myself included — the consistently introspective mood and severely restricted harmonic motion characteristic of music of this kind is taxing to one’s patience and concentration. On the other hand, the striking success of composers like Pärt and Tavener suggests that a growing body of listeners is drawn to these qualities. Such listeners may find Leach’s music to be of comparable appeal.