SOWASH: Piano Trios (No. 1, “Four Seasons in Bellville”; No. 2, “Orientals and Galop”; No. 3, “A Christmas Divertimento”; No.4).

by Walter Simmons



SOWASH: Piano Trios (No. 1, “Four Seasons in Bellville”; No. 2, “Orientals and Galop”; No. 3, “A Christmas Divertimento”; No.4). The Mirecourt Trio (Kenneth Goldsmith, violin; Terry King, cello; John Jensen, piano). GASPARO — GSCD 254 [DDD]; 65:34. Produced by Roy Christensen

SOWASH: Daweswood Suite; Anecdotes and Reflections; Street Suite. The Mirecourt Trio; Craig Olzenak, clarinet. GASPARO — GSCD 285 [DDD]; 66:52. Produced by Roy Christensen.

These two new CDs offer a generous serving of the music of Rick Sowash, an American composer born in 1950. In addition to writing music, Sowash has performed as a humorist, worked as an innkeeper, and served for four years as County Commissioner of his native Richland County, Ohio. Indeed, part of his mission as a composer seems to be to memorialize and capture the spirit of the Ohio towns in which he has lived. For some years his music has been championed by the Mirecourt Trio, a fine piano trio, esteemed for their expertise and their openness to new repertoire, and active in the Midwest and on recordings. Sowash has written many works for them during the past decade.

What does his music sound like? It is nice stuff — cheerful, unpretentious, exuberant, and heartfelt, with a disarming freshness and innocence. The idiom is tonal and diatonic — mostly melody-with-harmony homophony — with some unexpected root movements. The music is very simply constructed, and straightforward and direct enough that one needn’t be versed in the idioms of classical music to appreciate it. What raises it above the routine and really holds one’s attention is the soaring, folk-like lyricism that generously pervades Sowash’s compositions. There are also references to a variety of vernacular musical idioms: Gershwin-like pop, marching-band tunes, old American dance forms, even Klezmer music. All is blended together with a light touch.

The Piano Trio No. 1 (1977) is a 25-minute work that clearly sets forth Sowash’s musical agenda. It is subtitled, “Four Seasons in Bellville” and is dedicated to the town in which the composer lived for many years. Piano Trio No. 2 (1980) is a shorter piece but contains some dreadfully banal material. Only Sowash’s wonderful lyricism manages to save it. The concluding section shows a little more technical sophistication as well. Piano Trio No. 3 (1983) is a longer work and shows still more sophistication and polish, while No. 4 (1983, revised ’89) is relatively abstract and serious in tone, with a vigor and thrust absent from the other pieces.

On the second CD the Mirecourt Trio is joined by clarinetist Craig Olzenak, who has been active on the West Coast and now teaches at Grinnell College in Iowa. The most impressive piece on this disc is the Daweswood Suite, a three-movement work lasting 16 minutes, composed in 1980 with reference to a botanical analogy. It is cut from the same cloth as the other pieces, but is especially attractive. Anecdotes and Reflections is long — nearly 40 minutes — and was written in memory of a local civic leader. Illustrating Sowash’s brand of populist eclecticism, it is amiable and inviting. Street Suite (1976) is scored for violin and clarinet only. Each of its ten short movements was suggested by one of the streets in the town in which Sowash was born and raised. It is light and diverting in tone, but much of it is too silly-simple for my taste.

I first heard Sowash’s music some years back, when the Piano Trio No. 1 was released on the other side of an LP that also contained Paul Creston’s Piano Trio (TR Records TRC-107). Since then, every time I’ve returned to it, I’ve been surprised anew by how enjoyable Sowash’s Trio is, although I would not recommend it for rigorous, repeated listening   When one considers how selective most purchasers of recordings must be today, it is difficult to recommend music of such modest importance. I mean, if you have yet to acquire, say, the Gurrelieder, I’m not telling you to run out and buy Sowash. On the other hand, I’m glad have these discs for my own collection.