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April 13, 1999

Modern ComposersNancy Galbraith: Four Chamber Works. String Quartet No. 1, performed by Cuarteto Latinoamericano; Incantation and Allegro, performed by C.K. DeAlmeida, oboe, Nancy Goeres, bassoon, and Luz Manriquez, piano; Aeolian Muses, performed by Thomas Thompson, clarinet, Will Genz, bassoon, and Ralph Zitterbart, piano; Rhythms and Rituals, performed by Renaissance City Winds woodwind quintet, with P.P. Jennings, piano. (Elan Recordings, CD # 82414) 1999.

American composer Nancy Galbraith (b. 1951) came from a musical family. Her mother was a prominent pianist/organist, and her uncle was a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. She attended the Carnegie Mellon Preparatory School of Music, and earned degrees in composition from Ohio University and West Virginia University. She now teaches composition at Carnegie Mellon University, where the faculty also includes Spanish composer Leonardo Balada. The professional connection with Balada is significant because Galbraith's work contains a strong Spanish/Latin influence, fed in part by that affiliation. Though she composes primarily for larger groups such as symphony orchestras and wind symphonies, this new album from Elan Recordings contains only chamber works written by Galbraith in the past six years. The four works in this collection were all "conceived and written specifically for the performers who played their premieres, most of whom are represented on this recording."

The Latin flavor of Galbraith's work is strongly present in the String Quartet No. 1, written in 1996, performed on this recording by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano, a Mexican group founded in 1981 that includes three brothers. The group has been involved in introducing the work of a number of Latin American composers to the rest of the world, and occupies a highly unusual position with feet in both Mexican and U.S. music worlds, holding simultaneous musical residences in the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico City and at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The quartet is in three movements of roughly equal length, a slow movement bracketed by two fast sections. It begins with a staccato burst of eight quick repetitions of a single chord, like eight quick hammer blows -- or gunshots. This beginning establishes the mood of the first movement -- quick, terse, repetitive, high-voltage. The development of the first section is primarily rhythmic, with very little melody or harmonic coloration. The second movement begins on a radically different note, with a slow shimmering background and a slow, tentative melody in low strings. After some conventional development, the melodic element becomes disjointed, then splits into two antagonistic elements that evolve into an elaborate but short two-part section in which the quartet is fully engaged in a contest for dominance. The structure quickly collapses into a quiet, thin drawn-out statement of the original melodic elements. The third movement returns to the rapid high-energy mood of the beginning, with the opening sequence of chords repeated, but in combination with melodic fragments. It culminates in an aggressive, rapid, full- bodied, syncopated statement that comes to an abrupt end, with no hint of a finale. The entire piece is robust and aggressive -- maybe not your first choice to relax and wind down after a rough day, but just the thing if you need a little jolt to get you through another few hours.

You can hear the String Quartet No. 1 by Nancy Galbraith on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, April 15 at 7:00 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green

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