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March 28, 2000

Modern ComposersRalph Shapey: Songs of Life. Evocation II for Cello, Piano, & Percussion; Songs of Life for Soprano, Cello & Piano; Sonata for Cello & Piano; Evocation IV for Violin, Cello, Piano, & Percussion. All compositions by Ralph Shapey; performed by Joel Krosnick, Gilbert Kalish, Joel Smirnoff, Lisa Saffer, and William Trigg. (Arabesque Recordings, CD # Z6728) 1999.

American composer Ralph Shapey (b. 1921) got tagged with the label "controversial" at the beginning of his career, and has never been able to shake it. Eight years ago, the Pulitzer Prize music jury unanimously chose Shapey's "Concerto Fantastique" for the 1992 Pulitzer for music, only to be overruled by the Pulitzer board, who awarded the prize to Wayne Peterson instead. That incident typifies the extreme reactions that Shapey's work has evoked throughout his career.

Shapey was a true child prodigy as a violinist and also as a conductor and composer. He was appointed youth conductor and later assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. After a stint in the army during World War II, Shapey settled in New York and attracted the attention of Dmitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Mitropoulos commissioned a work for orchestra by Shapey, and the rehearsal and performance of that piece marked the beginning of Shapey's reputation for being a difficult conductor as well as a difficult composer.

Though he was considered a virtuoso conductor and composer, Shapey was not well known by the public during the 1940s and 50s. Because of the technical difficulty of his compositions, much of his work from that period was written for small groups, partly because it was easier and less expensive to schedule long rehearsal times for a chamber work than for a large-scale work. Performances by chamber groups, however, tend not to attract the attention of the public the way orchestral performances can. Also, even the small part of the American public who were trying to follow and make sense of the challenging contemporary music of the period were so traumatized by the great depression that many of them turned from the progressive and difficult work of composers such as Schoenberg, Berg, and Bartok to more comfortable and nationalistic work of Copland, Barber, and others. Shapey, however, continued to go his own way, and over a long career produced some 165 works. This new album from Arabesque Recordings contains a sampling of four works written over a forty-year period, that demonstrate the remarkable consistency of Shapey's work.

Songs of Life for Soprano, Cello & Piano, written in 1988, uses short excerpts from a number of writers as its text. It is worth quoting some of those here, because Shapey dissects and rearranges the words to create a complex word mosaic. The central text is from Whitman: "Great is Life, real and mystical...." The rest of the text to Song One includes Edmund Rostand: "What is Life without a dream?" William Shakespeare: "Like madness is the glory of this life." Oscar Wilde: "The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden." and H.W. Longfellow: "We can make our lives sublime,/ And, departing leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time." Musically, the songs are lean and open, even for such minimal voicing, structurally complex and very focused. They are clearly the work of a composer who demands absolute control and precision.

You can hear Songs of Life for Soprano, Cello & Piano by Ralph Shapey on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, March 30 at 7:00 p.m. as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950

-- J. Green


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