With the Heather and Small Birds

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            Born and raised in the coalmining district of South Wales, Tann has been a professor at Union College in Schenectady, New York for almost four decades.  A graduate of both the University of Wales in Cardiff and Princeton University, during her long time in the United States she has established herself as one of the most respected and popular composers of her generation.  The creator of many pieces for orchestra and chamber orchestra, she is also known for her many songs, choral works, and chamber works for a diversity of instruments.  Her compositions have garnered many honors; in 2011 she was the Composer-in-residence for the Women in Music Festival at the Eastman School of Music.  One of her distinguishing traits as a composer is her close bond with nature—as well as her native Wales--and many of her compositions reflect just that, in both title and in atmosphere.  While more than capable of energetic and bold musical statements, as a mature composer she is not as susceptible to the bombast that often plagues many of the younger generation of composers.  Many of her works are gentle, evocative, and infused with a mystic reflective quality that often defies time, place, and culture.   She is as likely to take inspiration from a mediæval Welsh flickering stone lamp as she is a Japanese shakuhachi (bamboo flute), and she has done both.  Other influences have been plainchant, ruined castles, de Medici gardens, and the Adirondack Mountains—wherever kindred evocative spirits lie.

            With the Heather and Small Birds, however, is a rousing overture, and is inspired by the out-of-doors of her native Wales.  It was commissioned by the 1994 Cardiff Festival.  Opening with boisterous ascending string unisions—that are a basic idea of the piece—they overlap, seemingly competing to ascend.  Tann is an adroit master of counterpoint, and the motives used here weave in and around each other.  If there is an ascending opposite of “cascading,” then this surely is it.  Things soon settle down to a quiet “chirping” in the piccolo, accompanied by murmuring scales in the other woodwinds.  The title obviously suggests these are the “small birds.” A rich haze created by luminous strings soon pervades, but after a while a brief melody in the solo oboe—perhaps the most extensive “tune” so far—announces a return to the energy of the very opening.           

            Pervasive motive-based counterpoint returns, with the ideas tossed to and fro around the orchestra, and then, as before, things calm down—and the “birds return.”  A lightly-scored section that features various solo woodwinds soon announces the return of the vigorous, motivic counterpoint, in a weft of swirling lines, and then it’s quickly over.  Reading too much into putative depictions in music of impressions of landscapes and the lot has always been an ambiguous affair.  But, excellent composers—from Mendelssohn and Liszt on—have been largely successful.  It’s clear that Tann has an eloquent, personal gift for it, and this essay on the blandishments of nature in Wales is testimony.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan