"…gently rendered with perfect blend and ensemble."
Cosmos Trio: Jeanne Norton, harp; Katherine Borst Jones, flute; Mary E.M. Harris, viola. MSR Classics, 2017.
Little did Claude Debussy know when he wrote a sonata for the unlikely combination of flute, viola, and harp that he would start a cottage industry of imitators, challenging themselves to reach his level of the sublime with the same combo. Cue the Cosmos Trio, a group founded in 2004 from members of Pro Musica in Columbus, Ohio to commission and perform these new creations and record them in a new exquisite disc called American Premiers.
The disc begins with a nod to the Frenchman who started it all, a Petite Suite by the late Stephen Paulus. The three-movement neo-classical work begins with a call-and-response of skipping gestures, all gently rendered with perfect blend and ensemble. The slow “With an air of melancholy” seems born straight from the choral world of Minnesota where Paulus lived, worked, and was surrounded. Ending with Spirited, the Cosmos Trio is expressive, with heart on sleeve. Captured just right by the trio, I can see this piece having legs on many a concert stage.
Andrew Boysen admits he had no idea what to name his short, wistful work commissioned by former colleague Katherine Borst-Jones, flutist of the Cosmos Trio. So he simply named it with the three words that manifest the thoughts in his mind while writing, Beautiful, Sweet, Delicate. With just a tiny punctuation of a bell, the trio lends this diaphanous work an air of the spiritual. Violist Mary E. M. Harris plucked at my own heart strings with her serenely balanced playing.
Libby Larsen is one of the leading composers in the United States, and certainly one of the most important women in music today. Her Four Movements have an air of a koan, a search through detaching from any analysis or explanation in an attempt to achieve an enlightened state. The music feels like a natural extension of Debussy’s trio in its veiled loveliness. Just when one voice takes over, another blends indistinctly into the next, like a flowing tapestry of colored cloth in a light breeze. Harpist Jeanne Norton’s cascading glissandi propelling the music forward at the final movement.
Choral conductor and composer Dale Warland’s Arise my Love has a narrative feel. The Cosmos Trio gives this piece a sensual and warm interpretation. Originally featuring soprano, this instrumental transcription calls on the viola to gently imply the missing vocal line. Less successful was when voices joined the trio in Donald Harris’ Letter from Home, on a poem by Mary Oliver and re-imagined by Jerry Glazier. Sopranos Lucy Shelton and Christine Mortine posses vibrato speeds not quite in keeping with the ensemble and were sometimes just shy of pitch.
The CD ends with the delightful upbeat folk-tinged Columbus Triptyche by Stephen Main. With a feeling of wide-open spaces, broad horizons, and a can-do spirit, this is the most American sounding of the bunch. And like the first on the album, this work is one I’d love to see on more programs.