New CDs Show Range of Faculty Musical Talent

Photos: Mike Peters

John J. Cali School of Music faculty Heather Buchanan, David Witten, and Robert Aldridge.

Three faculty members from Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music are featured on a trio of new music CDs being released in 2011.

  • Director of Choral Activities and Associate Professor of Music Heather Buchanan directs the Montclair State University Singers on innovative composer Meredith Monk’s new CD entitled Songs of Ascension. (ECM, May 17)

  • Professor of Music David Witten’s solo performances of Nikolai Tcherepnin’s piano music is the first recording made of the 20th century Russian composer and conductor’s work. (Toccata Classics, June 13)

  • Professor of Composition and Theory Robert Aldridge is releasing a CD of his full-length opera, Elmer Gantry, based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel about old time religion, illicit romance, and revenge. (Naxos, July 1)

“They are three fabulous CDs,” enthused Ruth Rendleman, interim director of the Cali School of Music. “They really show the breadth and depth and the performing aspect of our faculty. It brings increased recognition to our school to have such different kinds of work going on.”

Meredith Monk, Songs of Ascension

Composer and performing artist Meredith Monk joins with the Montclair State University Singers, conducted by Director of Choral Activities and Associate Professor of Music Heather J. Buchanan; Monk’s Vocal Ensemble and M6; plus the Todd Reynolds Quartet, on a musically ambitious work that takes listeners on an unconventional performance journey.

“I like that [Monk] stretches people’s concepts of sound and music,” noted Buchanan. “She really comes to it from a spiritual dimension that is non-traditional, and I like that enormously. She’s never rigid; there’s always a flexibility.”

The 55-member mixed-voice University Singers were excited about performing with an artist of Monk’s caliber. “The honor of being included in an experience like this was tremendous for us,” she said.

The ensemble of undergraduate and graduate students, all of whom are experienced singers and musicians, normally focuses on a traditional classical chorale repertoire. The three tracks on which the University Singers perform were a challenge for the students, who more than rose to the occasion. “Meredith Monk’s music is very sophisticated. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks on the page. There are lots of complicated musical lines,” Buchanan said.

Monk’s association with Montclair State dates back six years to when she was a guest artist-in-residence. The new CD is Buchanan’s and the University Singers’ third collaboration with her.

Nikolai Tcherepnin

Witten happened upon the piano solos of Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945), a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and teacher of Prokofiev, five years ago while scouring a library in Moscow. “If people know him at all, they know him as a ballet composer. It was so interesting for me to discover his piano music,” he said. “His music is so varied. It has quicksilver changes. It has a drama that definitely matches the story line or descriptive element.” Four generations of the Tcherepnin family are composers, starting with Nicolai himself. The late Ivan Tcherepnin, Nikolai’s grandson, was a personal friend of Witten.

The CD reflects Tcherepnin’s fondness for fairytales. He composed 14 piano sketches (“Fourteen Sketches on Pictures from the Russian Alphabet”) to go with artist Albert Benois’s Alphabet Book in Pictures, in which letters of the Russian alphabet are illustrated with a scene from a Russian fairy tale or an image of an aristocratic childhood. All 14 sketches are on the CD. Tcherepnin’s influences range from Chopin and Rachmaninov to the colors of French Impressionism, the latter of which Tcherepnin was exposed to after emigrating to Paris as a young man.

Witten plans to perform Tcherepnin’s piano music at a concert he will be giving in Moscow in March, 2012. His international career has included numerous concert tours as well as solo appearances with the Boston Pops Orchestra and various chamber music collaborations with members of the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Elmer Gantry

Turning Elmer Gantry into an opera was an idea that first came to Aldridge in 1991. “I’m originally from the South and a minister’s son so the idea of religion in America was interesting,” he said, adding that he wanted to create a “distinctly American opera, not just an homage to the European form, but one that combines American vernacular, gospel music, and an operatic story.”

After many starts and stops, the production (with libretto by Aldridge’s long-time collaborator Herschel Garfein) premiered in Nashville in 2007 and at Montclair State in 2008 to glowing reviews. The opera’s 16-year odyssey culminated in the 2.5-hour CD, featuring the Florentine Opera Chorus, the Florentine Opera Company and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Aldridge has written over 60 works for orchestra, music-theater, chamber, string quartet, voice, and dance ensembles. Bitten by the opera bug, he is planning his second production, based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, about a young country girl’s fall from grace in her quest for success as an actress.

“Almost every composer thinks about doing an opera’” said Aldridge. “Historically, it’s seen as the ultimate form in that it combines words, music, theater, and costumes. It’s something I wanted to do for a long time.”