Among the eight works was a world premiere, Chicago composer Patricia Morehead’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1998). Inspired by a futuristic novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the four movements cover a range of evocative moods derived from weird, even macabre, scenes in the book. The first section creates a feeling of eerie expectancy with its Aeolian-harp-like strums of piano strings “prepared” with pieces of tape; later on, the pianists hammer out shadowy honky-tonk. What could have devolved into a series of disjointed atonal effects impresses as absorbing, coherent music.
Pat [Morehead’s] own compositions are cerebrally inspired and disciplined in the best University of Chicago tradition. But they also display a feminine side in their playfulness and their intangible warmth.
Patricia Morehead’s “Triptych” for soprano and string quartet… shows her remarkable knack for capturing a mood. The first part is snarly and quizzical; the second luxuriates in an exotic languor. The third part takes the prize with its funky, bluesy, tipsy rant.
Morehead’s “Disquieted Souls” for solo English horn, string quintet and woodwind quintet featured a Chicago homecoming for Carolyn Hove, the solo English horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who cut her teeth on new music while performing with Ralph Shapey and the Chicago Contemporary Players in the 1980s. She displayed a lovely creaminess of tone and careful articulation, but also knew how to create urgency and tension. It’s not surprising that Morehead wrote the piece for and dedicated it to the very talented Hove.
The work, inspired by pre-Christian Celtic legends of goddesses and the supernatural, juxtaposes the uncomplicated with the intricate. Simple melodies and rhythms bloom into complex thickets. The composer’s husband, Philip Morehead, conducted with every attention to detail.
The most interesting of the four works, Morehead’s “Good News Falls Gently” (1995) and Misurell-Mitchell’s “Sermon of the Middle- Aged Revolutionary Spider” (1997), drew on texts by Regina Harris Baiocchi and Angela Jackson, respectively, both African-American poets with strong Chicago connections.
The Morehead piece, for soprano and chamber orchestra, derives from three Baiocchi poems that represent the Holy Trinity as female (“Glorify God the Spirit/Mother of us all”). The musical setting, an outgrowth of the American spiritual tradition, is strongly rooted in tonal harmony. Jonita Lattimore brought affecting power and dignity to the score — her big, limpid voice soared comfortably over the lush scoring. This was its U.S. premiere…
The program also held … Morehead’s blackly comedic setting of an Anne Sexton poem, “The Wonderful Musician” (1990). Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley traced the leaping vocal intervals with her usual accuracy of pitch and clarity of diction.”
But it was Morehead’s “It Is Dangerous To Read Newspapers” that seemed most relevant. Set to a Margaret Atwood poem about the cruelties of war, it’s ferocious in anger and anguish while sinking into deep pessimism. Soprano (Barbara Ann) Martin neatly conveyed the ambivalence urged on by Philip Morehead’s vigorous pounding.
…[There is] a new CD of Morehead’s music issued by Navona Records… Anyone who has followed Morehead’s career knows…of the long and active music career of this Chicago composer.
The disc opens with “Disquieted Souls”…This recording, as well as the world premiere in Chicago in 2010, features Carolyn Hove, the solo English horn player with the Los Angeles Philharmonic…Morehead wrote the piece for and dedicated it to Hove, who performs it with great suppleness, drawing out the beauty of the music…
This music is intriguing because of the way it combines melodies and ideas that seem very old with a completely contemporary sensibility. It opens with an almost jaunty little tune, but then meanders into something darker and at times mysterious.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a piece Morehead completed in 1998… It’s a fascinating work in four short movements (none over five minutes), which dances, floats, pounds and ponders. The piano playing is marvelous and wonderfully recorded from a live performance in Toronto nearly a decade ago.
Soprano Barbara Ann Martin somehow creates both a meditative sound with one that is full of urgency and pain in “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers,” a song based on a poem of Margaret Atwood. Morehead wrote the song as a reaction to the Columbine shootings, although Atwood herself was commenting on the Vietnam War. Philip Morehead offers superb support and flex as pianist.
“Ladders of Anxiety” is a thoroughly gripping composition with the flute taking center stage in a small ensemble. Caroline Pittman, long associated with Morehead, offers a haunting, airy sound as she moves through the score. Along with the flute there’s a violin, a viola, a cello and in an inspired move by Morehead, a guitar. The last instrument sneaks in now and again with unexpected twangy punctuation and at times these five instruments create a sound so big you can’t believe it’s coming from such a small group.
“Good News Falls Gently” is set to poetry of Regina Harris Baiocchi. Soprano Jonita Lattimore sings with gorgeous, plump sound and the orchestra brings out glittering colors. This is music that makes an impression, and even with repeated listenings I can’t believe how much is packed into less than 10 minutes.
…”Good News Falls Gently” is new music with passion, mystery and inventive writing performed by committed musicians who have already discovered the charm of Morehead’s writing. Get this CD and you can discover it too.
Patricia Morehead has an extensive cataogue of compositions, but we have heard only a small sampling of her creativity on record. Listeners will be glad to know that Morehead’s second album featuring five exquisite chamber works was recently released and is now available through Navona Records. She assembles an exciting array of narrative texts as a basis for each piece, including multiple works from acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood, whose chilling, futuristic writing is mirrored in these chamber works such as The Handmaid’s Tale (named for one of Atwood’s novels). Equally intriguing, It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers features soprano Barbara Ann Martin delivering lines of Atwood’s poem on our modern obsessions with bad news. A musical exploration of human anxieties, fears and faith make this a profound listening experience.
Review of Patricia Morehead Good News Falls Gently
Jennifer Griffith, IAWM Journal, Vol 18 No 1, 2012
Despite its title, anxiety takes center stage in this new CD of music by composer Patricia Morehead. Her carefully laid out compositions edge into anxiety with ease; trepidation as a subject matter is not alien to her. Disquieted Souls, elegant with a hint of Celtic melody, begins with a searing dissonance that returns throughout the piece. Morehead convinces us she knows harsh musical realities and is a compassionate employer of such sonorities in service to humanity’s ongoing battle with the fears of modem life—her interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale leaps out as the thematic centerpiece of this album. Its surrounding pieces elicit even more questions of the poet/novelist’s dystopian world, a world which might not be too far off in terms of its prophecy of regimented, prescribed identities for women. Atwood’s poem “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” and other pieces Morehead has chosen reinforce Atwood’s perspective from a range of angles.
Strains of harsh color permeate otherwise comfortable conversation in Disquieted Souls, the ensemble alternatively enfolding and freeing English horn player Carolyn Hove’s warm sound and sense of urgency. At times the melodic simplicity of the Celtic melody seems entirely disconnected from the dissonant harmonies or the tense string sonorities, but the sections flow easily and the ensemble’s rhythmic unison juxtaposed with Hove’s well-articulated solo work with accompaniment, all very finely wrought and skillfully performed by this committed band of musicians.
Morehead’s strongest expression of mood comes in the first movement (“Night”) of Handmaid’s Tale. The harp-like effect from the sweep of the piano’s plucked bass strings draws us into a malevolent place, with the second (partially prepared) piano’s bright, percussive line resounding above, a mixture of stark and sharply defined life. The performance in this and the other three movements is assured, although not without a few slight fluffs, and audible page turns occasionally mar an otherwise sensitive execution of Morehead’s scenes from Atwood’s world. Morehead’s comfort with extreme registers, clusters, and a dense harmonic landscape not far from late Romanticism, stem from Ralph Shapey’s school, and if her colors are not as emotionally gripping or continuously engrossing as other composers of the University of Chicago enclave, her subject-matter is much more ambitious: she dispenses with their abstract themes, particularly in making the personal political in her chosen texts. Salvaging depicts Atwood’s neoFascist regimented colony as one where a hanging of one of its members is eerily matter-of-fact (with short gestural utterances between pianos, while a disharmonious feeling aptly evokes Atwood’s portrayal of living under such conditions), as well as the ongoing pain of a life without beauty or pleasure. Morehead’s rebel musical mind cannot resist including an insurgent response to such conditions, and, near the end, the piano’s treble voice, to my ear, expresses an attempt to reach lighter recesses as a reprieve from the horror of Atwood’s version of capital punishment, with a sharp jab ending the piece.
Melodic collisions make more interesting sonorities in Morehead’s Ladders of Anxiety. The strings’ sustained tones, passed from one to another with beautifully executed vibrato, result in a communal vibration, a timbral bed of sound. These moments again remind me of the composer’s compassionate response to the otherwise unsettling world she conveys. The sense of ensemble in this performance immediately locks in and flute soloist Caroline Pittman easily moves into and between their huddled conversation and her own flights of nervous or soaring energy. Morehead’s odd bone-striking punctuation in transitions or endings seems at times not inevitable expression, but, again, a rebel impulse to jolt us awake from our ever-buzzing lives. Pensive moments are also tender; how else to get by in this anxious world? The minimalist section from the ensemble, which breaks through late in the work behind the flute’s long, lyrical melodic lines, succeeds where short minimalist events in so many younger composers these days miss their mark. Morehead wisely flows from these ostinati into layers of complex and engaging sound.
Finally, a vibrant and colorful orchestral palette captures well the thankful narrator of Good News Falls Gently, the title song of the CD. Soprano Jonita Lattimore’s deep, sometimes almost fleshy vocal colors are quite fitting for the quasi-medieval, spirit-mother inspired poem by Regina Harris Baiocchi. Lattimore is joined by Pittman (flute/alto flute) and the composer (oboe), and other orchestral members led by conductor Philip Morehead, who brings out every detail. Morehead has chosen a worthy sister to Atwood in Baiocchi, whose poetry counters with a utopian vision Atwood’s dystopian mother archetype. Lattimore possesses a gorgeous sound over an impressively wide range and although Morehead’s vocal lines are not equally gorgeous nor particularly transcendent—on this CD she is a worldly composer in the best sense of connecting to the human situation—her use of the entire vocal range should challenge and delight singers. Baiocchi’s poem summons us (women) to think as one (“Each woman fanning a different skirt/yet all sharing the same hem” and “the women chanted in ev’ry language/with a familiar and common voice”) and Morehead accepts the invitation. With a bluesy sound—drawn here from thoroughly West European-trained musicians—she seeks to connect to her African-American sister. One might hear her incorporation of the blues as simplistic, but this foray answers the poet’s invocation of a spiritual world that incorporates the Mother, and Morehead is surely right to forge into unknown, or less-known, territory, to work into her own voice the voices of other ethnicities and experience.
Navona Records has supplied enhanced multimedia materials for this excellently produced album—Bob Lord has the magic touch with composers. While listening, one can browse through scores of the works and other materials, which include a digitized booklet (a welcome new version of the standard hardcopy booklet) and extras: wallpaper (for one’s desktop) and even ringtones.
Jennifer Griffith moves between creative efforts as composer, jazz vocalist, and scholar. She earned her doctorate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she studied with Thea Musgrave, David Del Tredici, and Tania Leon.
The mid-concert fare included the world premiere of Spiral Density (2013) by Sarah J. Ritch. While the composer displayed an interesting graph as she spoke briefly about the work, it was the committed performance of Patricia Morehead on oboe which the audience will most remember. She expertly weaved her sound in and around the sometimes beepy electronics. Brava to Morehead, herself a composer, for such a carefully created performance of new music.
Elegy (1987) by Patricia Morehead was given a memorable reading by violist Michael Hall and pianist Philip Morehead. It was sad and powerful, steeped in pain.
Oboeist/composer Patricia Morehead’s scores for Steve Stein’s Must Like Magic, a wry account of a magician and his new apprentice, bounced along with a surprisingly effective undercurrent of unease.
From a review of the new CD “Toccatas” by harpsichordist Jory Vinikour:
“The most recent piece featured on “Toccatas,” Morehead’s “Tourbillon Galaxy” is also one of the most technically daunting pieces that Mr. Vinikour plays in this recital, but his stylishness embraces both the underlying influence of the harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau and the starkly modern idiom of Morehead’s writing, the punishingly complex contrapuntal passages, their subjects contrasted at intervals of semiquavers, drawing from Mr. Vinikour wonderfully athletic playing.”
On March 16, 2012 I reviewed favorably Patricia Morehead’s Good News Falls Gently on these pages. Today we have her second album, a collection of mostly songs entitled Brass Rail Blues (Navona 5953). It is music of a gestural modernism that works within an advanced harmonic palette that approaches atonality but generally stays within key centers one way or another.
The works for voice and instruments are situated within a chamber setting. “Alaskan Songs” features mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley plus clarinet and piano, “Three French Songs” has Bentley again with piano accompaniment [this work actually composed by her husband, Philip Morehead], “Sempre un Giorno Nuovo” spotlights soprano Alicia Berneche with piano, “Two Movements from Tryptich” gives us Susanna Phillips in the soprano role plus string quartet, and “The Wonderful Musician” encores Julia Bentley with the CUBE Chamber Orchestra. The latter is a work of real modernist power. The pieces in song form have an edgy quality and well-conceived phrasing sequences that convey the emotive impact of the texts.
Interspersed throughout the program are several instrumental works: “The Edible Flute” for flute and piano, and “Just Before the Rain” for mandolin, cello and clarinet. The latter I particularly like for its lively sound color contrasts between the instruments.
These are works of substance. Patricia Morehead has a sure sense of instrumentation, a flair for vocal writing and text setting, and a modern expressionism that wears well with repetitive auditions.
“Brass Rail Blues” from Tryptich has an Americana favor, bluesy yet straying nicely into modern harmonic territory.
There is much to like in this program. Patricia Morehead gives us more reasons why she is a composer of today, someone to follow with interest. Recommended.