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Cappella SF under Ragnar Bohlin have recorded music by David Conte and Conrad Susa on Delos

You may not know the names of most of the composers on ‘American Romantics’

but you’re likely to be captivated by all of their music. The 10-member Gowanus Arts Ensemble, led by Reuben Blundell, performs a dozen string pieces – in first recordings – by nine composers.

The composers were either Americanborn or immigrants steeped in the Romantic style of the 19th century. A bit of Tchaikovsky here or a pinch of Brahms there don’t detract from the freshness of the writing, which includes homages to Native American tunes and folksong influences. The disc’s most well-known composers are Arthur Foote, whose Bach-like Air and charming Gavotte are highlights, and Horatio Parker, most admired for organ works, who shows his genial side in his Scherzo for strings.

But everything on this disc entrances the ears, from three fine Carl Busch pieces with roots in Native American soil and Frederick Shepherd Converse’s tender Serenade to Eugène Arcade Dédé’s gently buzzing Bees and Bumblebees. There is no shortage of idyllic narratives, including Ludwig Bonvin’s glistening Christmas Night’s Dream.

Blundell shapes this heartfelt and buoyant fare with consummate taste and flexibility, allowing the music to sing and dance as required. He is fortunate to be working with a crackerjack group of string players, who appear to savour every lyrical and whimsical phrase. The music they perform comes from the Edwin A Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which likely could keep Blundell and company happily occupied with hundreds (thousands?) more pleasurable pieces. Donald Rosenberg

‘Facing West’ Conte The Composer. A Whitman Triptych. Invocation and Dance Susa Six Joyce Songs, Vol 2. Landscapes and Silly Songs Cappella SF / Ragnar Bohlin with Keisuke Nakagoshi, Kevin Korth pf Artie Storch, Stan Muncy perc Delos F DE3524 (59’ • DDD • T/t)

Cappella SF’s disc of music by Conrad Susa and David Conte makes a perfect CD to listen to while lying in bed with the New York Times on a lazy Sunday morning.

The music of both men, longtime friends and composing colleagues at the San

Francisco Conservatory of Music, is rich in the senses of regard, reflection, tonality and repose. Written exquisitely for the uniquely expressive toolkit of musical tones and colours a chamber choir is capable of, these heartfelt, intimate responses to the poetry of James Joyce, Whitman, Lorca and John Stirling Walker, librettist for Conte’s Elegy for Matthew in honour of Matthew Shepard, are like musical love letters, with shimmering ecstasy always in the background.

Notable moments abound: the title-track, Conte’s ‘Facing West,’ is a golden tonepoem in honour of the Golden Gate Bridge at 75, at the end of which Jonathan Thomas’s plaintive tenor solo unforgettably pierces a moment of silence with, ‘But where is what I started for, so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?’ Susa’s wonderful Landscapes and Silly Songs, based on Lorca, uses an exotic vocabulary that ranges from appropriately silly but very elegant Spanish flourishes to unexpected surges of passion, increasingly interacting with the emotional temperature.

In addition to providing Cappella SF with the opportunity to show how comprehensively they go beyond the notes to find the music’s heart, the flash of Susa’s wonderful piano writing in the second of his Six Joyce Songs, played by Keisuke Nakagoshi with relish and splendid panache, shows his masterful writing for instruments as well. Laurence Vittes


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