Karen Walwyn first came to my attention through her two excellent solo compilations of piano music by African-American composers (Dark Fires and Dark Fires Volume 2, on Albany). For her composer/pianist disc debut, Walwyn offers a single, large-scale, multi-movement work, Reflections on 9/11. According to the composer’s booklet notes, each section addresses different aspects of the September 11 tragedy, from the destruction of the Twin Towers to physical and psychological aftermath and spiritual rebirth. However, the main question is whether or not the music stands and communicates on its own without programmatic aid. Happily it does, and the seven sections held my attention over their nearly one hour total playing time.
The first movement, “That Day”, begins with a gentle ostinato that morphs into busier arpeggios and quasi-impressionist harmonic gestures. As the music grows more virtuosic and harmonically ambiguous, the tumultuous figurations tend to spin without moving, so to speak, yet Walwyn’s sense of internal build is right on the money. The second movement, “Aftermath”, offers slow moving chords in extreme registers that might be described as pared-down Messiaen.
Is Rachmaninov subliminally responsible for the third movement’s swirling passagework? Walwyn executes the latter capably, yet such lapidarian piano writing requires more textural variety and linear clarity than Walwyn delivers at the keyboard. The fifth-movement variation set, “Memories”, is imaginatively wrought, structurally fluid, and melodically rich, with the exception of a rather naïve and cliché-driven Latin jazz section that meshes poorly with its surroundings. The sixth movement, “Burial”, features a gorgeous, simple melody, enhanced by a slow moving left-hand arpeggiated accompaniment that generates tension through subtle shifts in emphasis and accent.
In an ideal world you could imagine a more resonant, ringing concert grand and a larger, warmer sonic ambience. Nevertheless, this is an impressive achievement from a highly talented composer/pianist and I look forward to hearing more of her music.