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Review: …the music of Elena Ruehr

June 5, 2009

Review: Jane Wang considers the dragonfly … and other music by Elena Ruehr (Albany Records)

With a light touch, Elena Ruehr’s music grabs your attention in a “what’s that over there in the distance?” sort of way. Upon a closer look the music is a careful balance of gorgeous sonorities, descriptive themes, and vibrant rhythm.

Performed by a team of group of excellent musicians: Sarah Brady – flute, Benjamin Seltzer – clarinet, Alexei Gonzales – Cello, Heng-Jin Park and Sarah Bob – Pianos, Elena Ruehr’s music is, to try and not sound cliché, a delight to listen to. Special note should go to Sarah Brady, one for being so prominent on the album (two of the works are for flutes alone in addition to a duet for flute and piano), her playing also stands out for its technical skill and emotional resonance with the repertoire in front of her.

Each work takes on its own character through a unique but related soundscape. The opening work – The Law of Floating Objects is for multiple flutes. The extended work floats in time and gives the impression of floating in space, as the stereo separated flutes layer over each other with smooth melodies. The piece that follows is entitled Blackberries, and is titled after a poem by Ruehr’s (then) 10 year old daughter. Even at its most aggressive the piece is delicate, like a mother’s handling of her daughter’s most precious things. The interplay of the different instruments – clarinet, cello, and piano, really drives the piece forward. Three Preludes, for piano, takes on very different material. Loneliness and an impending trauma are the topics of the first two pieces. The third prelude – written later than the first two – is perhaps the most percussive and dissonant moments on the album. The three works fit well together as a story arc even if that wasn’t the original intention.

Next are two duets – Of Water and Clouds (flute and piano) and Black and White (clarinet and piano) of similar length and scope. The first uses the idea of the water cycles for its form, while the second explores a melodic figure of alternating black and white notes as its basis for not just the melody but the form and rhythm as well. The second is the least ‘visual’ of all the pieces, giving no clear imagery in the music and instead relying on holding your attention simply with the notes – and does so very well. It also gives a moment of tension in the form of the album as a whole. Starting from the most impressionistic and visual of the pieces (…Floating Objects) we arrive at the most abstract of the pieces. This leads us back – both in sound and approach – to the piece for solo instrument (and delay) and the title track- Jane Wang considers the dragon fly. Performed on the album as a flute solo and bordering on minimalism, it is more rhythmic and repetitive than the opening track but shares a resemblance through the floating melodic lines and approach to imagery in music.

In the end, the feelings that one is left with after listening to Elena Ruehr’s music is delicateness and calm. Ruehr’s music is hardly done in a ‘classical pop’ style; instead it is written with a gorgeous complexity and a mature sensitivity towards the images it presents.

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