Fernande Breilh‑Decruck: Sonata in C sharp for alto saxophone (or viola) and orchestra – Heroic Poem for solo trumpet in C, solo horn in F and orchestra – Concerto for harp and orchestra (World Premiere Recording)
Carrie Koffman (saxophone), Amy McCabe (trumpet), Leelanee Sterrett (horn), Chen‑Yu Huang (harp), Jackson Symphony Orchestra, Matthew Aubin (conductor)
Recording: Harold Sheffer Music Hall at the George E. Potter Center, Jackson, Michigan (January 2022) – 67’02
Claves Records CD 50‑3046
Since its founding in 1949, the Jackson Symphony Orchestra (JSO), has had a patient and steady growth over the past seven decades. As a personal recall back to the mid‑1960’s, JSO frequently performed at the newly opened Parkside High School. Even then, an eclectic repertoire was already evolving with Chabrier’s ever‑popular Espana and Ippolitov‑Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches taking to the stage in circa 1966...two pieces that made an indelible impression on this reviewer when frequenting the venue as a child. Having an ability to draw a cadre of guest artists worldwide, JSO has also been a musical wunderkind with its ability to bring innovation in programs and education to the community that has been greatly reinforced by Dr. Matthew Aubin as Music Director since 2017.
Similar to James Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” created in 2008 with Los Angeles Opera, Dr. Aubin has graciously opened his doors upon the Equal Billing Project, a discriminating venture dedicated to highlighting composers never fully recognized during their lifetime. The Sonata for saxophone, already in repertoire, was a mere scratching of the surface to Fernande Decruck’s copious anthology. With this discovery now revealed, Dr. Aubin subsequently selected a stimulating tripartite to embrace this Claves recording, featuring four distinct instruments and providing a grand launching pad for the Gaillac‑born composer.
Even though Fernande Decruck began as an organist, she quickly moved into the world of saxophone. And while the single‑reed instrument has been around since the 1840s, the saxophone immediately conjures stronger use in modern jazz. Thus, it’s an unusual splendor to hear this woodwind featured as a soloist in an orchestral surrounding. After a balefully-driven (though attention-getting) opening in the “Très modéré”, a pathway into the Sonata in C sharp for alto saxophone reveals brighter (1’23) benevolences as Carrie Koffman fluidly recites her melody with smoky billowiness. A pastoral perch is quickly reached, reminiscent of Honegger’s Pastorale d’été. Mlle Koffman shows how creamy and fluffy a saxophone can be in both the background and melodic lines. We hear hints of Delius and flits of Debussy surface as well. While Carrie Koffman handles “Noël” in pleasant finesse, it’s in the subsequent “Fileuse” that we hear the soloist channeling through a myriad of depth‑defying runs that carries into the “Nocturne et Rondel”. As the movement opens with a rhythmic “distance” akin to Ravel’s sensuous and mystic Boléro, exoticisms also dwell and give a forward reminder to Maurice Jarre’s A Passage to India. In a grand flair, however, the movement eventually closes in a Gershwin‑like punch. Across the piece, Carrie Koffman molds a diaphanous quality into Fernande Decruck’s notes without harsh overexertion...a simply spectacular rendition.
Perhaps Fernande Decruck looked upon her Poème Héroïque as a tribute to the closing arguments of World War II. Decruck frequently lightens the story through Amy McCabe’s notes of encouragement: straightforward, the trumpet heralds a time of healing and hope. Soon to follow the clarion brass settles down to a majestic fugue dialogue with Leelanee Sterrett’s striking horn outreaches. Moments of austerity suddenly turn around (9’30) and give the closing “Moderato” a Korngold glimmer. A collection of cold grey clouds hangs about in the sky, as found in the "Andante espressivo", yet the stretch is highly cinematic with an imagination recalculating the sobering flashback. Though the Poem has its slivers of uncertainty, there are vast moments of hope on the horizon as Decruck's notes find a way to breaking through the murky transom. M. Aubin writes in his notes that this music has a much stronger form of American and Neo‑Romantic rather than French. While both Mlles McCabe and Sterrett deliver monumental tones of strength, there is a presupposition that Decruck was hinting at a eulogy to “fallen heroes” all along. Tutti orchestra gathers steam, and the work patiently builds momentum in a fight between oppression and triumph. The more we hear the ominous passages, the more Fernande Decruck gives a stronger message of optimism. The returning pizzicati and hints of a returning Korngold give the Poème Héroïque a lift to grandeur and an apotheosis of sorts.
The Concerto for harp and orchestra is “unexpected and capricious, yet delicate and dense”. Never knowing what’s at the next turn is the modus operandi in this concert piece, and Chen‑Yu Huang fashions her performance with lyrical lightness, tailored by honeyed enclaves that quickly compensate the testier equations of Decruck’s music: we feel that famed French harpist Pierre Jamet is sitting in the next room, watching and listening to Fernande Decruck’s music unfold since the composer dedicated this œuvre to the famed pedagogue. Mlle Huang is sharply poised in her runs as she blooms with emotional opinions, as if a child who patiently waits her turn to speak above a room full of vociferous people.
The “Andante” and “Très vif et léger” are nicely contrasted passages. In the former we hear how a dulcet palette, in waltz formation, is set inside the heart, especially with the addition of Patrick Johnson’s delicate celeste flourishes...at this juncture, we're mildly reminded of the early classical refinements of Henriette Renié's Concerto for Harp and Orchestra in C minor. Mlle Huang renders the closing arguments (beginning at 3’14) with a veil of bittersweet elegance and an emotional response...the resonance is magical. In the latter, we turn to a march‑like tempo, whereby various instruments (i.e. trumpet, flute, clarinet) take their turn in short “commentary”. This sets up the spotlight for harp once again...spritely fresh and full of youthful innocence. Splendid. But it’s inside the “Final. Allegro molto” where we find the silvery roulades and runs prevail and dominate...a musical reminder to Gabriel Pierné’s Cydalise et le Chèvre‑pied. Chen‑Yu Huang’s performance is untimid and determined with a brilliancy of effervescence. The Concerto for harp and orchestra is hidden by trap doors of sudden twists and turns, and that’s why being “caught off guard” by Decruck’s musical style can be invigorating.
Matthew Aubin’s ability to reawaken music of the unheard is what discovery is all about. We champion his efforts as we graciously experience the talents of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra on this CD. Intriguing music and well‑worth a visit.
Fernande Breilh-Decruck Website
Jackson Symphony Orchestra Website