Scott Pender: Music For Woodwinds
Navona Records

Rare is the recording featuring arrangements for clarinet and bassoon; said detail about Scott Pender's Music for Woodwinds naturally catches one's attention first, but the hour-long album ultimately impresses most for the resplendence of its melodies. Put simply, the playing of any musician, woodwinds or otherwise, is enhanced when the material given to the musician to perform is so enticingly lyrical. That the collection, which includes material drawn from a thirty-year period, tickles the ear so powerfully without any compromise to the sophistication and integrity of the writing says much about Pender's gifts as a composer. Eloquence and charm go hand-in-hand in these six wonderful settings.

A graduate of Georgetown University and Peabody Conservatory with respective degrees in philosophy and music composition, Pender (b. 1959) studied in the UK with Gavin Bryars as the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and has composed works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, voice, piano, organ, and music for theater, stage, and dance. A Florida native who's called Washington, D.C. home for more than three decades, Pender has seen his work celebrated for its “flawless compositional technique” (The Columbia Flier) and “grandeur and mystery” (The Washington Times); clarity and poise are words one might add to those, based on the evidence at hand. Eighteen tracks in total are presented on the release, many of them bite-sized but delectable nonetheless, and the one composition lasting longer than ten minutes, 2010's Variations for Oboe & Piano, is episodic (ten variations accounted for) and thus similar in character to the other multi-movement pieces.

Characteristic of the works' unusual configurations, 2013's Kimchi Dreams is scored for two clarinets and bassoon, its parts ranging between two sprightly movements and two lyrical exercises. Though concise, the material gloriously achieves its intended effects, whether it be the lightheartedness of the opening part, the plaintive yearning of the second, or the entrancing stateliness of the third. Stately too is the Variations for Oboe & Piano, whose broad canvas is magnificently realized in the rendering it receives here by oboist Margaret Herlehy and pianist Rob Haskins. Subtle allusions to other composers arise during the journey, among them a passage where a seeming reference to Canteloube's “Baïlèro” sees the oboe assume a rather English Horn-styled quality.

The album's earliest setting, 1989's rhythmically robust Toccatina, features four flute players (alto and bass among them) voicing repeating phrases in a manner reminiscent of American minimalism, but Pender's innate command of melody is never far from the surface—even when one's attention is so transfixed by the animated cross-currents of The Powell Quartet's flutes. Pender on piano accompanies Peabody bassoon professor Phillip Kolker for the aptly named Lyric Set, an ultra-expressive four-movement work that, like Kimchi Dreams, encompasses a wide spectrum of emotional terrain. Descriptively titled, the four parts extend from the graceful flow of “In the Tide of Times” (the title from a line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) to the jaunty irreverence of “Lord Berners' Giraffe,” named, in fact, after an English composer whose titular pet took tea with him at Faringdon House.

Contrasts in timbre and pitch are prominent in the three-movement Suite for Woodwind Quintet, originally written in 1989 but revised fourteen years later. Flute, clarinet, bassoon, and oboe are again present, though this time the sound deepened by the addition of Jenny Smoak's horn. Changes in instrumentation aside, the suite shares with the other five compositions Pender's exquisite melodic sensibility. The album's close is ceded to bassoonists Dillon Meacham, Jonathan Nitz, and Hanul Park and contrabassoonist Alex Carlucci for Five Dances, a 2011 set of short pieces that caps the release on a suitably joyous note.

Never have these various woodwind combinations sounded as natural as they do in Scott Pender's hands. His compositions are well-served, too, by the musicians, who deliver fully engaged performances, whether the material in question be something as rousing as the final movement of the Suite for Woodwind Quintet or as poignant as its central Adagio cantabile. One easily pictures the four bassoonists figuratively pinching themselves while playing Five Dances, so delighted at having been given such wonderful material to perform.

February 2018