Richard Rendleman, Jr.: Poems of Margaret Proctor Wood. Kay Lowe, soprano, Scott Tilley, piano; & Moravian Philharmonic Orch., Scott Tilley, conductor. ©2003, 43:15, $11.99. Available from Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, or from the composer (postage paid): Richard J. Rendleman, Jr., 1417 Dogwood Lane, Raleigh, NC 27607
Readers will surely wonder who this unknown poet (1881-1971) is. Margaret Proctor Wood descended from John Proctor, the central character in the late Arthur Miller's The Crucible who was hanged in the Salem witchcraft trials, and was a cousin of the grandfather of composer Richard J. Rendleman, Jr. (http://www.rendleman.com/). She was born and lived most of her life on the family farm in Danvers, Massachusetts, in a house that has not changed structurally since it was purchased by her grandfather in 1812. She was a graduate of Wheaton College and Brown University and taught French for 50 years, 37 of them at her alma mater, Holton High. Throughout her life, she wrote poetry on various subjects, in various forms and styles. Two volumes were privately printed – Rhymes of a Lifetime in 1959 and More Rhymes of a Lifetime in 1964. Following in her footsteps, the composer also has a day job, as Professor of Finance at UNC-CH's Kenan-Flagler School of Business.
Ten poems were selected for this cycle, commissioned by the soprano and premièred (in its version with piano accompaniment) a decade ago during a January 1995 concert presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. The composer later orchestrated the work, and the recording presents both versions, with Scott Tilley doing double duty as collaborative pianist and orchestral conductor.
The texts are quite varied, ranging from the opening patriotic "Massachusetts," to the short "Flickers" and "October 9, 1943" that record moments or events in daily life, to "I Simply Have to Skip Today" presented from a child's viewpoint, the humorous "For Early Discipline," the sentimental "Grandmother's Rose," the complaining "My check-book," and the reflective "Truth," "The Battle of the Moon," and "The Big Field." Verse forms are fairly simple but vary from uniform strophic, with or without refrain, to uneven strophes, to single stanzas. Most have rhyme, although one is in free verse. The sentiments evoked, generally noble and not made trite, include faith, respect for the land and for human life, and gratitude for nature's bounty and beauty. Some of the images are original and striking, including, for example, a falling leaf brushing the author's cheek sensed as her mother's hand caressing her from heaven, like she was accustomed to do when the author was a child.
There is no chronological progression through the song cycle; rather it is built like a series of snapshots in an album. The cyclical concept of the seasons and of life is conveyed by reprising the first half of the opening song as the concluding one. In true art-song fashion, the music is well crafted and suited to the text, following the natural rhythm and flow of the words and underscoring their import. One can readily envision "Massachusetts" becoming the state song of the Commonwealth, for example. "Grandmother's Rose" feels like a Victorian parlor song; and "The Big Field" brings the 20th-century English pastoral songs of composers like Vaughan Williams and Finzi to mind. Like the poems, the musical style is appropriately varied rather than uniform throughout. It is simple and melodic, with twists when the text takes a turn and intensity when it expresses frustration, for example. Some songs – especially the very brief ones – seem better in their piano version, while others, such as "My checkbook," impress more in their orchestral form; yet others seem quite different yet equally effective in both – "Massachusetts" and "Grandmother's Rose," for example.
The performances are of very high quality. Lowe's voice is radiant and perfect for the bright pieces but also intimate for the more mundane subjects. Tilley's piano is supportive and unobtrusive. The volume of the orchestra in one of the songs overpowers the voice but is otherwise well judged. The sound quality is good although there is some breakup in a few high notes. This should be corrected if a more widespread commercial distribution, as it most certainly deserves, is envisioned. Perhaps more poems can be set in a shorter cycle to fill out the disk as well? The composer might also give some thought to a more creative title for this cycle.
The small eight-page booklet, as carefully crafted as the music, merits commendation for its creativity and appealing charm. It contains the standard items: a background introduction, texts of the poems, and artist and composer bios and photos. But it also has photos, both older and more recent, of the poet and the farmhouse, with the texts of the final two poems overlaid on an older view of one of the fields. Major labels could take a lesson from its satisfying beauty of simplicity without hype.
Although this is a vanity release, the work is worthy of a much wider dissemination than it will likely receive, especially without a broader distribution of the recording. It should appeal particularly in New England, and a way should be found to make it known there.