“Maëlstrom: Contemporary American Piano Music,” the latest CD from Lynn Raley, associate professor of music at Millsaps College, has won praise from the world’s best-selling magazine devoted to classical music.
BBC Music Magazine had this to say: “Thoughtfully compiled and skillfully performed by Lynn Raley, the album places challenging new works alongside more accessible and vibrant pieces, with all the selected works exploring ‘extra-musical’ ideas, be it evocations of Minnesotan tornadoes or Salman Rushdie’s beguiling children’s stories.”
Available on the Nimbus label from the UK, the CD features Raley performing the music of four living American composers: Charles Wuorinen, Augusta Read Thomas, Wayne Peterson, and Eric Moe.
The legendary Max Wilcox, an American producer of classical music records and the recipient of a total of 17 Grammy Awards, produced “Maëlstrom.” Raley said he knew Wilcox thanks to a friend, and Wilcox encouraged him by saying, “Lynn, it’s time you did a solo recording.”
Wilcox arranged for Raley to record in one of New York’s premier spaces: the American Academy of Arts and Letters Auditorium. The 730-seat hall, known for its acoustics, is rarely used for concerts but as recording space. Elite players who have recorded there over the past 80 years include violinists Itzhak Perlman and Midori Goto, cellists Yo-Yo Ma and János Starker, singers Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and pianists Emanuel Ax, Claudio Arrau, and Simone Dinnerstein.
“It’s the Rolls-Royce of recording spaces,” Raley said.
Some of the music on the CD dates to when Raley was a faculty member at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. As a recipient of a faculty development grant, he commissioned Wuorinen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and MacArthur Fellow, to compose a large-scale piano piece. (Wuorinen was acquainted with Raley because he heard him play when he was a guest conductor for the new music ensemble with which Raley performed. On another occasion in the late 1990s, Raley performed Wuorinen’s solo piano work, “The Blue Bamboula,” at Lincoln Center, and Wuorinen attended the performance.)
“The faculty development grant available to me was substantial, but it was not enough to commission the large work I envisioned, especially from a composer of his stature,” Raley said. “We worked out an arrangement where I would make installments on what was to be a multi-movement work for piano (‘The Haroun Piano Book’), based on characters in the story and musical material found in his opera, ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories.’”
“Wuorinen’s delightful opera is based on the novella of the same name by Sir Salman Rushdie, written while he was under a death sentence imposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini for the alleged blasphemy in his novel, ‘The Satanic Verses.’ His son Zafar had asked, ‘Daddy, why don’t you write something I can understand?’ And so, ‘Haroun’became a story about freedom of expression and creativity, told through a fantastic fairy tale. I loved the wit and humor of both the book and the music.”
Etudes by Thomas, also included on the CD, bring back memories of Raley’s first semester at Millsaps when he met Thomas, a Grammy-winning composer and the longest-serving Mead Composer-In-Residence for the Chicago Symphony, during a Women Composers Conference Dr. Cheryl Coker, associate professor of music, organized at Millsaps in 2002.
“For the conference, Augusta Read Thomas asked if I would be willing to perform two of her piano etudes, for what she hoped would be a set of six,” he said. “My Nimbus recording features not only the completed set, but two previously unrecorded etudes entitled ‘Eurythmy Etudes,’ ‘Still Life’—which the BBC called ‘a master class in musical stasis’—and ‘Motion Detector.’”
Raley’s recording of the “Eurythmy Etudes” was initially released as a world premiere recording in November 2017, on the album “Ritual Incantations.”
Raley selected Peterson’s “Four Preludes,” described by the BBC review as “a blistering account of the composer’s experience of childhood storms in Minnesota” for the CD. He was familiar with Peterson because the composer’s manager and publicist had sent him a score by the composer to peruse several years earlier.
“Peterson has been an underrepresented composer in recordings, despite having won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1992,” Raley said. “The ‘Preludes,’ although having had quite a few performances by several pianists, have been recorded only once before, and they are still unpublished. When the composer heard my recording, he contacted me through his manager to call me at home, expressing his praise for the recording.”
Nimbus requested Raley submit another selection to lengthen the recording, and he chose “Dance of the Honey Monkey” by Moe, which Raley often selects for an encore. “A recording of a live performance I did at Rollins College rounds out the CD, functioning once again as a kind of fun encore after the more challenging works for the listener,” Raley said.
Everything about the recording process was topnotch, Raley said, thanks to Wilcox, who unfortunately died before the recording was released.
“In classical music, the producer is responsible for the sound of the recording,” he said. “The producer helps make arrangements for the recording space and the instrument, both of which are crucial for the quality of the sound. The producer also acts as a ‘second ear’ for the performer, making sure musical aspects such as tempos, dynamics, and phrasing are in place for a convincing performance and coherent interpretation.”
A Millsaps faculty development grant, an individual artist’s grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission, and donations from a private fundraiser helped fund the recording. James and John Palmer and Lester Senter Wilson assisted in funding the commissioning of the last movement of “The Haroun Piano Book” in 2009, said Raley, who premiered the first five movements of the work in New York in 2004.
Dr. Tim Coker, emeritus professor of music at Millsaps, also helped secure donations.
Raley, who has performed across the United States as well as in Canada, Taiwan, and Thailand, will receive royalties from the recording, but he expects the amounts will be small. The real payoff will be in new connections with musicians and composers of contemporary works, he said.
“It gets my name out to more people,” said Raley, who earned degrees from Southern Methodist University, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.