CD Reviews – Beth Denisch: Jordan and the Dog Woman

JOURNAL of the IAWM , vol. 17, no. 1 (2011)

Equinox Chamber Players. Juxtab Music JTM5827 (2004)

..  For anyone seeking an enlightening, entertaining, eclectic mixture, this is a CD not to be missed.


 Let’s accept as a given that program music is instrumental music that tells a story, sets a scene, or implies an idea. Some would say that for such music to be effective, the listener should experience the scene being represented. I would suggest that it is at least equally engaging if it gives listeners a chance to construct their own individual scenarios and compare result to intent. If one evaluates program music in such a manner, the CD Jordan and the Dog Woman is certainly successful. The disc contains a majority of programmatic works admirably performed by the Equinox Chamber Players, as well as additional instrumentalists and a singer.

      This collection could have easily been called Pictures at an Exhibition, but rumor has it that someone else already used that title. This disc is a stroll through an aural gallery of images: inspiring, disturbing, poignant, and entertaining. I gave my imagination free rein, and while I might have arrived in a location other than the intended one, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

      The title track, Jordan and the Dog Woman, evokes images of Scheherazade. She’s not your parents’ teller of tales, though. She’s slim, trim, and buff for the twenty-first century. She speaks with an economy of musical movement that wastes nothing as she and her son Jordan describe their environment and experiences. Denisch’s treatment of timbre and rhythm draw the listener into each scene with an irresistible force. The Equinox Chamber Players provide a performance on the highest level of musical and technical competence.

      Southern Lament, masterfully performed by guitarist Apostolos Paraskevas, must have been the result of a lab experiment that combined the DNA of Francisco Tarrega and Paul Henning. The result is an addictive composition that suggests Tarrega’s Recuerdos de Alhambra with a shot of Henning’s Ballad of Jed Clampett on the side. Who knew that classical guitar music could be this much fun?

      The six movements of Forth Project are based upon the paintings of artist Mark Forth. In the liner notes, he refers to his use of light and shadow. Denisch’s treatment of the material makes similar use of an auditory chiaroscuro that exploits the capabilities of both instrument and performer. The listener will discern influences of jazz and popular music. Although I often felt assured by elements of the familiar, I was pushed into a contemplative posture by interludes that invited introspection. Kudos to pianist Sandra Herbert for a performance that was both powerful and sensitive.

      Star Goddess Song is a musical setting of The Charge of the Star Goddess. The inherent spirituality of the text is reflected in the sensitively balanced relationship between mezzo-soprano Kathryn Wright and harpist Felice Pomeranz. Wiccan spiritual practice suggests that the Charge should be offered as a prayer to the Star Goddess three times daily for a full cycle of the moon. Listening to this performance was in itself an enriching spiritual experience—delicately scored and splendidly performed.

      The final selection on the disc is titled Women: the Power and the Journey. Denisch informs us that this composition represents four significant women from the St. Louis area: C. J. Walker, Mary Engelbreit, Katherine Dunham, and Tina Turner. I found the first movement to gain cohesiveness as it progressed, moving from a tentative rambling to a consensus of direction. The second movement features a clarinet/percussion dialogue. The use of a daff (a Middle-Eastern frame drum) provided a unique color for the rhythmic anchor. The third movement sets up an intoxicating groove. This music really does suggest opening a door a bit—then dancing right through it! The syncopation and timbres of this movement make it difficult to resist. The fourth movement evokes Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now (from the Rocky movies), and brought me back to the image of Scheherazade. This time though, she was running through the Italian Market in Philadelphia and wearing boxing gloves.

      I once heard Christopher Rouse theorize that composers are not immune to being influenced by the music they have heard throughout their lives. He suggested that these influences will make their way into each composer’s works. If that is so, it would seem that Beth Denisch’s influences have come from all four corners of the musical compass. Jazz, blues, gospel, orchestral program music, and even a quote from Proud Mary can all be discerned on this recording. For anyone seeking an enlightening, entertaining, eclectic mixture, this is a CD not to be missed.

 Dr. Ronald Horner is Director of Percussion Studies at Frostburg State University. A former member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, he has also performed regularly with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Dr. Horner is the author of The Tuneful Timpanist, published by Meredith Music/Hal Leonard, and What Do Drummers Really Want?, published by Verlag Dr. Mueller.