Composer Elizabeth Vercoe (source: elizabethvercoe.com)

CD Review: “Butterfly Effects” reveals composer’s imaginative voice

Melinda Bargreen | 17 Jun 2019

In chaos theory, the “butterfly effect” is a condition in which a small change in one state can result in large differences later on. A distant butterfly flapping its wings could cause perturbations resulting in the eventual formation of a tornado. A tiny change in conditions can have the power to make a huge difference in the outcome.

Elizabeth Vercoe: Butterfly Effects and Other Works (Navona Records, nv6916, Nov. 2018)
“Butterfly Effects” (flute & harp)
“This is my letter to the World” (soprano, flute & piano)
“Elegy” (viola & piano)
“Herstory I” (soprano, vibraphone piano)

Not surprisingly, the title work on Elizabeth Vercoe’s “Butterfly Effects” recording is a study of subtleties, in a series of seven short movements that repay the close attention of the listener. The harp (Mary Jane Rupert) is a flexible, eloquent partner to Peter H. Bloom’s family of flutes: he plays the alto and bass flutes as well as the more familiar concert flute, and there’s even a movement for the piccolo.

Wonderfully smoky and mysterious, the alto flute has some of the suite’s finest moments, especially in the veiled, questing lines of the opening piece of this work (“Mourningcloak”). Here and elsewhere, the harp is scored with emphasis on the pentatonic scale, giving the music a slightly otherworldly quality; the varying colors of the flutes provide a rich variety of timbres. Each of the seven movements is named for a different butterfly (the butterflies are helpfully illustrated in the liner booklet).


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If you’ve never heard a piccolo playing the blues, now is your opportunity: Bloom’s piccolo traverses the bluesy lines of the movement called “Karner Blues “ (a variety of butterfly.)

Premiered in 2010, “Butterfly Effects” was inspired by a quotation from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi: “Am I a human who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams of being human?” A dreamlike quality prevails in most of this work, but there is nothing remotely sleepy about the musicians’ command of breath, nuance, and carefully placed details.

Flutist Peter Bloom & harpist Mary Jane Rupert, 2011. (source: elizabethvercoe.com)

Flutist Peter Bloom & harpist Mary Jane Rupert, 2011. (source: elizabethvercoe.com)

The opening set of songs on this recording, “This is my letter to the World” (2001), features the eminent mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato with flutist Bloom and pianist Rupert. Here the music-making is a little more uneven: Fortunato’s voice sounds uncomfortable and occasionally off pitch, particularly in the title track. High-flying lines emerge with palpable effort.

“Herstory I” (for soprano, vibraphone and piano) is more successful, despite the angular vocal lines and huge intervalic leaps. The first of a series of Vercoe’s song cycles composed to texts by women, “Herstory I” (1975) sets some exceptionally powerful and descriptive poems of Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Pam White. Recorded here are committed and detailed performances by members of the Boston Musica Viva (soprano Cheryl Cobb, pianist Randall Hodgkinson, and percussionist Dean Anderson, with director Richard Pittman). Cobb makes a particularly strong impression with her clarity of enunciation, as well as her flexibility, ease, and control in challenging vocal lines.


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The one-movement “Elegy” (for viola and piano, 1990) opens with lovely low-lying phrases for the bottom octave of Patricia McCarty’s viola, then ruminative passages with pianist Ellen Weckler. A few minor technical insecurities could have been edited out, but the performance has a winning spontaneity.

Taken in sum, this disc spans about three and a half decades of Vercoe’s evolution as a composer, showing significant breadth and also a welcome development of her own imaginative voice. ■


Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based composer and music journalist who has been writing for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Her 2015 book, Classical Seattle is published by University of Washington Press. Her 50 Years of Seattle Opera was published by Marquand Books in 2014.

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