I slid MoonStrike into my CD player mostly to hear more music from Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, the Chickasaw composer who uses the classical idiom to tell musical and mythological tales from Native American heritage. Sophisticated orchestration and dramatic storytelling combined fruitfully in his music for the dance-theater piece Lowak Shoppala, and the new album from the ensemble known as the Apollo Chamber Players (APC) promised more.
MoonStrike did not disappoint. And what I actually fell for most on APC’s new album of “globally inspired music” was the striking In the Shadow of the Mountain by Jennifer Higdon. This single-movement piece adroitly fuses contemporary harmonics with music’s ancient function of expressing and evoking emotions that we can’t put into words.
The genesis was Higdon’s opera based on Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain. In combining reworked music from the opera with new ideas, she created a 16-minute tableau for string quartet, neatly knitting together an almost Brahmsian Romanticism with a contemplative harmonic flow and an episodic structure. It’s full of motivic surprises, deep-bowed warmth, and gristly counterpoint that grows both more interesting and more touching with each listen.
In the Shadow of the Mountain is one of the three compositions featured here from the ACP’s 20×2020 project, a commissioning of 20 new multicultural works. To this project Tate contributed the album’s title track, composed for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
In Tate’s MoonStrike, astronaut and Native American John Herrington narrates three Indigenous legends of the moon set to Tate’s characteristically illustrative musical themes and gestures. The narration has the cant of children’s storytelling, and indeed the exciting music harks back to the tradition of Peter and the Wolf and the like. Yet the muscular, eccentric music fires the adult imagination too as it elevates us into Native American mythology.
MoonStrike a great opportunity to open yourself up to music as an honest storytelling medium. Try not to feel, in “The Man Who Married the Moon,” the tragedy in the jealous Yellow-Corn sisters’ murder of the maiden Moon. For that matter, try not to move some part of your body to the “Corn Dance.”
L’esprit du Nord by Rome Prize winner Pierre Jalbert rounds out the album. Jalbert’s Sixth String Quartet made quite an impression on me when the Chiara String Quartet performed it five years ago. In L’esprit du Nord, music inspired by French Canadian folk tunes and the region’s fiddling tradition is neatly fitted to a contemporary idiom. Two of the three pieces add field recordings of folk singers to the strings, further vivifying Jalbert’s evocation of a culture that has contributed more to the world’s musical cornucopia than many people realize.
ACP’s last album, With Malice Toward None, reached No. 1 on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” chart last year. MoonStrike, out September 2, 2022 on Azica Records, is very different, and just as worthy of note.