Samuel Adler is a known quantity to many insiders in American classical music as a composer, conductor, and educator; he taught at the Eastman School for three decades and his book, The Study of Orchestration, is a standard text used in music education. Adler's mantel is crowded with the many distinctions he has earned, including one for the Pulitzer Prize for music. However, to the man on the street, and even to some reasonably well-informed classical listeners, Adler is a nonentity, and that's in spite of the fact that his music has been frequently issued on recordings going back well into the era of LPs. This Naxos "American Classics" CD, Of Musique, Poetrie, Art and Love, is the second disc of Adler's music to appear on Naxos, the other being an item in its Milken Archive Series. This consists of several pieces drawn from Adler's later efforts from among his huge inventory of more than 400 works, and the main constant in this project is pianist Laura Melton, the only musician to play in all seven selections.
When it came to serial techniques, Adler never really threw the baby out with the bathwater; while he uses them, Adler never found it necessary to shy away from tonal referencing or even tonality itself, preferring to mix it up. However, his work often has a distanced quality, partly owing to his harmonic neutrality and also to his preference for working in very short sections that turn over rapidly; one gets the impression that he prefers not to develop melodic ideas, no matter how strong, to their full term. He certainly knows how to write for the flute, and his Sonata for Flute and Piano (2004), composed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Juilliard School where he has taught since 1997, is the highlight of the disc, as is Carol Wincenc's expert interpretation of this fancy, glittering, virtuosic piece. The Four Composer Portraits (2001-2002) is a very effective suite of exercises in combining his own idiom with those of four prominent composer friends -- Milton Babbitt, Ned Rorem, Gunther Schuller, and David Diamond -- and the Rorem piece is particularly affecting and poignant, with Adler intersecting more broadly stated serial material with the arcing lyricism more readily associated with Rorem, not to mention the slyly jazzy feel of the one for Schuller.
However, the remainder is more of a mixed bag; Soundings (1989) for alto saxophone and piano demonstrates an intimate understanding of the alto's unique voice but has the quality of milking short motives of all they're worth. Pasiphae (1987) for percussion and piano begins with lovely, muted chords in the piano part, but it takes so long to get off the ground one might run out of patience before it gets to the proper entrance of the percussion. The title work, Of Musique, Poetrie, Art and Love (1978), scored for soprano, flute, and piano, and based on texts of poet Robert Herrick, has worn the least well among these pieces; serialism was designed in part to leave behind the multitudes of clichés associated with tonal music, but instead developed new ones of its own, and that is what we hear, although when Adler periodically wanders into tonal territory your ears tend to prick up. Samuel Adler has more than made his own way in a professional sense, but in a musical one he is often like a man who has the floor, but has something he doesn't want to confide in us and is pecking around looking for something else to say. That notwithstanding, the performers here are expert and excellent, particularly Melton and down to the Bowling Green Philharmonia under Emily Freeman Brown, who collaborate with Melton in realizing Adler's Piano Concerto No. 3 (2003).