A City of Silver & A City of Fire is Navona Records' recently released double feature of eponymous single-movement concert fantasies for piano composed by the late Louis W Ballard and performed by Roberta Rust. The recordings - apparently previously unreleased - are from Rust's premiere of the two pieces at her 12 October 1984 recital at New York's Carnegie Hall. The album is available exclusively in digital format, and the liner notes contain composer and pianist biographies along with Rust's program notes, all of which can be accessed directly on the Navona label's website. While very brief at a total length of fifteen minutes spanning two tracks, the album - which many would call an EP - is both artistically compelling and historically noteworthy. As Rust recounts in the liner notes, quoting Ballard, the 1984 recital 'marks the first performance in Carnegie (Recital) Hall of the music of a Native American composer by a Native American pianist'. (Specifically, Rust is of Sioux descent, and Ballard was of Cherokee and Quapaw ancestry, according to their respective accompanying biographies.)
The liner notes tell us that the composition of A City of Silver was 'inspired by [Ballard's] visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina in August 1980 and the warm memories of that great city'. Furthermore, we are told that Ballard draws upon two additional threads in the integrated symbolism of the work: the theme of silver as an important precious metal in the history of the region and the memory of the recently 'disappeared' Argentinian citizens. The latter is further underscored by the piece's dedication as indicated in the liner notes, 'Para todos los desaparecidos del mundo' ('For all of the disappeared persons of the world'). In response to Rust's observations here, the composition - as heard in the recording - strikes me as unifying these themes through a single gesture that plays out simultaneously both in short spans of time and over the entire piece as a whole. Specifically, the gesture seems to begin in a relatively quiet dynamic level, a relatively diatonic harmonic palette and a relatively slow tempo. Gradually, the gesture increases in intensity through accelerando, crescendo and mounting atonal chromaticism until the music is suddenly silenced. We hear a short-form expression of this gesture, for example, in the first thirty seconds of the piece. As the gesture reappears in different contexts and layers, Ballard integrates the results within a very broad rhythmic and harmonic palette, creating the overall sense of a land of both vast riches and volatile risks.
Listen — Louis W Ballard: A City of Silver
(NV6429 track 1, 0:00-0:35) ℗ 2022 Navona Records LLC :
The second piece, A City of Fire, contrasts significantly with the previous one. Dedicated by Ballard 'To the City of Los Alamos, New Mexico, U.S.A.', this piece is described by Rust as a reflection on Los Alamos as the birthplace of the atomic age. She adds that the piece also serves as an invitation for humanity to reflect on its responsibilities in light of such potentially catastrophic technological discoveries. Rust then quotes Ballard's explanation of his detailed programmatic strategy behind the piece; in short, the entire work is a gradual journey from 'pre-atomic innocence' to a 'veritable apocalypse of sound' by means of harmonic, rhythmic and registral development. All of these stated goals are indeed audible to me in Rust's performance of Ballard's piece, and they seem to successfully convey his intended symbolism with great effect.
Listen — Louis W Ballard: A City of Fire
(NV6429 track 2, 0:00-0:35) ℗ 2022 Navona Records LLC :
Overall, A City of Silver & A City of Fire strikes me as a probing, articulate and understated artistic collaboration whose proper exposure is long overdue. Louis W Ballard here demonstrates his poetic sensibility in structuring the thematic and symbolic focus of each of these two concert fantasies to programmatically convey expansive topics with remarkable succinctness and potency. In addition, this music is both texturally dense and technically demanding. Rust rises to the occasion with a balance of energy, precision and lyricism that transcends the audible limitations of the technology on which the original 1984 recordings were made. Furthermore, as a historically notable (yet relatively unrecognized) collaboration between two classical musicians of Native American heritage, this album challenges the classical music field to re-examine its habitual conceptualizations of 'American classical music' and ask how that canon can more faithfully include the contributions of indigenous artists of the Americas. Lastly, Roberta Rust's dedication in championing the work and legacy of her late colleague is a joy to behold in its own right, from her initiative in selecting and painstakingly preparing the music for the 1984 recital to her curation and presentation of this album nearly four decades later. There are many wonderful surprises to be discovered and enjoyed in this deceptively small release, and I therefore encourage listeners to spend quality time hearing and reading its illuminating contents multiple times over.
Copyright © 22 June 2022
John Dante Prevedini,