Composer Jennifer Margaret Barker cut her musical teeth playing oboe in a Scots community band. She also played fiddle and keyboard, so perhaps she was a one-person band in her own right: a quadruple threat. And although she is an American citizen now, she has never strayed far from her Celtic roots.
I. Sound Explosions
Two features distinguish Barker’s music. She is very particular about color, and she loves melodic lyricism. To these she also adds an irrepressible sense of humor that manifests in her music as sound explosions. All of these elements are evident within the first couple of minutes of her trio for oboe, horn, and piano called umurangi-kikorangi.
Barker avers that her travels in New Zealand during 2007 provided inspiration for the piece. The title means “Red Sky-Blue Sky” in Maori. It has two movements, fast and slow. Barker composed the second (slow) movement in 2002 under the title Red Sky at Night. It was a commission from Trio Arundel, who were in residence then at the University of Delaware. With help from the Meir Rimon Commissioning Assistance Fund, Trio Arundel was able to have Barker round out the contemplative original with a rabble-rousing opener.
And rabble it does rouse. With an opening arm-crush in the piano and howling guffaws in the wind instruments, the kickoff resembles nothing so much as a table being turned over in a friendly bar brawl. After a pointillistic exchange (of insults?) an expansive melody carries us into lyrical meditation. But the fray is never far off, and the movement ends with a primal scream in the horn followed by a knock-out punch. Yet through it all one never senses anger or pain, just cheeky one-upmanship. It could have happened at Finnegan’s Wake.
The second movement is an unapologetic nocturne. The oboe sets the stage with a long tone, and the piano offers up the sparkle of stars in the night sky. The melody unwinds tentatively at first, but then with rising passion. At the end it returns to the long tones in the oboe.
Beyond the clusters scattered in the first movement, the piano part does not call for special effects. It does require considerable pianistic skill, at times cramming a large number of notes into a impossibly short intervals. The pianist also has to weigh a delicate balance in the opening bars. The pedal must be wet enough to honor Barker’s vision of formless rumble while allowing the sixteenth notes (in contrabass register) sufficient definition to communicate a tempo to the other players.
Barker has written an oboe player’s oboe part that ascends gloriously at one point to F6. However, the piece never has occasion for the oboist to honk out the lowest notes. Beyond range, one of the challenges derives from a request by the oboist of Trio Arundel. He could circular breathe, and he wanted an opportunity to show off his skill. This led Barker to compose the uninterrupted long tones at the end.
Of the three instruments, the horn is the only one that Barker herself does not play. She had considerable contact with it, from growing up with British brass bands and collaborating for many years with a hornist as accompanist. However, she consulted her colleague Dr. John David Smith at the University of Delaware to make sure her ideas would work.
III. Horn Part
For being a first work for horn in chamber music, she avoids the usual pitfalls remarkably well. She does not hesitate to take the horn low. At two points the first movement dives impressively to written low Ab2. The tessitura is not overly taxing either. The second movement is more taxing than the first, to the point that Barker has added an option to omit four bars of quarter notes. (This reviewer recommends omitting them.) If there is one opportunity Barker missed, it might have been to include melodic material in the mid-low range. The Contemporary Hornist would like to encourage all composers to think about doing that more often.
One final note about the part is that it is inconsistent in its use of old- or new-notation bass clef. For the most part it is new-notation, but when the pointillistic passage with stopped and open tones returns at the end of the first movement (bars 131–141), the bass clef seems to be old-notation. Not only does old-notation preserve the interval relationships of the first passage (bars 19–29), it is much more feasible to play in the desired character. The composer herself did not express a preference when asked, but the horn player in Trio Arundel played old-notation. That is also what is on the linked video here. Nonetheless, the passage as written would be quite effective for a player that can reliably pop out accented Eb2 jumping up and down from mid treble clef.
IV. In Conclusion
The composer offers purchase links for sheet music on her website. Her husband John Anthony Palmer is also a fine cameraman and audio engineer. Barker’s youtube channel offers a number of their impressive collaborations.