In one of my first musical memories, I am sitting with my grandfather at his player-piano, watching the punched rolls spin as we listen to the popular music of his youth. As a young child, I hadn’t yet developed a curiosity for the vast wealth and breadth of the piano literature. Hearing Louisiana—A Pianist’s Journey has given me a chance to revisit this type of music through a unique collection of works. Kenneth Boulton’s recording and the accompanying booklet effectively encapsulate Louisiana’s rich cultural history and transport the listener to a graceful era in American music.
This innovative two-CD set presents works by both American and European composers. Some were local fleeting talents, while others were composers of international and lasting importance. Many also had significant careers in such diverse areas as musicology, church music, or music criticism. A few spent considerable portions of their lives or careers in Louisiana, while others never visited the state. What links them is a nostalgic memory or a fanciful vision of the region’s natural and cultural vibrancy.
Most of the music presented by Boulton ’84 is reminiscent of vocal or dance music in early America (ca. 1850-1925). Walter Niemann’s suite is directly inspired by the songs of Stephen Foster, yet one can also hear the Continental influences of Liszt and Debussy in this German composer’s work. Similarly, New Orleans Miniatures, by the American composer John Parsons Beach, clearly borrows elements from the great works of Schumann, Chopin, and perhaps even Mussorgsky. Listeners familiar with the core of the piano repertoire might hear hints of Gershwin, Debussy, Chopin, and others in the works of Stoughton, Grofé, Lemont, and Ketelbey. One also hears the seeds of jazz and ragtime in several of the selections.
Despite these significant and varied influences in many of the pieces, they still retain individual charm. The harmonic twists in Grofé’s Mississippi Suite and Stoughton’s Louisiana Nights, Valse Creole please the ear, and the rich, almost luxurious, lyricism in the slow movements of Beach’s character pieces transports one nostalgically to an idyllic early America.
The strongest music in the collection comes, not surprisingly, from the best-known composers—Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Virgil Thomson. Gottschalk’s La Savane, Ballade Creole, a simple melody in a series of variations, unfolds with subtle colors and shading that are brought to life by Boulton’s sensitive and tender pianism. Thomson’s Suite from Louisiana Story contains the most daring harmonies and jarring rhythmic patterns on either disc, and exemplifies the connection of these works to the trajectory of American music in the 20th century.
That Kenneth Boulton, an assistant professor of piano at Southeastern Louisiana University, sought to pursue such a unique project is a testament to his creativity. The recording’s success, with its Grammy® Award nomination in the category of best instrumental soloist performer (without orchestra), evinces Boulton’s artistry and his refreshing new contribution to the body of recorded work. I look forward with anticipation to the next project from this distinguished WSU alumnus!
— Jeffrey Savage, Assistant Professor of Piano, School of Music, Washington State University