What can one expect from a musician who spent his youth getting into trouble by furtively composing in chemistry class? Apparently a lot, provided they are cut from the same cloth as multi-faceted composer Phil Salathé, the brains behind IMAGINARY BIRDS: MUSIC FOR OBOE AND ENGLISH HORN.
The commissioned duo Mandarin Ducks (鴛鴦) is as much a natural observation as it is a musical piece of work: With the precise gaze of an ornithologist, Salathé illustrates seven enchanting anatine scenes, from frolicking in the water, nesting, to bickering over which duck gets the slug for dinner, to name but a few. Fittingly, these short pieces roam about in free form – just as their natural subjects would. The title also nods to the recent marriage of the two performers, oboist Ling-Fei Kang and Charles Huang on English horn, as mandarin ducks are known for their lifelong fidelity.
The upbeat start of the album soon grinds to a halt, however, demonstrating Salathé’s dramatic capabilities in The Heart That Loves But Once. Inspired in title and style by the music of Robert Schumann and interspersed by the chilling whispers of a celesta, the rhapsodic work chronicles the disheartening state of a lover who finds his desires unattainable.
Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North harks back to an avian theme, musically depicting three very different birds with an accuracy that is equal parts surprising, hilarious, and astonishing: a proud, leery ostrich, a dodo anxious of its forthcoming extinction, and an enigmatic screech owl.
The Wood Between The Worlds takes the listener on a walk through a mystical landscape and conjures a cryptic, ethereal kind of beauty. The secret highlight of this mini-cycle is indubitably “IV. A World Shrouded in Forest,” in which the composer fuses his multifarious musical influences into an evocative portrait of not only the world he is painting, but also of a highly recognizable compositional style.
Expecting the Spring Breeze rounds off the album with Salathé’s arrangement of a lyrical melody composed by Teng Yu-hsien, completing the overarching natural theme of IMAGINARY BIRDS. Indeed, this record’s title was aptly chosen, given that, in its entirety, it can be considered one long flight of imagination. And what a high flight it is.