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Sacred footprints 

The Atlanta Chamber Players challenge listeners with recent recordings

Recording the music of American composers can be fraught with peril. Performers who want to sell CDs can take the easy way out with yet another Copland anthology, get a little more adventurous with Charles Ives, even more contemporary with John Cage or cutting-edge commercial with Phillip Glass. But it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to present two rewarding but admittedly hard-sell approaches to recording. With their latest releases, the Atlanta Chamber Players do just that, presenting one CD of music by an overlooked composer and a second release by a composer whose star is still rising.

Footeprints (ACA Digital) features two works by the almost completely forgotten American composer Arthur Foote (1853-1937). A contemporary of fellow American-born composers Edward MacDowell and John Knowles Paine (who taught him at Harvard), Foote received his entire training in the U.S., and was the first person to get a Master of Arts in Music degree from an American university in 1875.

Foote's music, like that of his contemporaries, is strongly influenced by late German romanticism, but he really isn't trying to be Brahms. As a composer, he evolved within his own framework. The two works presented here, the "Piano Quartet in C Major, Opus 23" and the "Piano Trio No. 1 in C Minor, Opus 5" have more sweep than grandeur, lushness without carry-you-away complexity and loveliness without haunting heartbreak. But the music is immensely likable and satisfying.

The "Trio" is the more dense and sophisticated musically, with rich texture and a powerful grandioso final movement worthy of its German counterparts. The Atlanta Chamber Players connect sympathetically to Foote's music -- they play with great generosity, technically well-balanced and crisp, but with color and warmth. Foote's music comes through tunefully and gently, as fresh and sweet as a New England orchard.

Sacred Theory of the Earth (CRI) features the work of American contemporary composer Anne LeBaron (b. 1953), who bends musical structures and concepts to her will. The title piece is a large-scale tone poem based on a treatise of the same name by the 17th-century clergyman/writer Thomas Burnet. It's a meditation on time: how time is perceived and how our perceptions come to naught as time is shaped -- or dispensed with -- by a higher power.

The treatise -- and this contemporary musical representation of it -- have been aptly compared to the surreal depiction of a watch by Salvador Dali. LeBaron uses sound in shapes, as well as barely disguised dance figures such as the Irish jig, the tango and the waltz. Each movement is different and unexpected; in describing the first moments of creation, the music goes from shattering percussive chaos to a luminous, whimsical Passacaglia.

Several short works by LeBaron are presented here as well, including "Sachama," which at first brings to mind the modern tangos of Astor Piazzolla and the jazz syncopation of Dave Brubeck, and then smoothes out to the unearthly sounds of wind-propelled instruments -- and machines.

In the hands of a lesser composer, all of this could pall quickly. But LeBaron's work sustains its narrative quality. The Atlanta Chamber Players handle this terribly difficult music with technical savvy, and with the musical personality and aplomb to pull it off. This release reminds us that some composers hear with entirely different ears, but if there is clarity of thought and purpose, even the most die-hard traditional melodists can find these cutting-edge contemporary works riveting.

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