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Duffy: We Want Mark Twain, Saxophone Concerto, Portraits / Silverstein, Royal Philharmonic

Release Date: 12/14/2010 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1240  
Composer:  John Duffy
Performer:  Isaiah ShefferSigne MortensenGlenn MorrissetteTomoya Aomori
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cassatt String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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CD:  $16.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DUFFY We Want Mark Twain 1. Saxophone Concerto 2. Portraits for Orchestra: Mountains Majesty; 3 Jerusalem; 4 Istanbul; 4 Muhammad Ali; 4 Picasso; 4 Einstein; 4 Lady Read more Liberty 4 1,2 Cassatt Qrt; 1 Isaiah Sheffer (nar); 1 Signe Mortensen (voc); 2 Glenn Morrissette (t sax); 2 Tomoya Aomori (db); 3 Joseph Silverstein, cond; Utah SO; 4 Richard Williams, cond; Royal PO ALBANY TROY 1240 (66:08)

We Want Mark Twain opens with the boatman’s cry “mark twain!” that inspired Samuel Clemens to adopt his famous nom de plume . The first movement is a melange of Twain’s aphorisms, diary extracts, and musings on history and politics—Twain was highly cynical about politicians and party-political government, something of a precursor to the current Tea Party but more intelligent, less glib, acutely observant, and driven by idealism rather than self-interest. The second movement concentrates on Tom and Becky’s adventure in the cave from Tom Sawyer , and the third and final movement deals with Huck and Jim on their raft going down the Mississippi, from Huckleberry Finn.

Duffy’s music here, and elsewhere, is an interesting combination of Minimalist techniques of repetition and semi-related harmonic sequences, Stravinskian ostinati, and hymn-like chorales harmonized with an occasional dissonance in the manner of Virgil Thomson. Showing his long experience in the theater, Duffy never lets the music overwhelm the spoken text. In the Tom Sawyer movement, for example, the narrator is allowed to unfold the tale with minimal accompaniment, but when he has finished, the strings take over with music of tenderness and warmth to depict the feelings of relief when Tom and Becky are reunited with their families. In the instrumental interlude following Huck’s cry “I’d steal Jim out of slavery to freedom!” the accompaniment springs to life with great resolve. Isaiah Sheffer is spot-on in his narration, bringing the prose and the character of Twain vividly to life. Signe Mortensen seems to be there to lead the quartet in its vocalizations, which is a smart idea as these first-rate string players do not sound completely at ease as actors. Their vocal contributions are nonetheless effective.

Composed in memory of the jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, the terrific Saxophone Concerto pits an authentically boppy solo part against the vigorous Stravinskian rhythms of the quartet, underpinned by a pizzicato jazz bass. According to Duffy, the soloist is given some leeway to improvise (possibly in a cadenza in the first movement), but it is guesswork where this occurs because the result is completely integrated. The slow movement, mentioned in the interview above, is heartfelt without drifting anywhere near to sentimentality. The third movement (“Opening Day: Yankee Stadium”) returns to the hustle and bustle of the first, conjuring up the busy New York of the 1960s familiar to us from movies of the time. Glenn Morrissette is a player with smooth tone and real personality, and the Cassatt Quartet brings verve and commitment to the score. (The quartet’s personnel are Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Sarah Adams, viola; and Nicole Johnson, cello.) It is no reflection whatsoever on the quartet, but I would very much like to hear how this piece would go with a string orchestra. I think it could soon become a concert staple. (The yearning violin solo in the second movement would need to be retained in an orchestral transcription.)

As Duffy indicated in the interview, the orchestral fillers have appeared on disc before, albeit under different names. They are colorful, forthright, and—like the two major works—alive with drama. The rousing Mountains Majesty (uncannily reminiscent of John Adams’s pieces for large orchestra) is the first movement of Duffy’s Symphony No. 1, “Utah.” I think it works better in its symphonic context; the mysterious, harmonically ambiguous coda seems to point to a new episode. The Fiddler on the Roof- style exuberance of Jerusalem , which follows it on this disc after a negligible break, sounds rather at odds stylistically.

If you want Duffy represented in your collection—and you should!—this new disc is the one to get. All the performers do the music justice, the program is nicely varied, and sound is clear and present.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

John Duffy's music offers just the ticket for classical music fans looking for a vibrant, engaging personality working with traditional tonal harmony and real tunes. First, the downside. We Want Mark Twain is yet another one of those irritating melodramas for speaker(s) and instruments (string quartet in this case), in which plenty of nice music is ruined by having people talking over it. Yes, Mark Twain's texts are splendid, but then, what is the point of the music? And if the music is good, who wants to be bothered with all that talk? Sorry, but I don't get it, even when the performance is as enthusiastic as this one.

On the other hand, the Saxophone Concerto is magnificent, one of the best in its genre. Scored for quartet plus double bass (and solo sax, of course), it was written in 1964, and at that time, writing purportedly serious music that also was highly enjoyable was a brave act. Sure, the jazz influences are there, but they're completely integrated into the larger idiom, and the performance by Glenn Morrissette is terrific.

Portraits consists of seven shortish movements: Mountains Majesty, Jerusalem (hilarious Jewish wedding music), Istanbul, Muhammad Ali (with a Latin flavor), Picasso, Einstein, and Lady Liberty. It's quite a collection, not really intended to hang together, but rather to find unity in contrast, as it were. The performances are delightful; Joseph Silverstein and the Utah Symphony play the long first movement, Richard Williams and the Royal Philharmonic the rest. The sonics are pretty consistent given the different forces and venues. You'll be well entertained, that's for sure.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

We Want Mark Twain by John Duffy
Performer:  Isaiah Sheffer (Spoken Vocals), Signe Mortensen (Voice)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cassatt String Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Concerto for Saxophone by John Duffy
Performer:  Glenn Morrissette (Tenor Saxophone), Tomoya Aomori (Double Bass)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cassatt String Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 A truly dreadful disk September 1, 2012 By Ray Allen (Brighton, Brighton) See All My Reviews "Having previously purchased Duffy;s Symphony 1 'Utah' I was looking forward to this disk. What a disappointment! The 'Mark Twain' piece for speaker and string quartet meanders tritely through a depressingly predictable text. The Saxophone Concerto paying tribute to Stan Getz hardly does that - being predictable and uninteresting. And the portraits............... (need I say more.) Thoroughly missable." Report Abuse
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