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Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works / Eliesha Nelson

Release Date: 09/29/2009 
Label:  Sono Luminus   Catalog #: 90911   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha NelsonJohn McLaughlin WilliamsDoug Rioth
Conductor:  John McLaughlin Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Northwest Sinfonia
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

PORTER Viola Concerto 1. Speed Etude 2. Duo for Viola and Harp 3. Suite for Viola Alone. Blues Lontains 2. Poem 2. Duo for Viola and Harpsichord 4. Duo for Violin and Viola 5 Read more Eliesha Nelson (va); John McLaughlin Williams ( 2 pn, 4 hpd, 5 vn, 1 cond); 3 Douglas Rioth (hp); 1 Northwest Sinfonia DORIAN 90911 (73:47)

Mention Porter and the composer who usually leaps to mind is Cole, creator of the 1948 Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate . That Quincy Porter (1897–1966) comes to mind second, if at all, is a mystery, considering the pivotal role he played in helping to fashion a recognizably distinct American musical vernacular. Horatio Parker, who taught Charles Ives, was also one of Porter’s teachers at Yale. After earning two degrees there, Porter went to Paris for a year to study at d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum and then, on returning to the U.S., he continued his studies under Ernest Bloch. In 1928, under a Guggenheim fellowship, Porter returned to Paris, this time for three years to study with Nadia Boulanger, following in the footsteps of Aaron Copland. Two of the works on this disc, the Blues Lontains (1928) and the Suite for Viola Alone (1930), were written during his second stay in Paris. Back home again, Porter would bring much as an educator to the Cleveland Institute of Music, Vassar College, the New England Conservatory of Music, and his alma mater, Yale.

Porter’s primary instrument was violin—for his graduation exercise he wrote a violin concerto in the style of Brahms—though as must be obvious from the disc at hand, titled Complete Viola Works , he played viola as well and had a special fondness for it. In fact, his Viola Concerto on this disc is considered by many to be his crowning achievement. Among his other major works are two symphonies, nine string quartets, a harpsichord concerto, and the Concerto Concertante for two pianos and orchestra. Porter’s musical vocabulary is basically tonal, though he didn’t shy away from free chromaticism, dissonance, and rhythmic complexity. Essentially, his style is that of a postromantic/Impressionist in a mold not entirely unlike that of Howard Hanson, with whom he was friends, and Walter Piston.

The starring viola role here goes to Eliesha Nelson, a very talented player who, according to her biography, was born in North Pole, Alaska. From deepfreeze to the sauna, she went to Fort Lauderdale where she served as associate principal and acting principal viola of the Florida Philharmonic, which, through no fault of hers, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May of 2003. Complaining that it was too hot for her there, Nelson left Florida in 2000 before the nasty bankruptcy business and landed a position playing in the Cleveland Orchestra, where she could freeze in the winter and her viola could come unglued in the summer from the humidity.

If Nelson is star of this show, John McLaughlin Williams is its master of all trades. He is conductor of the Northwest Sinfonia, a Seattle-based ensemble, which he leads through a gorgeous performance of Porter’s sumptuously scored Viola Concerto; sits at the piano for the Speed Etude, Blues Lontains , and Poem ; takes on the harpsichord in the Duo for Viola and Harpsichord; and plays violin in the Duo for Violin and Viola. His violin credentials are especially impressive. He served as concertmaster for the Virginia Symphony and as guest concertmaster for the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the Bolshoi, Kirov, and American Ballet Theater orchestras.

The eight works on this disc span almost 30 years of Porter’s career, from the 1928 Blues Lontains written, as noted, by the 31-year-old composer in Paris, to the duos for viola and harp and for viola and harpsichord, both written in 1957. The concerto Speed Etude and Poem for viola and piano all date from 1948, and the Duo for Violin and Viola from 1954. Porter of course composed a not insignificant number of works before, after, and in between those heard here; they just weren’t for viola.

The Speed Etude , as its name suggests, is a breezy perpetual motion piece that runs the viola through its range from bottom to top with rapid scales and string-crossing arpeggios reminiscent of the cadenza in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Porter puts the harpsichord to use in his Duo for Viola and Harpsichord, in a manner quite different from the way Poulenc used it in his famous Concert champêtre . Porter’s piece is alternately dolorous and contrapuntally energetic in a way that I suspect takes its cue from Bach’s gamba sonatas—very beautiful.

The Duo for Viola and Harp avoids the French Impressionist clichés that so often attend works that pair one or two instruments with harp in an intimate setting. This doesn’t mean, though, that Porter escapes the Impressionist trap altogether; it’s just an Impressionism of a different stripe, one with strong overtones of the English pastoralists, but with a recurring rhythmic hoedown or fiddling episode that could only be American.

The concerto, as alluded to above, may be Porter’s masterpiece. Again, especially in the Largo first movement, an impression of idyllic English pastures and distant, blurred hills put me in mind of Vaughan Williams’s tone poem In the Fen Country . The mood is soon dispelled, however, by the busy, bouncy second movement, but it returns once more in the concluding Largo.

Eliesha Nelson performs every one of these works with exquisite artistry, drawing the kind of rich, dark tone from her viola that bathes the ears in a silky chocolate mousse. Once or twice, with my super-sensitivity to pitch, I do notice that occasionally on very high notes on the A string near the top of the fingerboard, unless Porter wrote quarter tones or even eighth tones, which I don’t think he did, Nelson’s intonation can be just the slightest bit off. But then I tend to hear such things when others don’t, so you can ignore what I just said. Besides, it passes so quickly, you probably won’t notice, and Nelson repays tenfold with such voluptuously alluring playing in music so beguiling that I’m inclined to extend a very warm welcome to this release and the strongest recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Viola by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha Nelson (Viola)
Conductor:  John McLaughlin Williams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Northwest Sinfonia
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948 
Speed Etude by Quincy Porter
Performer:  John McLaughlin Williams (Piano), Eliesha Nelson (Viola)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948; USA 
Duo for Viola and Harp by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Doug Rioth (Harp), Eliesha Nelson (Viola)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1957 
Suite for Viola solo by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha Nelson (Viola)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930; USA 
Blues lontains by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha Nelson (Viola), John McLaughlin Williams (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1928; USA 
Poem for Viola and Piano by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha Nelson (Viola), John McLaughlin Williams (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1948 
Duo for Viola and Harpsichord by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha Nelson (Viola), John McLaughlin Williams (Harpsichord)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1957 
Duo for Violin and Viola by Quincy Porter
Performer:  Eliesha Nelson (Viola), John McLaughlin Williams (Violin)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1954 

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