Notes and Editorial Reviews
MUSIC FROM SIX CONTINENTS, 2006 SERIES • Ricardo F. Averbach, cond;1 Joel Lish, cond;2 Sofia SO;1 Church of the Painted Window O;2 Andreas Hèrm Baumgartner, cond; Moravian PO;3 Tsanko Delbosov, cond;4 Ruse PO;4 Michael Chertock (pn);1 Nina Stoyanova (vn)4 • VIENNA MODERN MASTERS 3058 (71:13)
DAVIS Piano Concerto in F.1 MCCONNELL Elegy for Strings.2 PATTERSON The Hermit Thrush Orchestra Plays Bill Evans. The Hermit Thrush Orchestra Plays Vivaldi.3 VAN DE VATE Violin Concerto No. 24
This is exactly the kind of record that I most love and dread reviewing: a compendium of entirely new music by various modern composers. I love it because it exposes me to fresh, often vital, ideas and directions. I dread it
because, in most cases, I find the music much too challenging to give a fair assessment in just one listening, however intense, and also because I am afraid that if I don’t like something I have ticked off not just a performer but a composer!
That being said, I perversely started listening to this disc with the David Patterson pieces, for no other reason than that the title The Hermit Thrush Orchestra Plays Bill Evans just sounded too tempting for me to resist. I’m glad I did. Both this piece and its successor, each about four minutes long, are among the most charming and witty I’ve heard in a long time. In case you’re wondering, the “hermit thrush orchestra” indicates his particular orchestration in these works, which tries to simulate the song of that bird. The Evans piece was not consciously molded around the music of the jazz giant who, judging from the notes, Patterson has not heard, but (in his words) “it uses harmonies, I have been told, which resemble those of the jazz pianist.” Indeed they do. The key to Evans’s genius was in his deep exploration of chord positions, brilliantly analyzed by Jack Reilly in his treatise The Harmony of Bill Evans (Unichrom Ltd., 1992). They included many extended positions which Evans, with his long fingers, could reach easily and make sound as if he were tossing them off extemporaneously, such as three secondary dominants in a row (B713 to E9+11 to A713) or a subtle use of chromatics within consecutive changes (B7 (13) to E9 (+11) to B?9 (+5) to B?7 (13) ). Patterson’s rich use of chromatics and seconds, though lacking Evans’s swing, do indeed produce a similar aesthetic effect but, more important, the music is lovely and engaging—just like Evans’s. Whether or not the composer intended it, The Hermit Thrush Orchestra Plays Vivaldi follows almost without pause, juxtaposing his bird calls against sharply defined ostinato string figures in eighth notes using the Italian composer’s signature octave leaps and descending-scale style.
From Patterson’s relatively normal harmonics and rhythm patterns, I found myself plunged off the deep end with Glen Roger Davis’s Piano Concerto in F. What a wild ride! Davis, an extraordinarily eclectic composer, not only combines classical form and orchestration with jazz but also with Caribbean, African, Celtic, and minimalist rhythms and forms. Composed specifically for pianist Chertock, who performs it here, the concerto uses juxtaposed themes and chord layers in a very post-modern style while urging the musicians to adopt an almost spontaneous approach in performance. Davis is also a student of quantum physics and chaos theory, fields in which I claim no knowledge at all, but whatever their application to this work it seems to me that although he sometimes strives for effects, effects are not what the concerto is all about. Indeed, in a sense I found myself disagreeing with the composer’s designation of the work as a concerto for, though the piano has a few solo passages, it is very much a part of the overall fabric of the work, much like the piano part in Scriabin’s Prometheus.
The first movement, entitled “Quanta Play,” begins with a swinging, medium-tempo bitonal melody that’s kind of in F, both the piano and orchestra playing in a percussive fashion (with occasional industrial-age-type factory whistles), but quickly stops to give us a second theme that is more lyrical but equally vague melodically. (The liner notes refer to it as “lyrical and hauntingly beautiful,” but I found it somewhat tuneless and its beauty deliberately disturbed by an undercurrent of menace, much like a Mahler symphony.) The piano, going into further atonal excursions in double time, leads the orchestra into an African-style rhythm complete with tambourines, although the strings and low brass (trombones and horns) wrest the music back from it. Throughout the movement, this tug-of-war continues, with neither side being able to claim victory, and sometimes it is the orchestra that leads the piano, not the other way round. After a crashing climax at about 9:12, the piano plays a flurry of a cadenza, followed by sharp string interjections; then the mood comes way down to almost a rhythmic standstill as the soloist plays soft chords, before a loud timpani finish.
The second movement, “The Ascension of Aunt Clarabelle,” is built around a double rondo, using two themes that simulate Celtic folk music. Here, the initial theme is “lyrical and hauntingly beautiful,” though melodically ambiguous, played by a solo trumpet in the midrange over sostenuto violas and cellos. The piano statement seems more rambling than sustained; the effect, over held string chords, is almost Coplandesque. A build-up then ensues, with the piano playing triplets while the orchestra crescendos behind it; things quiet down, followed by a quick and subtle key change from C to E at 3:20 into the movement. A secondary, equally lovely theme is played by English horn, strings, and winds in this new key. This theme is conventionally pretty, with the piano acting as commentator until it plays an extempore variation on it. This leads to a series of rambling triplets for the keyboard as the orchestra plays its own variants. The piano/orchestra interplay continues through various permutations before the Coplandesque orchestra overtakes the proceedings once again. A solo passage at about 7:44 reminds us that the piano is still present. Further keyboard triplets excite the orchestra as well, leading to a very busy, contrapuntal section in canon style. Low brasses—French horns, trombones, and trumpets in their mid and lower ranges—work hard to reestablish the theme, but tremulous strings introduce a bridge passage which may be a variant before the winds and strings return on the A theme. I swear that the underlying sounds I hear, beginning at 12:48 into the work, are sung by a chorus, yet no chorus is listed on the CD or in the booklet. Aunt Clarabelle ascends spiritually in a feeling of spent energy.
The third movement, “Dream Dance of Dali,” is structurally more conventional, consisting of a theme and variations, but rhythmically it is very complex, starting with rapid-fire 16ths played by the piano over the percussion section in full cry. There is some definite allusion to African rhythms here, and the flute solo, with trumpet interjections, has a very jazzy, Lalo Schifrin-like feel to it. I loved this movement! It reminded me of so many of my favorite classical/jazz fusion works, Duke Ellington’s Night Creature, Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, Charles Mingus’s Revelations, Libby Larsen’s Marimba Concerto for Lionel Hampton, yet it is wholly original. At long last, around 3:48 into the piece, the piano finally comes into its own, taking musical control and forcing the orchestra into a new groove, slower in tempo and very syncopated. We eventually get handclapping as well. How very Mingus! There is a simultaneous recap and elaboration in different registers of themes from all three movements. The movement’s whimsical dedication to the great surrealist painter is extremely apt; the changing, shifting rhythms, moods, and colors suggest a sound parallel to Dali’s visual style. To my ears, this is a masterpiece.
Philip McConnell’s Elegy for Strings was written for and premiered by the group presented here, the orchestra of the Church of the Painted Window from La Canada, California. The Elegy is the central movement of the composer’s Divertimento for Strings No. 2, and is described by McConnell as “a poignant work, with drifting tonal centers which gravitate toward A. Its thematic and harmonic tension dissipates in an ethereal variation toward the end. The opening ideas are then restated, and the movement ends ambiguously.” I suppose that every American composer since Barber who writes an elegy or an adagio for strings is automatically compared to him, and so it is here even though, technically, McConnell is Canadian and not from the U.S.A. His work is pleasant enough, however, if lacking the emotional depth of either the Barber Adagio or Davis’s stunning Piano Concerto.
Nancy Van de Vate’s second Violin Concerto is described by the composer as closely related to her 1990 Viola Concerto. A one-movement work, it is built on the four-note cell of G-A?-B?-C? (or B?), given both vertically and horizontally throughout. The opening fortissimo figure, played by brass and winds, is the four-note cell played as a rapidly repeated cluster, immediately followed by the strings sounding a sustained cluster over which the four-note cell is given melodically by both orchestra and the solo violin. Van de Vate spaces these four notes over two octaves to give a feeling of motion rather than chromatic progression. The solo violin then plays an elegiac theme, tonally warm but somehow emotionally forbidding, with orchestral accompaniment, succeeded by a rapid-fire outburst from the percussion. I heard a great deal of music here, in both the tone clusters and elegiac sections, reminiscent of the composer’s orchestral tone poems, Journeys and Dark Nebulae. The difference is in the playing of the solo violin and the orchestra’s response to it; as time goes on, the violin’s music becomes less forbidding, more emotionally compelling, as if the ice wall were being melted. By five minutes into the concerto, even the four-note tone cluster itself has melted, from high brass and winds to lower brass and strings, though yet another forbidding crescendo erupts the mood.
The second section begins, without a break, at 6:33 into the work. It is a whimsical play on the four-note theme, exploring some of Van de Vate’s favorite orchestral colors of lighter percussion (xylophone, triangle, and snare drum) with equally light outbursts from brass and high strings. The violin returns to an elegiac mood, but timpani and trumpet outbursts remind it of its current mission. Compelled by this rhythmic vitality, the violin is off and flying, yet oddly the music seems to be in a form of melodic and harmonic stasis, even though there is a great deal of rhythmic motion. When things quiet down again, the violin moves back to its elegy, then a long solo cadenza (written, I would think, though I am not entirely certain of this), which lasts for a few minutes. The orchestra is reintroduced by cellos, then lower brass, then higher strings, but keeping up a mood of deep brooding and unresolved tension. A percussion outburst at the 14-minute mark simply adds to and does not resolve the tension; the orchestra, playing in a sustained, low-register cluster, evolves from unease to menace, but the violin tries gamely to soothe these savage feelings. The concerto ends in the general feeling of the key of B (or C?).
The sound quality varies a little as the location and venue changes, but it is generally clear, bright, and natural throughout. I personally recommend this disc very highly. It has some of the best overall music of the many and varied “Music from Six Continents” compilations that VMM has ever issued. Of course, I’m sure that my feelings in its favor are prejudiced by my love of classical-jazz fusion works in general and the Patterson and Davis pieces in particular (Mingus used to call them “jazzical moods”), but what the heck, we all have our favorite genres.
-- Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare [1/2008]
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano in F major by Glen Roger Davis
Michael Chertock (Piano)
Ricardo F. Averbach
Period: 20th Century
Elegy for Strings by Philip McConnell
Church Of The Painted Window Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Concerto for Violin no 2 by Nancy Van De Vate
Nina Stoyanova (Violin)
Ruse Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1996; Austria
Piano Concerto in F major: I. Quanta Play
Piano Concerto in F major: II. The Ascension of Aunt Clarabelle
Piano Concerto in F major: III. Dream Dance Dali
The Hermit Thrush Orchestra Plays Bill Evans
The Hermit Thrush Orchestra Plays Vivaldi
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