Notes and Editorial Reviews
Wheeler’s neo-Classic roots are most on display in the 1985 Violin Sonata, the earliest work on the program. Infectious, expertly crafted, and rhythmically ingratiating, it’s brimming with play. At the same time, it sounds slightly second-hand, an homage to his teachers and the eminently respectable school of Boston composition that includes such other masters as Piston, Fine, and (early) Bernstein. What’s striking about this program is how afterwards, starting in the 1990s, Wheeler’s practice seems to deepen and explore new ground, take more risks.
It’s in the string trio Shadow Bands (1991) and the piano quartet Dragon Mountain (1992–93) that something new begins to emerge. The trio opens in the way described above, but
greater harmonic variety, formal continuity, and expressive intensity color its course. It grows effortlessly but relentlessly. The quartet adds yet another element to the mix; up to this point Wheeler’s textures have been lean and brittle, but in this work they become far more luxuriant, driven by longer lines and moto perpetuo accompaniments. The composer notes that the music was inspired by Celtic sources, and the influence, while subtle, is real. It paradoxically roots the music so it can take flight.
Finally, the piano trio Camera Dances (which gives the album its title) from 1996–99 reaches a balance between these competing tendencies. Its four movements are exceedingly concise (yet never seeming too short). But while perhaps a little more tightly “framed” than the two preceding works, it has the greatest sense of mystery, and suggests larger vistas. Its opening is almost sinister, a motive like a nagging doubt, or the sense of something important that one’s forgotten—yet must remember. Over time its mood becomes sunnier, but the resultant beauties seem hard-won, and always fragile, placed in relief by the ambiguous context created in the opening. In short, while a generally conservative composer, there is nothing nostalgic or reactionary about Wheeler’s art. He is engaged in a genuine dialogue with tradition, unafraid to shape it to his own purposes. It’s challenging music that rewards on first listening, no mean feat.
The Gramercy Trio (Leventhal, Miller, Hodgkinson) is the core ensemble for this program, breaking down into subsets for some pieces, combining with other musicians for larger works. All have collaborated over decades with the composer. The performances couldn’t be better. The sound is suited to chamber music—reverberant but clear and close, as though one is hearing it in an intimate but resonant hall, in the first couple of rows. Highly recommended.
Robert Carl, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Shadow Bands by Scott Wheeler
Edward Gazouleas (Viola),
Donald Berman (Piano),
James Dunham (Viola)
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