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Paul Chihara: Viola Concerto & Music For Viola

Chihara,Paul / Gilad
Release Date: 01/08/2013 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9365   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Paul Chihara
Performer:  Ben UlleryPaul ColettiGina ColettiZach Dellinger,   ... 
Conductor:  Yehuda Gilad
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Colburn Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHIHARA Concerto Piccolo. 1 Viola Concerto 2. Redwood. 3 Viola Sonata 4 & 1,2,3,4 Paul Coletti (va); 1 Ben Ullery (va); 1 Gina Coletti (va); 1 Zach Dellinger Read more (va); 2 Yehuda Gilad, cond; 2 Colburn O; 3 Jack Van Geem (perc); 4 Vivian Fan (pn) BRIDGE 9365 (54:57)

& Interview with the composer

As is mentioned in the above interview, 1971 was something of a watershed year for composer Paul Chihara, that being the year he left a university professorship to pursue composition in a wider arena than was possible within the confines of academia. I suspect the above-mentioned criticism that he received from various corners when he did so was rather short-lived. When a composer has as much talent and inspiration as Chihara consistently demonstrates, who can gainsay him? In short, the high standard of his craft evident on the previous CD I reviewed (35:3) is on full display on this disc as well, regardless whether one is considering the pre- or post-academic music on it.

The focus of the CD in hand is on the viola, an instrument particularly dear to this composer’s heart, as he formerly played it, and married a still-active violist. The Concerto Piccolo has nothing to do with the smallest member of the flute family. If you think back to that class with Miss Phelps, your slightly frumpy junior high music teacher, you’ll remember that the Italian word, piccolo, simply means “little.”And so this concerto’s four movements together comprise a work of less than eight minutes’ duration. Each movement was originally written as a stand-alone piece, and somewhere along the line, Chihara discovered that they would mesh together well. I generally agree, although the final movement sets quite a different mood from the other three. The first movement, “Tarantella,” is full of vigorous flourishes and coups d’archet, while the second ( Allegro ) yields to a melancholy and lyrical mood, occasionally interrupted by a jaunty rhythmic figure. Movement 3, Allegro Vivace , is once again vigorous with frequent unison passage work by the four players that gives a nice textural change. The final movement, “Aka Tombo (Red Dragonfly),” is infiltrated with ghostly whispers and eerie harmonies and harmonics. I’m still trying to decide if the piece would end more effectively with one of the other livelier movements, but whether singly or together, Chihara’s works are a delight.

Chihara’s single-movement Viola Concerto from 1990 is not his first work in the genre, there being an earlier concerto for the instrument dating from 1963. I haven’t heard that earlier opus, but can guess that it resides in a different harmonic world from that of the later work (subsequently revised in 2000). Although I sensed a few whiffs from Berg in the work under review (and later read the notes to find that the composer had quoted a few notes of Wozzeck ), I hasten to add that this is no pastiche of the Austrian master. This is especially evident in a section where something resembling a Viennese waltz sneaks in. There is also homage paid to Debussy’s Prelude, although it became obvious to my ears only late in the piece. The subtitle of the work, “When soft voices die,” is taken from the poem of Shelley, which also includes the line, “Vibrates in the memory.” The composer found the idea of music “vibrating” in the memory of the listener irresistible, and evoked the sense of it through much use of bells and bell-like sounds in the texture. Originally commissioned in 1987, Chihara had to set it aside for several years due to health problems. Once he recovered, he returned to the work, and replaced the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as his original model with one based upon Chausson’s Poeme. Thus this concerto has several linked sections, and also like the Chausson model, fades away quietly at the end. I would be surprised if this piece does not eventually wind up in the standard repertoire for the instrument.

As in the preceding work, the Viola Sonata was a “work in progress” for some years, also due to the composer’s health. Begun in 1991, it was not finalized until a good 20 years later. This work is intended as a love letter to the composer’s wife, and a lovely letter it is. The harmonic language won’t stretch the listener’s ears beyond what Samuel Barber does, but Chihara’s voice is entirely his own, as he skillfully incorporates brief quotes from older composers (in this case, a few notes from Mozart’s E-Minor Violin Sonata, K 304) and makes them a seamless part of his musical fabric. He also quotes from himself in the cantabile second movement, with a reference to his music for the Broadway production of Shogun. The work concludes with a brilliant finale with a concluding flourish that will knock the socks off of the auditor.

With Redwood, I came back to an old friend, as it was the first work that I can recall hearing of this composer, and it led me to explore a number of his other works back in the LP era. The vinyl recording on the Protone label in my erstwhile collection contained a fine performance by violist Milton Thomas, Chihara’s former mentor, but it is good to have this recording by one of the instrument’s current masters. Redwood is the sole work on this CD written in Chihara’s earlier style. Consequently, this work incorporates elements drawn from serialism, and much imaginative percussion writing. The annotator states that few composers could write so melodically for the drums, and indeed that is so: The rototoms spin out true melodic lines that complement the complexities in the viola part magnificently.

Violist Paul Coletti, the featured artist in this recording, plays superbly. His luxuriant tone caresses each nuance found in the stylistic compass of these works. All the numerous technical demands of the music are likewise met with supreme confidence. I don’t believe there is a better violist currently on the musical scene today, and few that can match the standard set by this artist. The assisting artists provide solid support as well, as do the superb sonics of Bridge. The CD concludes with the company’s director, David Starobin, interviewing the composer about his artistic development. Highly and enthusiastically recommended on all accounts, and a strong contender for my next Want List.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield

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The 19-minute concerto is Chihara at his most profound, its melancholy strains, pellucid colors and urgent sweep prompted by a life-threatening health crisis. But everything on the disc—even Redwood, a 1969 duo in a more astringent style—shows Chihara’s skill and imagination; the performances throughout, especially that of the Colburn Orchestra in the concerto, are brilliant.

-- Steve Smith, Time Out New York Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Concerto Piccolo for four violas by Paul Chihara
Performer:  Ben Ullery (Viola), Paul Coletti (Viola), Gina Coletti (Viola),
Zach Dellinger (Viola)
2. Concerto for Viola by Paul Chihara
Performer:  Paul Coletti (Viola)
Conductor:  Yehuda Gilad
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Colburn Orchestra
3. Redwood for viola and percussion by Paul Chihara
Performer:  Paul Coletti (Viola), Jack Van Geem (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
4. Sonata for Viola and Piano by Paul Chihara
Performer:  Paul Coletti (Viola), Vivian Fan (Piano)

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