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John McDonald: Airy - Music for Violin & Piano / Kurkowicz, McDonald

Mcdonald / Kurkowicz
Release Date: 09/10/2013 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9402   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna KurkowiczJohn McDonald
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MCDONALD Lyrical Study. Poem, op. 12b. Brief Pastiche of a Theme by Schoenberg. Four Single-Minded Miniatures. Mad Dance. Lily Events: A Suite of Seven Little Studies . Sonata for Solo Violin. Suite of Six Curt Pieces. Lines After Keats. Airy Joanna Kurkowicz (vn); John McDonald (pn) BRIDGE 9402 (65:06)

The present disc serves to give an excellent overview of the music that composer Read more John McDonald has written for violin, still and forever my favorite instrument. The works on the CD are arranged chronologically, a system which has the advantage of allowing the listener to “take the journey,” as it were, with the composer.

The opening work, composed in 1985, is Lyrical Study, a brief (three-minute) study in, may I say, lyricism. However, the lyricism of this composer is quite piquant and nostalgic, because of his use of bitonality. The effect is slightly reminiscent of some of the music of Olivier Messiaen, except that the harmonies are McDonald’s own and by no means lifted from the French master. Toward the end of the work are some forte interjections of clusters in the upper register of the piano, which for some reason brought to mind certain things I’ve heard in the work of Conlon Nancarrow, but only in that particular section. The second work, Poem, more or less takes up where the Lyrical Study left off, except that it is, if anything, gentler in its approach than its discmate.

Written in the same year as the first two works, Brief Pastiche on a Theme by Schoenberg draws its material from eight measures of Schoenberg’s Phantasy, op. 47. The composer considers it to be a short fantasy on another short fantasy. The rhythmic action of this work is ratcheted up several notches from that of the preceding pieces, with elaborate and harmonically complex figures tossed around, especially in the piano. There are quiet moments, too, where the violin breathes and sighs, seemingly exuding resignation.

Four Single-Minded Miniatures begins with a relentless rhythmic figure in the piano over which the violin weaves around an angular melody. There is something Bartókian about this opening, although once again the harmonies are not Bartók’s. The second movement uses long note values, including extended use of the upper two open strings of the violin to evoke an atmosphere of mystery. Pointillistic intrusions by the piano provide contrast to the static lines of the violin. The third movement finds the violin spinning out a more lyrical line, which is underpinned by a steady eighth-note pulse in the piano, only briefly interrupted in the middle of the movement. The fourth of these miniatures sounds the most “American” to my ears, because of the Copland-like turns of phrase, rhythms, and textures. On occasion, it almost sounds inclined to break into a hoe-down, but never quite does. Once again, however, the harmonies remain the exclusive domain of McDonald himself. The Suite was composed in homage to the studio of Roman Totenberg, although apparently only two movements were dedicated to his students.

Mad Dance, at about a minute and a half, is the briefest piece in this recital. The opening pulsing figure breaks down shortly into disjointed phrases and interjections by both instruments. Despite its brevity, the length of the piece is just right. The term “miniature” may equally well be applied to Lily Events: A Suite of Seven Little Studies. In 1989, McDonald came across a volume of poetry edited by Jerome Rothenberg, titled Technicians of the Sacred. The setting of these little pieces is based upon a section of that work called “The Book of Events,” and all of the pieces have “Lilies” in their titles (e.g., “A Man and a Woman Looking for Lilies,” etc.). The pieces were written for the young students of one Totenberg protégé, and consequently are not too technically demanding on the performers, albeit not to the detriment of the effectiveness of the pieces. There is not much good concert music out there for younger performers, so I would recommend these pieces to any teachers who are looking for music for their younger students to perform.

Lest the reader peg McDonald as only a miniaturist (and there are certainly worse epithets that can be hurled at a composer), the Sonata for Solo Violin is a rather extended (c. 14-minute) essay, cast in three movements. The Sonata effectively explores many aspects of the art of violin playing, including octaves, tremolo, soaring lyrical lines, sometimes interjected with pizzicatos, and the outlining of exotic harmonies through interesting turns in the melodic line. In this work particularly, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz gets to shine, although she is clearly the master of her instrument in the other works as well. Her phrasing, technical assurance and impeccable intonation all serve to present this and the other music heard herein splendidly. The three movements are Con Brio, Adagio (the longest of the three), and “Ten Variations.”

By the time in 2000 when McDonald completed his Suite of Six Curt Pieces, he had reached the amazing total of 326 opuses (by now the number exceeds 500), so he is clearly one of the more prolific composers before the public. These miniatures live up to their name in their brevity and acerbic wit. Lines after Keats opens with an extended section for solo violin. An opening wandering line is interrupted by pizzicatos and other types of figuration, including artificial harmonics. Only at more than halfway through the piece does the piano make its entrance.The work is rather episodic in style, but never disjointed, as the composer carries his listener along to the conclusion of the nearly six-minute work. Mostly quiet until the piano entrance, the work has several dramatic climaxes that are reached in the final section.

The concluding work, Airy, lends its name to the title of the album, and is based upon McDonald’s piano piece Something Unistic. The ideas behind Unism, a quasi-Minimalistic trend in the world of art fathered by Polish painter W?adys?aw Strzemi?ski and developed musically by Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, were the basis for the present work, which alternates between “airy” pizzicatos and a breezy “song.” These give way to a rather mechanistic center section, full of bravura, although it concludes with a whisper of harmonics in the violin part. The work is dedicated to Joanna Kurkowicz, who plays it with supreme assurance and conviction. It is perhaps not for me to say, but these performances would seem definitive to my ears. Kurkowicz’s playing leaves nothing to be desired from my violin-tuned ears, and the composer clearly has the technical and musical chops to do with these pieces exactly what he hears and intends on the piano.

Between the music, the performances, and the recorded sound, this CD was a treat from beginning to end, and I recommend it wholeheartedly both to contemporary music enthusiasts and lovers of fine violin playing.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Poem, Op. 12b by John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin), John McDonald (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Brief Pastiche of a Theme by Schoenberg, Op. 15 by John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin), John McDonald (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Four Single-Minded Miniatures, Op. 27 by John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin), John McDonald (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
1.A Bit Maniacally
3.Adagio non troppo
4.Allegro. With Verve
Mad Dance, Op. 66 by John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin), John McDonald (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Mad Dance, Op. 66 by John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin), John McDonald (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Lily Events - A Suite of Seven Little Studies, Op. 97 by John McDonald
Performer:  Joanna Kurkowicz (Violin), John McDonald (Piano)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
1. A Man and a Woman Looking for Lilies
2. All the People Going Down to Look for Lilies
3. Mud Taken Up Looking for Lilies

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Airy, indeed October 7, 2013 By Ralph Graves (Hood, VA) See All My Reviews "Airy brings together John McDonald's music for violin and piano, bringing together lighthearted miniatures with more serious long-form compositions. It's an appealing program that's full of variety. Mad Dance, Op. 66 and the Suite of Six Curt Pieces, Op. 326 are just plain fun, while the major work, the Sonata for Solo Violin, Op. 219 is more complex composition with greater emotional depth. <br /> <br /> In the program notes, McDonald says he considers many of these works to be songs without words -- and it's an apt description. Poem, Op. 12, for example, is based on the poetry of Samuel Beckett. The shape of the music is determined by the poem, although not a word is sung. That's also the case with Lily Events, Op. 97 (inspired by poetry collection), and the Lines After Keats, Op. 336. <br /> <br /> There's an audible chemistry between violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and the composer (who accompanies her). Airy is the title of the release, and airy it is." Report Abuse
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