Notes and Editorial Reviews
Joseph Alessi (tbn); Lorin Maazel, cond; New York P;
Christine Brandes (sop); Karla Lemon, cond; ens;
Jeffrey Milarsky, cond; New York New Music Ens
BRIDGE 9345 (61:29)
Live: New York 2/22–24/2007
It’s significant that when Melinda Wagner, in the interview above, talks about the role of the New York Philharmonic in her musical life, she mentions their performances of Mahler, rather than, say, their performances of Stravinsky, much less Webern. Not that Wagner’s Trombone Concerto looks back, in any superficial way, to the early 20th century; although the funereal eight-bar chorale between the second and third movements may bring Mahler (and even Richard Wagner) to mind, this is palpably music of our century. But the work, precise but never precious, does share something of the Mahlerian ethos—in its wide contrasts, in its unapologetically bold gestures and its willingness to push to the limits (Wagner is not afraid to throw markings like “Intrusive, strident!” into the score), in its bittersweet lyricism, in its second-movement night-music sounds, and in its strong sense of narrative progress. There’s another crucial New York Philharmonic connection, too: Although Wagner doesn’t mention Leonard Bernstein in the interview, the Trombone Concerto—like the Flute Concerto (see
24:1)—has its Bernsteinian moments as well, faintly echoing both Lenny’s jazzy bursts of urban exuberance and the more introspective, late-night-in-a-smoke-filled-bar loneliness best heard in
Age of Anxiety
(try the end of the first-movement cadenza).
Still, the Trombone Concerto, whatever its echoes and influences, has very much its own voice. When it was premiered in 2006, Anne Midgette, reviewing it for the
New York Times
, said that it “practically leapt off the stage, so vital and fresh did it sound.” Part of that freshness comes from the sheer prodigality of its ideas—a prodigality that, miraculously, consistently avoids sonic overload. The music can be ferociously complex in its textures, its rhythms, and its harmonies—but even at its most intricate, it never sounds abstract or cerebral, keeping you in its emotional grip from first note to last. Part of that freshness comes, as well, from Wagner’s ear-opening palette: Starting with the misty opening (over that long pedal she mentions in her interview) and the boisterous outbursts later in the first movement (appropriately named “Satyr”), through the rich weavings of the patient slow movement (marked “lush, dangerous” in the score) and the spare chorale (which, with its quiet halo of sustained string harmonics, also takes up the pedal idea from the opening), on to the precipitous ending, the piece—often dark in coloration—is gorgeously orchestrated. Part of the freshness comes from her lyrical genius. She mentions, in her interview, the way she composed the “simple” opening melody; while the melody—which winds sinuously through its largely static backdrop for pages—is in fact anything but simple, it does enthrall you as surely as the very different sort of melody that begins that more familiar satyr piece, Debussy’s
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
. Then, too, there’s her appreciation of the nature of her soloist and his instrument; the concerto gives the trombonist a chance to sing, shout, wail, proclaim, joust, and do just about everything else a trombonist might want to do.
As for the performance: Even in a piece he had been playing for decades, Alessi’s confidence would be remarkable. In his prismatic timbral range, his dexterous handling of complex rhythms and treacherous leaps, his burnished lyricism, and his exceptional nuances of vibrato, this is a stunning performance. The orchestra’s role is far more than a mere accompaniment, and Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic play with him—and around and against him—with intensity and conviction.
On the surface,
seems like a radically different kind of piece—it’s far more consistently somber in mood, and it makes its points more intimately. But it boasts the same timbral imagination (as is obvious, say, from the sense of looming anxiety at the beginning of the second movement, she gets a tremendous range of color from this small ensemble), and it boasts the same miraculous textural interplay (try, for example, the Interlude before the final song). The performance is first-rate.
, the earliest of the three works: Wagner suggests in her notes that it was the “clipped, sharp
” of the word “wick” that first inspired her. But she points as well to its multiple semantic resonances (“something that is lit,” “the action of drawing up—energy perhaps?” and “its similarity to the old English word
, meaning ‘witch’). Although she doesn’t mention it, there’s also the echo of the word “wit.” The resulting verbal kaleidoscope fits this mercurial burst of edgy energy well. Beginning with what almost sounds like a sly reference to Prokofiev’s
Suggestion diabolique, Wick
sandwiches a central episode of relative repose in between two sections of almost ceaseless, and generally fairly angular, activity, with plenty of sharp humor (the last page of the written score has a surprise of its own, which you can see if you check it out; it’s available online from Presser). Throughout, it’s a marvel of invention.
All in all, Want List material. Thanks to Bridge for their continued commitment to contemporary music.
FANFARE: Peter J. Rabinowitz
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra by Melinda Wagner
Joseph Alessi (Trombone)
New York Philharmonic
Period: 21st Century
Written: 2006; USA
Four Settings by Melinda Wagner
John Feeney (Double Bass),
Stephen Gosling (Piano),
Richard O'Neill (Viola),
Fred Sherry (Cello),
Curtis Macomber (Violin),
Christine Brandes (Soprano),
Laura Gilbert (Flute),
Alan R. Kay (Clarinet)
J. Karla Lemon
Period: 21st Century
Written: 2004; USA
Wick by Melinda Wagner
New York New Music Ensemble
Period: 21st Century
Written: 2000; USA
Notes: New York New Music Ensemble members: Jayn Rosenfeld, fulte; Jean Kopperud, clarinet; Linda Quan, violin. Chris Finckel, cello; Stephen Gosling, piano; Daniel Druckman, percussion.
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