Notes and Editorial Reviews
Timothy Russell, cond; Donald Berman (pn); Ahn Trio;
SUMMIT 576 (77:31) Live: Columbus 5/8/2009
March of the Gypsy Fiddler
Nothing is quite as interesting, or as difficult, as reviewing a disc of new music never before recorded. Here we have four such works, played by the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, Ohio, a group I had not previously heard, which commissioned each of them.
Christopher Theofanidis’s concerto starts with the pianist playing a modal melody harmonized in clusters (according to the notes), with all five fingers of both hands playing simultaneously and continually, particularly in the beginning. Said melody sounds as if it’s all over the place, while the orchestra clashes with it both harmonically and rhythmically. Happily, moments of lucidity chime in to give the movement structure even though it occasionally feels out of control. A simple three-note subsidiary motif alternates with the main melody, and in fact proves to be the underlying and unifying structure of the piece. A light, happy second movement (marked “Good-natured, a little mercurial”) follows, then a theme and variations that I find a little forced and lacking in clear structure. (Theofanidis admits that this was his very first attempt at the form.) The last movement, marked “Fast, brilliant,” is just that, using similar soloistic writing as in the first movement but with a clearer sense of direction as the piece moves to a joyous and triumphant finish, sounding very Coplandesque. In some ways, the entire piece puts me in mind of some of Stravinsky’s music for orchestra in which a piano soloist is heard without the work being given the designation “concerto.” Theofanidis’s style and melodic construction is different from Stravinsky’s, but in several ways the results are similar. What I am getting at is that, although the solo piano part is quite demanding, I really don’t hear it much of the time as a concerto. I suppose you could simply say this isn’t your father’s (or mother’s) piano concerto!
Chwen Er’s four-movement tone poem for string quartet and chamber orchestra is titled
The composer states that the quartet is positioned “to create an antiphonal effect with the string section of the orchestra,” with a middle “section” consisting of one woodwind, brass instruments, harp, and percussion. This puts me in mind of some of the wonderful textural experiments, using larger forces, explored by such composers as Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ellington from the 1890s through the late 1930s, though due to the composer’s ethnic sensibilities this is more Chinese in sound and feeling. I will say, however, that Chwen Er succeeds in one way that many of his fellow countrymen do not, and that is in imparting a Western sense of rhythm, and to some extent thematic development, to these essentially Chinese themes. He even introduces a clearly contrapuntal theme in the second movement, “Celebration,” which gives the entire work a buoyant rhythmic lift that (I’m sure he knows) is very Western and not at all Chinese. The third section, “Song,” is absolutely brilliant music, poignant and lyrical while still managing to introduce quite clear elements of clashing tonality. The final movement, “Dance,” is celebratory and exultant.
weds the piano music of 19th-century Puerto Rican composer Juan Morel-Campos with rhythmic and harmonic ideas of the present. This music is not particularly deep or fraught with meaning; it’s just a lot of fun. The centerpiece of the little suite is a Creole mazurka, celebrating the odd mixture of French-American and Caribbean musical styles, producing what Jelly Roll Morton termed “the Spanish tinge.” It is in the third movement that a
by Morel-Campos is brought into the music, concluding with a popular dance, the
Odd though it sounds, it was Sierra’s work, as well as Mark O’Connor’s
March of the Gypsy Fiddler,
that most persuaded me to keep this CD. O’Connor’s first movement, in particular, strikes me as more of a folk or pop tune simply scored for classical instruments, but so insistently joyous in feeling and so much fun to listen to that I simply can’t get enough of it. The second movement is indeed one of O’Connor’s popular tunes, “Fiddler Going Home,” written in tribute to a jazz violinist not too well known to the general public, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, who had died at the age of 95. But it is in the last movement, a tune O’Connor calls “Gypsy Fantastic,” where the Roma influence in the music comes to the fore. O’Connor added a second theme to it in order to “complete” the piece, then scored it for the chamber trio with orchestra. The Ahn Trio, made up of three South Korean sisters—violinist Angella, cellist Maria, and pianist Lucia—play within the orchestra in sinfonia concertante style, so there is little in the way of flashiness and much in the way of being a part of the overall fun.
If you’re looking for something heavy and serious and angst-ridden, something that speaks to today’s neurotic world, you won’t find much of it here except in the first movement of Theofanidis’s concerto, but if you want the kind of music that can lift the spirits and make you feel glad you’re still alive despite the gathering storm clouds on the horizon, this is a CD for you.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Concerto for piano & chamber orchestra by Christopher Theofanidis
Donald Berman (Piano)
Date of Recording: 10/16/2006
Venue: Southern Theatre in Columbus, Ohio
Length: 19 Minutes 54 Secs.
Serenata, for chamber orchestra by Roberto Sierra
Venue: Southern Theatre in Columbus, Ohio
Length: 15 Minutes 29 Secs.
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