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Costinescu: Jubilus, Pantomime / Shelton, Mcwhorter, Ensemble Sospeso

Costinescu / Ensemble Sospeso / Mcwhorter
Release Date: 06/26/2012 
Label:  Ravello   Catalog #: 7822  
Composer:  Gheorghe Costinescu
Performer:  Brian McWhorterLucy SheltonDavid Rozenblatt
Conductor:  Rand Steiger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Sospeso
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

COSTINESCU Jubilus.1 Pantomime2 1Gheorghe Costinescu, cond, Lucy Shelton (sop); Brian McWhorter (tr); David Rozenblatt (body perc); 2Rand Steiger, cond; Sospeso Ens RAVELLO 7822 (DVD: 97:03) Live: New York 4/2/02

I’m somewhat ashamed that even though I’ve known Gheorghe Costinescu’s name for many years (he lives and works in my general Read more neighborhood), I really didn’t know his music. This is obviously my loss. Costinescu, Romanian-born in 1934 and resident in New York since 1969, turns out to be a composer of thrilling imagination and adventurous spirit, as evidenced on this DVD.

While I don’t want to typecast him too much based only on these two works, they at least show Costinescu to be a composer of music that incorporates control of the actual physical action of performance into the fabric of his music. There’s actually a strong European tradition of this, even though it’s been kept somewhat to the sidelines; Mauricio Kagel comes to mind above all, but Dieter Schnebel, Marc Monnet, and Peter Ablinger are also evidence of this “concert-theater,” an approach that choreographs musical action: abstracting, critiquing, deconstructing it.

Costinescu’s approach is precise, deeply conceived in the details, and often uproariously fun. Yet thankfully it doesn’t descend into a sort of sniping postmodernism that precludes a certain open, even innocent joy. Just the opposite: As these pieces testify, Costinescu is intent on giving both performers and audience the type of fun and charge one gets from a great sporting event.

Jubilus (1984) is a trio for soprano, trumpet, and a percussionist who plays only his body. The latter’s music consists of finger-snaps, claps, foot-stomps, tongue-clacks, and a few uttered syllables (which David Rozenblatt delivers in full). The effect is a little like a Savion Gloveresque alt-tapdance routine. But despite its novelty, what really works is that it integrates seamlessly into the piece’s overall fabric. The voice (uttering a “non-semantic” text, in the composer’s words) and trumpet are both highly “vocal” in their lines, though it’s a sort of modernist scat more than a bel canto writing. The punctuations of the percussionist become an almost ideal pivot between them, in terms of sound, articulation, and color.

But the main event is Pantomime (1972, then revised 1994; apparently the original version had much more aleatoric material and Costinescu rewrote much of it to be precisely notated). This is a work for chamber orchestra: 15 players, one instrument to a part. What distinguishes the piece is its choreography, which is stunning. I have seen works that make movement an essential part of the experience (Kagel, in particular his percussion trio Dressur), but this piece takes things to a new level. All the motion is closely tied to the work’s sound and formal development, and the motions themselves are thrilling. The seven winds and five strings are arranged in two concentric circles (after they arrive in successive pairs on stage, musically chatting through their instruments, a bit of a reverse of the Haydn “Farewell” Symphony). Once set, the winds begin to rotate counterclockwise, one place at a time (the music becomes suddenly ponderous at each rotation, a kind of march). Then at a certain point the strings do the same, but clockwise, and then both begin to rotate simultaneously and continuously in these different directions, all the time playing exact material. The effect is mind-blowing; you have to see it to believe it. And this is only one of several theatrically compelling and appropriate actions that occur over the work’s 20-minute span. The degree of planning involved in making it work gives this composer chills. (Costinescu, in the interviews included in the disc, suggests that his early experience playing accordion in Romanian folk ensembles gave him the idea and training to realize the piece, and he makes reference to folk rituals, square dance, and marching bands.)

The musicians of the Sospeso Ensemble perform with bravura, pulling off what could be an impossible task. Indeed, they go beyond bravura to inhabit the performative practice and make it seem natural, the way a great athlete makes us forget how physically demanding certain such seemingly natural actions can be. (I’m watching the summer Olympics while writing this; you get the picture.) All of them are magnificent, but I have to give special praise to Dorothy Lawson, who plays the whole work with her cello strapped in a brace to her body; trumpeter Brian McWhorter, whose virtuosic chops are matched by his manic-imp persona; and conductor Rand Steiger, who not only keeps the whole thing together, but becomes a type of ringmaster for this circus.

This DVD is of a live performance (which makes the accomplishment even more impressive), and it’s hard to imagine any other way the essence of this music could be projected. In fact by itself, the music is a little “notey” to my taste, and I wish at times it could breathe more (though the concluding chorale, when all the players cluster together, probably meets this need). But on reviewing, I hear more and more differentiation, and both different stylistic tropes and varying tonal underpinnings emerge. I’m reminded here of the music of Elliott Carter, which can seem an unintelligible frenzy at first, but then with repeated encounters the haze seems to lift and the logic of the music shines forth.

More than half the disc is taken up with interviews of the composer by Sospeso’s co-directors, Joshua Cody and Kirk Noreen. The longest is useful, though somewhat marred by an overactive camera and erratic editing. But two smaller interview segments are fantastic, where Costinescu takes us through each score in detail, discussing notational strategies and the overall formal flow. It’s analytic in the best sense for the listener: not too technical but still substantial (you can see he has been a very good teacher over the years).

I’ll go ahead and say it, something I rarely do. Pantomime is a masterpiece. Once seen, you’ll never forget it. This is on my Want List in this issue.

FANFARE: Robert Carl

Picture Format: NTSC 4:3
Region: All Read less

Works on This Recording

Jubilus by Gheorghe Costinescu
Performer:  Brian McWhorter (Trumpet), Lucy Shelton (Soprano), David Rozenblatt (Percussion)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1981/1984; USA 
Pantomime by Gheorghe Costinescu
Conductor:  Rand Steiger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ensemble Sospeso
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1972/1994; USA 

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