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Collage New Music Performs Donald Sur / Hoose, Epstein, Petosa, French, Oldfather

Release Date: 11/10/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1134   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Donald Sur
Performer:  Jim PetosaCatherine FrenchChristopher Oldfather
Conductor:  David HooseFrank Epstein
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SUR The Unicorn and the Lady. 1,3,5 Berceuse. 4 Satori on Park Avenue. 1,5 Catenas: I; II; III. 1,5 A Neo-Platonic Epistrophe while Crossing Times Square. 1,5 Red Dust 2,5 David Hoose, cond; 1 Read more class="ARIAL12"> Frank Epstein, cond; 2 Jim Petosa (nar); 3 Catherine French (vn); 4 Christopher Oldfather (pn); 4 Collage New Music 5 ALBANY TROY 1134 (64:55 Text and Translation)

Though I’ve been intermittently involved in the Boston new music scene for over two decades, I never met Donald Sur nor heard his music until now, even though his was a name always floating around. Based on this recording, I’m genuinely sorry not have made the encounter sooner, and since he is no longer with us (1936–1999), the personal contact can never occur. But this disc is a stunning introduction to his work, and suggests a rare and treasurable creative spirit.

Sur came from Hawaii, of Korean-American roots. He took several years off to travel to Korea and became one of the great authorities on its traditional classical music, then returned to Boston to get a doctorate from Harvard. While involved in teaching throughout his U.S. career, he was apparently uncomfortable with it (as recounted in John Harbison’s affecting appreciation/reminiscence in the booklet). As a result, his main source of support was through a music printing business that created some of the best editions of new scores—before the computer took over. He then moved into a gypsy existence, roving from one artist colony to another (he seems to have had a truly monastic devotion to his art). His monument is an immense oratorio, Slavery Documents , which I still have not heard. And from his dates, it seems he died far too young.

This recording focuses mostly on later works, and a word about the voice they project comes in a moment. The two earlier pieces are fascinating in the way they show such different sides of a creative personality, which would in turn be reconciled further on. The three Catenas of 1961 (rev. 1970), 1962, and 1976 are very much in the mid-century modernist style, linked to Webern and Boulez. But what stands out is their exceptional delicacy, transparency, and quicksilver-flashing rhythms. There’s a delightful danciness about them that doesn’t just abate their atonal angularity, but actually makes that language seem right. Red Dust (1967, rev. for Western percussion in 1976) couldn’t be more different. It’s an evocation of ancient classical Korean percussion, and it’s repetitive to the hilt, a constant turning wheel of crashes, thumps, rattles, and conch-blows. It’s also divided into 27 movements, even though it lasts only about 13 minutes! (A special ensemble of 29 percussionists has been recruited for this realization.)

The remaining pieces all come from 1980 on, and they move into an even more fresh and rarified realm. I don’t think it’s stretching too much to make a reference to another composer who was Sur’s teacher and coincidentally another Korean-American living in the Boston area, Earl Kim. These pieces of Sur’s share with Kim an exceptional clarity and economy. They are lyrical and tonal, yet they never fall into sentimentality. Neither do they drip irony; there’s just a marvelous objectivity about them. They only seem motivated by a delight in discovered beauty, leavened with a gentle wit.

A Neo-Platonic Epistrophe while Crossing Times Square (1980) is a delight, a sly little foxtrot that perpetually loops onto itself (a friend for whom I played it immediately exclaimed “Vexations!” at the end). Though the notes don’t say it, to me it seems a paraphrase of the old standard “A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody.” Satori on Park Avenue (1984) has as its fanciful program the reactions of a group of 1930s New York fashionistas, whose penthouse cocktail party is distracted by the distant sight of an immense primate holding a tiny blond woman on the Empire State Building (readers do know what Sur is referencing, yes?). An insistent ostinato of “Tea for Two” underpins the whole thing, and near the end there is the revelation hinted at in the title, when the music expands into an instant of gentle lyricism, followed by a quote of the actual pop tune (this approach, where the source is revealed at the end, is what’s called “cumulative form,” for those interested).

The 1999 Berceuse is the last piece Sur wrote. It’s a poignant essay in impressionistic harmony and gestures, with the same sort of continuity I’ve suggested in the previous two pieces. Debussy and Satie are lurking in the wings, but never overpower Sur’s own voice. And the 1981 The Unicorn and the Lady is a major work for narrator and mixed ensemble, using a text by Barry Spacks responding to the famous New York tapestries in the Cloisters Museum (Kim’s Cornet (after Rilke) strikes me as a kindred work). This is a form that’s hard to pull off—often the words and music seem at odds without singing—but here Sur creates to my ear a fine balance. The deliberate archaisms of Sur’s writing feel suitably scrupulous and astringent in the spirit of Stravinsky’s Agon.

The performances are totally in the spirit of the music, tender but incisive. The narration of The Unicorn and the Lady is presented the way it would be in concert, i.e., amplified in the hall rather than studio-mixed. I appreciate this approach, except that the resultant voice is a little bass-boomy, though not too unnatural. David Hoose conducts all works except the Berceuse and the percussion piece. This is a belated discovery for me of an important composer I wish I could have known better. Highly recommended for everyone.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

The Unicorn and the Lady by Donald Sur
Performer:  Jim Petosa (Narrator)
Conductor:  David Hoose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Berceuse for Violin and Piano by Donald Sur
Performer:  Catherine French (Violin), Christopher Oldfather (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Satori on Park Avenue by Donald Sur
Conductor:  David Hoose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Catena I by Donald Sur
Conductor:  David Hoose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Catena II by Donald Sur
Conductor:  David Hoose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Catena III by Donald Sur
Conductor:  David Hoose
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Red Dust for Percussion Ensemble by Donald Sur
Conductor:  Frank Epstein
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Collage New Music
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

Sound Samples

The Unicorn and the Lady
Satori on Park Avenue
Catena I
Catena II
Catena III
A Neo-Plastic Epistrophe While Crossing Times Square
Red Dust: I. -
Red Dust: II. -
Red Dust: III. -
Red Dust: IV. -
Red Dust: V. -
Red Dust: VI. -
Red Dust: VII. -
Red Dust: VIII. -
Red Dust: IX. -
Red Dust: X. -
Red Dust: XI. -
Red Dust: XII. -
Red Dust: XIII. -
Red Dust: XIV. -
Red Dust: XV. -
Red Dust: XVI. -
Red Dust: XVII. -
Red Dust: XVIII. -
Red Dust: XIX. -

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