Steven R. Gerber: Spirituals for String Orchestra; Clarinet Concerto; Serenade Concertante for Two Violins, String Orchestra and Harp. St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony conducted by Vladimir Lande; Jon Manasse, clarinet; José Miguel Cueto and Natalia Malkova, violins. Arabesque. $11.99.
The big question for modern classical music is whether a work is worth a second hearing. Audiences have become sufficiently sophisticated and sufficiently interested in new sonorities and instrumental combinations to try out many pieces once – but not necessarily again. Steven R. Gerber’s 10-movement suite, Spirituals, is a work that will repay multiple listenings, and to which audiences are likely to return after they first hear it.
Written between 1999 and 2001, Spirituals is highly congenial for Gerber’s musical temperament: sensitive, quiet and thoughtful. The first nine movements are inspired by spirituals; the 10th, an arrangement of Balm in Gilead, incorporates arpeggiated harmonics taken from Ravel. The movements’ pacing is generally deliberate, but the treatment of the themes is highly varied. The first and longest movement, which takes off from a tune by Harry Burleigh – the man who introduced Dvořák to spirituals – is reminiscent of early Ives in its full harmonies, warmth and expansiveness. Among the other highlights are the sixth movement, based on Go Down, Moses, whose fascinating orchestration makes it sound for a moment as if woodwinds have joined the strings; and the light and dancelike ninth, derived from Glory to That Newborn King. But every movement has its own charms, and hearing the original songs peek through – sometimes their melodies, sometimes their rhythms, sometimes their harmonies – makes Spirituals an involving experience, and one to which listeners will want to return. Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony play the work with warmth and understanding, which are just the qualities it needs.
The Clarinet Concerto was written from 2000 to 2002 for Jon Manasse, whose performance here is both skilled and knowing. In the first of its two movements, a serious introduction gives way to a bouncy segment with prominent harp and a particularly effective string-pizzicato section. The clarinet floats naturally into and out of the orchestra – even the cadenza sounds integral to the movement. The second movement, which largely retains the deliberate pace of the first, explores more of the chalumeau register. The brief faster sections here seem like interludes as the music waits to slow down again. The work is meditative, exploring the clarinet’s songful side but not its exuberant one.
The opening of the Serenade Concertante (1998) makes Gerber’s distinctive sonic world clear. There is a lot of ebb and flow in the first of the two movements, with the solo violins cooperating rather than competing: they often twine around each other. The writing for the orchestra’s lower strings is particularly well done, but the overall sound of the work is rather monochromatic. After a brief slow introduction, the second movement introduces some welcome liveliness: on this entire CD, the tempo marking “Allegro” appears only twice, both times in this movement, and both times qualified by “non troppo.” This movement has a distinct American flavor in its rhythms and intervals, plus some attractive pizzicati – a pleasant recurring feature of Gerber’s style. Its central section of variations is loosely based on the name “Brahms,” but this is rather contrived, mixing musical meanings from different notation systems. Still, the variations themselves are clever and interesting. Both this work and the Clarinet Concerto are worthy of more-frequent performance, but it is Spirituals that is most likely to appeal to audiences time after time.