January 07, 2016


Paul Moravec: Amorisms; Tempest Fantasy; Sacred Love Songs. Portara Ensemble and ALIAS Chamber Ensemble. Delos. $16.99.

James Winn: Chamber Music. Dmitri Atapine, cello; Rong-Huey Liu, oboe; Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, violin; James Winn, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Douglas Anderson: Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Ravello. $14.99.

Rojak Rocks: Music of Jack Gale, Steven Christopher Sacco, Brian Lynn, Walter Ross and Alan Raph. John D. Rojak, bass trombone. Navona. $16.99.

     Genre bending – not to be confused with gender bending – is commonplace in contemporary classical music, to such an extent that it can be quite difficult to say where “classical” music ends and other musical styles begin. For some composers, that is exactly the point: to demolish barriers between “higher” and “lower” music and treat all forms of music-making as equal in scope and value. For others, classical forms and the kind of order and orderliness they impose on sound sequences retain a strong attraction, but there is a desire not to be bound too tightly to structures, rhythms, harmonies and the overall sound of the past. For these composers, who push boundaries without feeling compelled to break them for the pleasure or sociopolitical righteousness of demolition, a specific musical identity may be amorphous, but classical roots remain clear. Paul Moravac is a fine example. His attractive music lies firmly in the classical tradition without being tied completely to it. His Amorisms ballet, which gets its world première recording on a new Delos disc, is certainly danceable – in 2014, it was performed by the Nashville Ballet, which co-commissioned it along with the performers heard here. But it treats ballet quite differently from the way, say, Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky did. The instrumental forces are deliberately modest: clarinet and string quartet (this is the contribution of ALIAS Chamber Ensemble). There is a crucial five-voice vocal element (the Portara Ensemble’s portion). And the work’s title is a portmanteau word, combining “amor” with “aphorism”: the whole piece is structured around five brief Shakespearean comments on love. The simple and repetitive elements of the music make it accessible and help it fit neatly into dance mode, while the cleverness (at times a bit of over-cleverness) of the concept and structure give the work a thoroughly modern feel. It is an effective blend of classical and what may be called post-classical sentiments. Shakespeare is also the focus of Moravec’s Tempest Fantasy for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. This is a five-movement exploration of the play – essentially five character pieces, as they would generally be styled in their classical models. There is one section focused on Ariel, one on Prospero and one on Caliban, with the other two, more atmospheric and less character-specific, being called Sweet Airs and Fantasia. Rather than being grand and sweeping, as other composers’ views of The Tempest have been, Moravec’s is almost pointillistic in its focus on detail and its carefully worked portrayal of elements of the play. The CD concludes with an adaptation for ALIAS Chamber Ensemble and Portara Ensemble of Moravec’s Sacred Love Songs, here performed by choir and string quartet rather than in its original setting for small vocal group and recorder quartet. The new arrangement is not quite as effective as the original, because this is a Renaissance-style work based on religious texts: the movement called A Prayer of St. Francis is central to the work’s overall effect. The original scoring fit the material somewhat better than this one does, but there is no question that these performers handle the music with delicacy and skill – and the juxtaposition of this specifically religious music, which starts with Love Endures All Things and ends with Greater Love, works quite well after the two Shakespeare-focused pieces. Moravec’s attractive handling of classical forms, without being slavishly bound to them, comes through to fine effect throughout.

     James Winn also hews closely to traditional classical models in the chamber works on a new MSR Classics CD. Three Nocturnes for Piano Trio (1986-87), the longest piece here, makes the connection with the past particularly clear, being in effect a set of three chamber-music tone poems (but that is a distinctly nontraditional notion, tone poems almost inevitably being works for large orchestra). The first piece, Invocation of Selene, is a work of crepuscular serenity, based on the notion of invoking the moon goddess; the second, Seannachie, draws on an old Celtic tale about the capture of Tam Lin by the fairy folk and his rescue through the purity and steadfastness of his true (human) love; the third and most interesting, Louhi’s Conjuring, draws from a rather amusing story in the Finnish Kalevala (frequent inspiration of Sibelius) in which a witch-queen conjures salt from a magical mill she has stolen, but cannot get the grinder to stop and finally throws it into the ocean, which has been salty ever since. The story has parallels to that of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the music has some parallels too, starting in moody and mysterious mode and then neatly picking up the mill’s faster and faster grinding. Winn nevertheless manages to display a personal style that draws on established forms without following them slavishly. He also shows himself to be a strong pianist and a fine chamber-music collaborator, not only in the nocturnes but also in the two other works on the disc. Variations on a Theme of Bartók (1977/2010), for cello and piano, takes a Hungarian folksong that the earlier composer used in For Children and makes it the basis of rather sweepingly Romantic variations that give the cello ample opportunity to display tonal warmth as well as virtuosity. Masque for Oboe, Cello and Piano (1981) also juxtaposes earlier musical eras, its title and pacing reminiscent of an entertainment at the French court during the ancien régime but its harmonies and overall “meta” approach rather suggesting a much later observer looking back through time, somewhat judgmentally, on a carefully arranged and dutifully elaborate occasion. Familiarity with the works of earlier composers who are echoed in Winn’s chamber music, or those to whom the music offers a respectful bow, will help listeners garner full enjoyment of these chamber pieces, although they are well-constructed and interesting enough on their own not to require substantial knowledge of their building blocks and homages.

     Like Winn’s tone-poem-like nocturnes, the three Douglas Anderson chamber symphonies on a new Ravello CD take a form usually associated with a larger ensemble and employ it with a smaller one. No. 2 is for four instruments, Nos. 3 and 4 for three. What makes these “symphonies” rather than two trios and a quartet is a matter of opinion and of thinking about the boundaries between the forms. Anderson says he was influenced by Schoenberg’s chamber symphonies in composing his own, but Schoenberg’s first is for 15 players and his second (in its 1939 revision) for a full chamber orchestra. Clearly something else is at work in Anderson’s pieces: he tries to use the inherent sound characteristics of the instruments for which he is writing to develop these pieces’ thematic material. Chamber Symphony No. 2 (1989) is for flute, clarinet, violin and cello; Chamber Symphony No. 3 (2001) is for flute, viola and cello; and Chamber Symphony No. 4 (2011) is for violin, cello and piano. All the works are in three movements, and listeners coming to the pieces without considering what the composer thought he was doing in creating them will not find anything particularly symphonic about them. It is true that they largely lack the “conversational” elements of traditional chamber music, but what they offer instead is not symphonic expansiveness but a focus on the sound world within which each of the instruments exists – a world that, in common with many other contemporary composers, Anderson often seeks to expand beyond its traditional boundaries. Anderson gives the performers here – members of groups called “di.vi.sion” and “Eight Strings & a Whistle” – numerous opportunities for solo display; indeed, the cadenzas and transitions between movements in these symphonies tend to be more interesting than the meat of the movements themselves. From time to time, these works delve into the usual non-classical realms favored by so many modern composers, including jazz, film music, and music for overtly commercial purposes. Although not symphonic in any significant discernible sense, they make skillful use of the small instrumental groups for which they are written, and offer periodically engaging aural material even though they do not sustain interest particularly well throughout their lengths.

     Bass trombonist John D. Rojak is more the focus of a new Navona CD than is the music he plays – but both the music and Rojak himself work within classical models while also striving mightily to transcend them. Rojak’s career has him playing jazz, contemporary, film and commercial music as well as traditional classical works, and the pieces on this disc reflect all his areas of interest. This is particularly true in Jack Gale’s Three Pieces, whose title specifically states that it is for “bass trombone with jazz rhythm section” – which includes Russ Kassoff on piano, Joe Bongiorno on bass, and Ray Marchica on drums. The three-movement work sounds a bit like warmed-over film music; it is certainly easy to listen to, especially in its upbeat outer movements. Steven Christopher Sacco’s Sonata, for bass trombone and piano, was written for Rojak and also melds classical and jazz elements, with the jazz dominating and the focus throughout on the bass trombone: Antoinette Perry on piano plays a decidedly secondary, supportive role. Considerably more interesting is Ba-Dee-Doo-Dup by Brian Lynn, which is for bass trombone and two tenor trombones (James Miller and Andy Malloy). The five short movements include a first one (from which the whole works gets its title) that has the rhythmic bounce of a Pink Panther cartoon accompaniment; a second (Respite)that sounds like a wistful folk song; a third that is a very short waltz that stops just short of self-parody; a fourth  (Smooch) that swoons appropriately; and a final march in which the three instruments have a chance to show themselves off effectively in a typical-for-classical-brass form. The modest ambitions of Lynn’s work are a significant strength; the greater ones of Walter Ross’ Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra (in which Rojak is joined by the New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz) are a bit of a hindrance. The piece’s dimensions are not too great for a concerto – the three movements run 25 minutes – but this is one of those works that seems to insist, starting with its grandiose opening, that it is serious music and must be taken seriously; the result is that it comes across as a bit pompous, a touch pretentious. Rojak plays it exceptionally well, and there are some felicitous touches here and there, such as the woodwind/brass contrast at the start of the second movement and the effective use of percussion in the finale. But the concerto comes across as a little too long for its material and as trying a little too hard to be meaningful. The CD ends with the short solo work Rock by Alan Raph, which tries much too hard to be significant: it was recorded outdoors, 150 feet above a canyon floor, so as to include the landscape’s natural echo – a gimmick that does nothing to give the light, almost frothy music any greater importance. Rojak is such a fine performer that he brings forth considerable quality even in this piece: he would be good to hear in music that is more inherently substantial than is much of the material on this recording.

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