December 15, 2016
(+++) CLASSICAL FORMS RETHOUGHT
Jonathan Leshnoff: Symphony No. 2 (“Innerspace”); Zohar. Jessica Rivera, soprano; Nmon Ford, baritone; Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99.
Roy Harris: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; John Adams: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin; BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton. Signum Classics. $17.99.
Mischa Zupko: Chamber Music. Sang Mee Lee, violin; Wendy Warner, cello; Mischa Zupko, piano. Cedille. $16.
Tod Dockstader: From the Archives. Starkland. $14.99.
Three of the New Testament Gospels tell the parable of wineskins or wine bottles. The version in Matthew reads, “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” Although the parable’s exact interpretation is controversial, it certainly has to do with the relationship between the teachings of Jesus and then-existing Jewish practices. Whatever truth it may have for religion, though, the parable is turned on its head by many contemporary composers, who are only too willing to put new wine (their musical thoughts and their emotions as expressed through music) into old bottles (long-established classical forms). And this is directly relevant to the music of Jonathan Leshnoff (born 1973), as performed by the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spano in a new release on the orchestra’s own label – for Leshnoff says his Symphony No. 2 (2014) is a forthright and clear exploration of his own Jewish heritage. Specifically, Leshnoff ties the music to a book called Innerspace by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. The book posits five levels of “occlusion from God,” and the symphony’s five movements are intended to reflect all five. This is heavy philosophical freight for a work of pure music to bear, and while this symphony bears it rather well, the work needs to be convincing on its own, as music, if it is to present a meaningful message to an audience that does not know its origin and may not be Jewish or familiar with Jewish mysticism and liturgical thinking. The question, then, is whether this performance, which is certainly strongly felt and very well played, is enough to give the symphony a level of universality of emotional connection. The answer is: not really. The work is in many ways accessible, with lush strings, numerous engaging themes, and clear emotional expressions from time to time, as in the opening horns expressing what is surely anguish. But the piece as a whole meanders, seeming more an orchestral suite than a symphony, and its finale seems purely self-indulgent: it is a minute and a half of silence, intended to represent the universe that is closest to God. But how is someone who does not know Innerspace and has not done some sort of pre-reading on the symphony to know this? Silence within a symphony has been tried before: Mahler wanted five minutes of silence between the first and second movements of his Symphony No. 2, to allow the audience to absorb what happens in the first movement and prepare for a major change of tone in the second. That silence has a self-evident musical purpose – but Leshnoff’s has an extra-musical one, and as such seems not a climax but an escape into a sort of “unanswered question.” The symphony has many effective moments, but it is so strictly programmatic, on so abstruse a topic, that its value purely as music is lessened. It is paired with the oratorio Zohar (2015), for solo soprano and baritone, chorus and orchestra, which is also steeped in Judaism: the title means “brightness” or “radiance” in Hebrew and is also the title of a collection of commentaries on the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament. The chorus sings the Hebrew words that translate as “the wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens” as Zohar opens, setting the scene for what becomes a six-movement exploration of the relationship between humans and God. The approach is surely less familiar than better-known efforts to understand God through music by drawing on the Christian tradition, but it is cut from much the same cloth and has many of the same grand gestures and flourishes as other oratorios, especially large-scale ones of the Romantic era. The Atlanta Symphony commissioned Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 2 and co-commissioned Zohar with Carnegie Hall, and the performers certainly handle both works with enthusiasm and understanding. On balance, Zohar, which hews more closely to earlier classical models than does the silent-finale symphony, reaches out more effectively to an audience that cannot be counted on to be deeply familiar with Leshnoff’s religion and, in particular, with its mystical elements.
Symphony and oratorio are scarcely the only traditional classical forms in which modern composers continue to work. As a new Signum Classics CD shows, both Roy Harris (1898-1979) and John Adams (born 1947) also considered and reconsidered the violin concerto, producing two works that are very different in sound and effect but remain noticeably tied to the concertos of the past. The Harris concerto dates to 1949 but was not performed until 1984. As a result, it sounds a bit like a throwback to neo-Romanticism, but not in a negative way: its sumptuousness, warm orchestration and insistence on tonal beauty from the soloist are welcome amid the flood of contemporary music in which the violin’s sound is stretched beyond its customary bounds for no apparent reason beyond challenging the abilities of performers and aural tolerance of audiences. The Harris concerto is in four “sections” within its single movement. None of them is labeled with a title or tempo indication, but this is essentially a traditionally laid-out work with a broad opening, scherzo-ish second portion, emotive third part, and brisk (and short) finale. The performance by Tamsin Waley-Cohen and the BBC Symphony under Andrew Litton is an exceptional one, thoroughly involving and with expressiveness that brings out the nuances of the score beautifully. The performers also handle the three-movement Adams concerto (1993) quite well, but the work itself is less winning than the Harris concerto. Its structure is unusual-within-the-usual, with a standard three-movement concerto form (fast-slow-fast) but a very unconventional use of the violin: instead of contesting and contrasting with the orchestra, the soloist spins very extensive and generally meditative lines that Adams calls a “hypermelody” while the orchestra is reduced to a subsidiary role that falls somewhat short of the traditional notion of support. Thirty-five minutes of this is a bit much. Adams tries hard to ground the concerto in the past while at the same time producing something new: the first movement, the longest of the three by far, is essentially rhapsodic and meditative, close to a fantasy in its exploration of multiple moods. The second movement is labeled Chaconne, a direct reference to a Baroque form, but also bears the title “Body through which the dream flows,” a line from a poem by Robert Hass. This movement shows with particular clarity the composer’s determination to build a new edifice atop the classical concerto tradition. The attempt continues into the finale, which is marked Toccare (“to touch”) – a title clearly referencing another Baroque form, that of the toccata. It is all intellectually weighty but not always clearly communicated through the music itself. What the audience hears is a set of long-flowing violin melodies and a wholly subservient orchestra throughout the entire piece – a structure that both absorbs and bypasses classical-concerto traditions. The work is exceptionally well played here and has many felicitous touches, but does not really sustain emotionally throughout, coming across as an experiment in form that pulls the emotive along with it without ever quite bringing it fully to the fore. The concerto is definitely worth hearing, but it is not an easy work to enjoy or respond to if one seeks the meaning toward which it always seems to be striving.
Several traditional types of chamber music are explored in works by Mischa Zupko (born 1971) on a new Cedille release. The most interesting material here is in the form of paired movements called Rising (2009) and Fallen (2010), the former an impression of Jesus’ ascension to Heaven that eschews the obviousness of a constantly rising violin line, the latter a depiction of a young man’s suicide leap (based on a poem by Federico García Lorca) that uses the cello’s range skillfully to depict what comes across as a slow descent. There are contrasts as well in the four-movement suite called Shades of Gray (2005), but they are on the more-obvious side in Zupko’s attempt to depict “Shadow,” “Waves,” “Ice” (the inevitable harmonics) and “Trigger.” Three additional individual but related movements on the CD are impressionistic interpretations of cosmic events. From Twilight (2015) starts with individual notes representing single stars and spreads into a more-general starscape. Eclipse (2014) uses violin and cello cleverly, having them start with differing musical lines that eventually merge. Nebula (2015) is less successful in its attempt to be musically kaleidoscopic: the intertwined lines here serve no obvious purpose. Finally there is Love Obsession (2013), written for cello, piano and six pre-recorded electronic cello tracks. It has some interesting sonorities, but they are overlaid on an obvious structure in which the same phrase – repeated, of course, obsessively – is designed to reflect the work’s title. Zupko’s music has many interesting elements, and the performers here, including Zupko himself and two musicians who are the dedicatees of several of the works, handle the material with skill and commitment. When Zupko thinks beyond the obviousness of some of his themes (in the sense of topics), he comes up with more-interesting themes (in the sense of musical material). His works do not need the electronic involvement of Love Obsession to be effective – they just need structural and presentation thoughtfulness, coupled with performances as skilled as these.
On the other hand, electronic effects are the be-all and end-all in the music of Tod Dockstader (1932-2015). Dockstader’s attachment to electronic sounds bordered on the, well, obsessive, and the 15 works on a new Starkland CD explore his creations from the last years of his creative life, 2000-2008 – after which dementia forced him to stop composing. These pieces were assembled from thousands of sound files left behind when Dockstader died, and they are squarely in the mainstream, if that is the right word, of electronic composition in general and Dockstader’s creations in particular. Listeners who tend to think of electronic music as noise will be interested in the very last piece on the CD, Big Jig, which really does sound like noise that has been deliberately created as such with the intention of assaulting the ears. The other works’ intentions are more varied. Their titles give no real clues to how they sound: Super Choral, Chinese Morf, Basement Passage, Todt I, Anat Loop, First Target, Whisper Smoothed, Mystery Creak, Creek Bells, Creak Creek, Odd Bells, Todt II, Piano Morf and Choral Mix. The swoops and flutters, crescendos and decrescendos, sounds ranging from the voice-like to ones that seem to come from outer space, and varied sonic palette that has no referents in traditional instruments, are entirely typical of electronic compositions – and there is little to distinguish any specific piece on this disc from any other. This is textural rather than harmonic or rhythmic music, which is not to say that it lacks rhythm but that rhythmic matters are of secondary importance to the overlays of various sound waves that characterize the way the music feels. That is “feels” rather than, or as much as, “sounds.” It is easy to pick out snippets of words in some pieces, bell-like sounds, buzzers and the sound of doors opening and closing, the overtones that are a common feature of all electronic composition, echoes and re-echoes, and various effects that come across sometimes as bright, sometimes as dark and eerie, sometimes as fast-moving, sometimes as placid. What Dockstader tries to convey in these works is by no means apparent, any more than the communicative aim is clear in much other electronic music. That the works are skillfully constructed and clearly reflective of an inventive mind operating in a small musical niche is obvious. The chance that anything here will lead people who are not already enamored of electronic music to embrace it is minuscule. But the CD will be much appreciated as a musical/electronic eulogy for Dockstader, made up of his own final thoughts on a medium that he championed for many decades.