November 16, 2023


Bach: The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan, BWV 201; Trevor Weston: A New Song. Washington Bach Consort conducted by Dana Marsh. Acis. $18.99.

Eric Moe: Strenuous Pleasures; Deep Ecology; Spirit Mountain; What Instruments We Have Agree; Demon Theory; Welcome to Phase Space. Da Capo Chamber Players; counter)induction; Horszowski Trio; David Russell, cello; Elliot Riley, saxophone; Eric Moe, piano. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     One of Bach’s less-often-performed choral works, The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan is a secular dramatic cantata based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and a delightful instance of “music about music,” with perhaps a few overtones (pun intended) of satire. The story involves self-important Pan (sung by bass-baritone Ian Pomerantz) challenging the actual god of music, Apollo (bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton) to a singing contest. Each of the competitors has an advocate: for Pan, King Midas (tenor Patrick Kilbride); for Apollo, Tmolus (tenor Jacob Perry, Jr.). And there are a couple of godly commentators on the proceedings: Mercury (contralto Sarah Davis Issaelkhoury) and Momus (soprano Sherezade Panthaki). The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is that Midas is actually the judge of the contest, so he awards the prize to Pan, whose declared booster he is. But the victory is at best bittersweet for the arrogant winner, who at the end is declared to be a mere boaster unworthy of his success. Bach structures this often-amusing drama, with its underlying seriousness about music, very cleverly: the six soloists sing arias in six different keys, and the overall work uses five different rhythmic structures and five different combinations of instruments in its 15 sections. The excellent period-instrument performance by the Washington Bach Consort thoroughly captures the colors and clever conceptual elements of the work, from the celebratory, fanfare-packed opening chorus through the recitatives that carry the story along and the arias that allow each character to present viewpoints and arguments. The longest aria, lasting a full nine minutes, is given to Apollo at Largo speed, indicating the seriousness as well as the beauty of his musical standing. Pan’s presentation aria is shorter (six minutes), brighter, danceable, and critical of Apollo’s approach: “If the tune sounds too labored/ And the mouth sings constricted,/ Then this stirs up no merriment.” The opposing musical portrayals are highly effective, and the singing here makes the contrast quite clear. The entire performance is upbeat, well-balanced and sensitive to the underlying seriousness of issues that Bach and Ovid raise with a leavening of humor. The Acis CD pairs the Bach with the world première recording of A New Song by Trevor Weston (born1967), in which Weston seeks a contemporary approach to issues similar to those explored by Bach – using the instruments of Bach’s time, but with thoroughly modern harmonies and rhythms, and including three soloists (Panthaki, Issaelkhoury and Perry) with the chorus. Elements at which Bach hints with considerable subtlety, Weston makes explicit: “We want to hear luminous sounds,” “Every sound passes through my thoughts,” “The new song will reimagine the old,” “A new song speaks for me, speaks for us,” “Music records our days, helps us remember,” and so forth. The obviousness of the verbiage notwithstanding, the music represents an interesting attempt to update for a modern (and less-subtly-thinking) audience some of the themes explored by Bach. Weston’s music is well-made and intermittently interesting in its exploration of the sonorities of period instruments in a modern context, although the work as a whole is less than convincing. It is not that Bach’s (and Ovid’s) concerns cannot be updated – Weston certainly does so, but he adds little other than a comparatively contemporary sound to the arguments. In contrast, Mahler’s 1896 Wunderhorn song, Lob des hohen Verstandes, encapsulates in less than three minutes many of the same issues that Bach explored at length – and with much-more-direct humor. Weston’s piece is certainly worth hearing, but it does not fully engage listeners either musically or on an emotional level, coming across mostly as an intellectual exercise – even in a performance as well-managed as the one it receives here.

     Matters of music and its meanings are also paramount in some of the works on a (+++) New Focus Recordings release featuring chamber pieces by Eric Moe (born 1954). Unlike Weston’s work, those by Moe fall into the now-standard approach of many contemporary composers: often highly dissonant, stylistically combinatorial, and tied tightly to non-musical matters as well as some musical ones. Spirit Mountain (2010) and What Instruments We Have Agree (2015) are both memorial pieces, the former for conductor J. Karla Lemon and the latter for composer Lee Hyla. Both incorporate and expand upon specific music that listeners are unlikely to know, even if they are familiar with the people whom Moe memorializes. Both works use chamber groups mainly as collections of individual instruments rather than ensembles, with Moe mostly proffering short bursts of melody and rhythmic activity that are colored by the specific instruments playing them. The tie-in of these pieces to works directly associated with Lemon and Hyla means the music will have considerably more meaning for those who know the referents than for more-casual audiences. The other pieces on this disc refer to various non-musical matters that it is also helpful to know about for better comprehension and enjoyment of what Moe has created. Strenuous Pleasures (2010) contrasts brighter and faster multi-instrument elements with quieter ones, placing solo and duet sections against full-chamber-ensemble ones. Welcome to Phase Space (2014) is a trio (violin/cello/piano) with a somewhat Ligeti-ish evocation of interstellar vastness, based on a concept from physics. Also here are a duet and a solo work. The two-instrument work is Demon Theory (2013) for alto saxophone and piano: Moe himself is the pianist, and Elliot Riley, who commissioned the piece, is the saxophonist. This work also draws on physics in a way, referring to a thought experiment involving connected energy systems that Moe considers to be akin to the connectedness of the two instruments – a rather abstruse formulation that, like so many elements associated with Moe’s music, is best understood prior to hearing the work so as to be better able to absorb it. The solo piece here is Deep Ecology (2020) for cello (David Russell), although it is not quite a solo, since it incorporates electroacoustic material that in fact tends to dominate the instrument: the usual sounds of nature (birds, frogs, insects) intersect with those of the cello, which comments on and interweaves with them, suggesting ways in which humans interact with the rest of the world. The sonic environment of all these pieces is forthrightly contemporary, the performances committed and engaged with the material – but everything here is an illustration of or exploration of something that is not here, that is external to the music itself, that needs to be studied and understood for Moe’s works to have anything approaching the effect he wishes them to have.

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