Composing America – Audiophile Audition Review

Audiophile Audition

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Three of the four works by the composers in this enterprising disc from the Lark Quartet have their roots in American culture. As program annotator Andrew Waggoner notes, the works by Adams, Bolcom and Copland have their inspiration from “the music of the dancehall, the juke-joint, the jazz club, AM radio, the songs of laborers, of the marginalized, the dispossessed and (perhaps most importantly for John Adams) the young.”

John Adams Book of Alleged Dances (1994) combines the “wit of Mark Twain” with schmaltzy tunes and playful titles. The five excerpts from this work for string quartetand percussion combine the funky sounds of a Harry Partch composition with the jazzy ambiance of a blues nightclub. “Habenera” merges a country fiddle-like meditation with a Latin beat. “Dogjam” is the violins’ jerky journey over the prepared piano’s rocky terrain. You get the idea: you’ll encounter the unexpected and smile often in this creative musical fantasy that only could come from an American.

William Bolcom’s 2009 Billy in the Darbies is a musical portrait of Melville’s story of Billy Budd (which Britten made into a powerful opera) and his lament of being put in handcuffs (darbies) and “waiting to be tied up and thrown overboard for a crime he did not commit.” The bluesy repeated figure and Stephen Salter’s haunting baritone voice expresses the longing and resignation of Billy’s plight. Aaron Copland’s Two Pieces for String Quartet (1923) is a transitional work from his modern early period to his populist period of American classics. The first movement is poignantly beautiful; the second a lively and warm tribute written for a concert in honor of composer Gabriel Faure.

Paul Moravec (b.1957) is a prolific American composer whose music has won the Pulitzer Prize (for Tempest Fantasy), a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, and a Composer Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. He comments, “As a composer, I try always to make beautiful things…the overall harmonic context of my music derives from the tonal tradition,…essentially, Monteverdi to the Beatles and beyond.” His Piano Quintet is characterized by quickly changing moods, variations in rhythms and tempos, and lyrical passages interspersed with dramatic and dissonant sections. The darkly mysterious quickly becomes exciting and tense. The contemplative slow movement is tartly beautiful and ghostly eerie, always transforming. A beautiful cello melody precedes dissonant wandering strings in the central section of the final movement. It’s sandwiched between two sections of fast-paced passages led by the piano. This is a work that reveals and satisfies more upon repeated hearings. Jeremy Denk and the Lark Quartet navigate its complexities with verve and imagination. This is a disc that reflects the wide range of American music in the 20th and 21st century.

Robert Moon