Composing America – Review

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The intent of this release, it seems, is to provide an updated version of the American chamber music survey that started with Ives and ran up to perhaps Samuel Barber, keeping the focus on vernacular/popular content and even deepening it by showing how it has woven itself into many types of compositions. The Lark Quartet rejects the division of American music into vernacular-influenced and European-oriented, showing that vernacular instincts have penetrated the works of composers not generally associated with that tradition, and it offers a clever demonstration of the group’s idea. Each of the first three works on the program somehow involves that most American of musical devices, the blue note. In the first of the five “pages” from John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the blue note appears in a form very close to that in Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano, creating an interesting absent touchstone. William Bolcom’s wonderful song for baritone and quartet Billy in the Darbies, a forerunner of the composer’s Billy Budd opera, and Aaron Copland’s early Two Pieces for string quartet both pull further against the blues tonality in different directions, and the Lark Quartet delivers an unusually good realization of the young Copland, soaking up the scene in Paris and finding that the French composers he admired were themselves interested in American jazz. Finally, with the modern Piano Quintet of Paul Moravec, commissioned by the Lark Quartet itself, discarding the blue note but not the rhythmic aspects of popular music; in the words of annotator Andrew Waggoner, “the connection [to vernacular music] is there. It is just less apparent, less at the surface and more in the make-up of the musical elements themselves.” A novel take, performed with attractive precision, on the age-old question “what is American music?”

James Manheim

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