Music by Max Wolpert, performances by Altius, and Starkland’s latest
By Peter Alexander
Amanda Harberg: Viola Concerto; Elegy
Max Wolpert: Viola Concerto No. 1, “Giants”
Brett Deubner, viola; Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, Linus Lerner, conductor
Naxos American Classics 8.559840
Max Wolpert is the only composer I can think of who has begun a piece of music with the end of the world.
What could come after that? As it turns out, quite a bit in Wolpert’s Viola Concerto, subtitled “Giants.” As recently recorded by violist Brett Deubner, for whom the concerto was written, and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra with conductor Linus Lerner, “Giants” is an attractive, effective and intriguing bit of musical depiction.
The title comes from Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Each movement refers to a different giant, starting with Father Time as imagined in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. A giant who slumbers deep beneath the earth, Father Time is awakened to “blow his horn and call the stars down from the sky.” If Wolpert’s end of the world is not as apocalyptic as we might expect, the chimes and final trumpet calls make a clear announcement.
After this mild apocalypse, Wolpert looks to the sky and the familiar cloud-dwelling giant, soothed by a magic harp. Here, a lovely harp solo accompanies lyrical lines in the solo part. The sky giant grumblingly awakes when the harp ceases, to orchestral chords that call out “fee-fie-fo-fum.” As the harp resumes, the threat is evaded.
The third giant is a rollicking “Cloud Woman” who enjoys thunderstorms as “a wild dance party.” Her revels are evoked by a “Balkan-influenced groove,” with lots of non-symmetrical rhythms.
There is a clever bit of musical symbolism running throughout. Wolpert sees the disappearance of giants as the diminishing of the world. “To encapsulate this notion,” he writes, “the concerto is framed around a melodic interval which gradually diminishes”: A fifth in the first movement, a fourth in the second movement, and a third in the final movement.
Wolpert, who lives in Boulder and works at Rocky Ridge Music Center, describes himself as a “composer and storyteller,” and the giants are depicted vividly in his music. It’s all great fun, and this must be a pleasure to play. An accessible piece for audiences, I can imagine this Concerto showing up on programs for both adults and children. Brett Deubner plays with a lovely, deep viola sound, lyrical flow and great technical assurance.
The disc is filled out with another Viola Concerto written for Deubner, by Amanda Harberg. The second movement, described as “a meditation on the fragility of life” is particularly lovely, again combining the viola with harp—an especially congenial pairing—at the outset.
The final piece on the disc is Harburg’s Elegy, written for piano and viola and arranged by the composer for viola with strings for Deubner to play. Written in memory of Harberg’s piano teacher and drawing from the same well as the concerto’s slow movement, this is an even more lovely and deeply affecting piece of music. I have a suggestion for orchestral programmers: the next time you need music for a somber occasion, perform Harberg’s Elegy.
The Southern Arizona Symphony is a community orchestra located in Tucson. Aiming to have an influence outside their own region, they have recorded, toured to China, and commissioned new works. If lacking brilliance or exceptional power, their performance is never less than effective.
# # # # #
Shostakovich: String Quartets 7, 8 & 9
Navona Records NV6125
The Boulder-based Altius Quartet, formerly in residence with the Takas at CU, have released their second full CD, and it is one to be relished by their fans.
After their somewhat whimsical first recording, “Dress Code,” with its offbeat mix of Haydn, Led Zeppelin, and others, they have turned to a more weighty region of the quartet repertoire: the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth quartets of Shostakovich. Written at a critical point in the composer’s life, 1960 and 1964, these quartets are deadly serious and challenging to even the most experienced, mature quartets.
For the most part, the Altius prove themselves equal to the task. The members of the quartet are never less than completely assured in playing this challenging music, and they know what they want the music to say.
From the first notes of the Seventh Quartet, they play with a nervous energy and palpable anxiety that matches the composer’s life under the Soviet state. Their tightly controlled performance of the Seventh reflects Shostakovich’s emotional state in 1960, suggesting that there is a hidden emotional depth that could burst through at any time.
The Eight Quartet was a literal cry of despair, written when Shostakovich was contemplating a suicide that his friends may have only just averted. Here the performance is cold, distant, at times as bleak as the composer’s mood. Even the demonic waltz of the third movement seems repressed.
I like more threat in the ominous thee-chord outbursts—recalling every Soviet citizen’s greatest fear, the KGB’s knock in the middle of the night—but the performance is consistent in its restraint. There is a brief moment of warmth near the beginning of the fifth movement, but that too fades into desolation. It’s not easy to enjoy this music, but this is a performance to admire.
Written four years later, the Ninth Quartet is somewhat sunnier, if not exactly cheerful. This is again music of great complexity, but the Altius plays with a remarkable transparency of texture throughout—you can hear every individual line. Restraint is again the keyword for the performance, and the shifting character of the movements is well delineated.
The disc is more than three works by the same composer: it is a satisfying whole, helped both by the selection of works, moving from anguish to near-manic cheerfulness in the composer’s outlook, and by the Altius Quartet’s keen perception and effective communication of the emotional narrative.
# # # # #
David Lee Myers: Ether Music
Boulder’s Starkland records has released a CD by one of the pioneers of electronic music, David Lee Myers. Also creating under the name Arcane Device, Myers has been constructing his own sound-producing electronic circuitry since 1980 and has more than 30 CDs to his credit.
The winner of Global Music silver medals for Creativity/Originality and Innovation in Sound, Ether Music features “Feedback Music,” comprised of sounds that are entirely generated by electronics—or as the printed notes explain it: “The album’s content spontaneously emerged from Myers’ self-designed, hand-built conglomerations of elaborately interconnected sound processing devices, with no external input.”
From the raw material of electronic hums, pops, clicks, thumps, and other sounds, Myers has crafted ten separate pieces. The different sounds are layered in ways both simple and complex, creating varied and shifting clouds of sound.
I know that not everyone will hear this as “music,” depending on how they define the word, but it is certainly creative use of sound. Like most of Starkland’s releases, hearing it expands the listener’s horizons and opens the ears to new possibilities.
Each track pulls you into a distinct world. Some of these worlds seem familiar, some are exotic, some are hallucinogenic, and they all invite exploration. If Myers’ work has a weakness, it is the difficulty of using electronic sounds to build the tension and subsequent release that comes naturally to tonal music. Lacking a definitive closing gesture to resolve the music’s journeys, many of the tracks simply fade into silence, letting the final mood linger without resolution.
That said, every piece is worth hearing. If you wish to be engaged by new sounds, you should hear the entire CD. Of the ten tracks, the first, implicate order, is a good place to start because the layers of the texture are easily heard in their transformations and interactions. A pulsating, swelling and subsiding electronic drone is overlaid with drum-like clatters and clunks.
The third track, astabilized, is the most obviously derived from electronic feedback, including buzzes, static and electronic insect sounds. The fifth track, arabic science, features pitched drones and lines that sweep up and down the scale. The impression of a distant wailing chorus, birds and insects all invite the imagination to create a dramatic scenario.
The very rhythmic sixth track, the dynamics of particles, starts with bongo-like pops and snaps, soon joined by other pitched pulses that rise and fall in pitch. The steady meter of the drum sounds makes this one of the most purely enjoyable tracks.
Another thoroughly enjoyable track, radial axial, conjures a Fellini-esque world as if from a 1950s movie. A woozy electronic organ is transformed into a theremin—the staple sound of 1950s sci-fi—then a harmonica, then a wheezing calliope before shuffling off into the distance.
It must be great fun to create these pieces, and I find it great fun to sample, either all at once or just the occasional excursion into one or two of Myers’ sound worlds. Whether it adds up to deeper artistry probably depends on your taste and concept of musical art, but no one is likely to remain untouched by the wide creativity contained in this album.
NOTE: A correction was posted 12.4.17. An earlier version of the story had stated incorrectly that Harberg’s Elegy had been arranged for viola and string by Deubner. It was arranged for Deubner by the composer.