Composers in the Loft
Carter Pann: Differences for cello and piano
Pierre Jalbert: Trio for violin, cello, and piano
Stacy Garrop: String Quartet No. 2:
Demons and Angels
Vivian Fung: Miniatures for Clarinet and String Quartet
For their 100th CD since their founding in 1989, the non-profit Chicago label Cedille has chosen to honor a Chicago institution, Music in the Loft. Founded in 1992 to promote new chamber music, Music in the Loft offers an annual concert series in an intimate setting, and has sponsored a composer-in-residence each year since 1998, starting with Venezuela-born Ricardo Lorenz and including the other four composers represented on the present CD. The disc follows the order of their residency, and also, perhaps fortuitously, features a piece for a soloist, duo, trio, quartet and quintet, in that order. The music varies greatly in mood, from a genial "Country Dance" to a portrayal of the inner torments of a murderer and to some sprightly variations on a Uighur folksong.
Lorenz's 5-minute piano piece Bachangó (1984) serves as a pleasant appetizer for the more substantial courses ahead. The composer, who has been resident with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra too, calls it a "brief, kaleidoscopic look at Afro-Cuban music." Starting with a halting theme that may remind listeners of Copland's Danzon Cuban, the piece becomes a collage of rhythms and melodic fragments, played with panache by Marta Aznavoorian.
Carter Pann's Differences is a playful work of contrasts: the title alludes to the very different musical forms of these five duos for cello and piano. The opening "Strand" has a snap and sprightliness that sound very American (though I hear more Copland/populist than the "pop tune" Pann mentions in his note on the piece). "Air" is a long-lined baroque-style slow song, while "Country Air" is jaunty in a Percy Grainger sort of way. "Blues" features bent notes in the manner of the slow movement of Ravel's 1920s Violin Sonata, also marked "Blues." Finally, "Song" has a vigorous pounding rhythm on the piano while the cello carries the tune. This is "light" music, but with some pleasing harmonies and surprising rhythms that invite repeated listening. I wish, however, that I could say I enjoyed David Ying's cello performance as much as I did Elinor Freer on the piano. Ying has distinguished credentials, so perhaps the problem is the recording; but I often found his tone thin when richness and swagger are called for.
Pierre Jalbert's Trio is in two movements of about equal length. The first, titled "Life Cycle," is said by the composer to be inspired by his hearing the sound of his unborn son's rapid heartbeat. It starts out with an agitated rhythm, has quieter moments later but with irrepressible rhythmic outbursts, sometimes steady, sometimes jagged. Whatever the inspiration, the piece works well as "pure" music, constantly inventive and splendidly played by the Lincoln Trio. The second movement, labeled "Agnus Dei," is inspired by the Latin prayer. It begins very quietly and slowly, a series of notes with bent pitches, barely recognizable as a melody for the violin. The cello picks up the melody, equally quietly, and though the piece does rise to an impassioned climax, it soon subsides — not quite to its original melancholy state but to something slightly more at peace (befitting the Latin poem's move from "have mercy on us" to "give us peace"). This, too, is movingly performed by the Lincoln Trio. I'm not sure how well the two movements fit together, but as a set of two pieces it's an exciting new work.
The longest work on the CD, Stacy Garrop's30-minute String Quartet No. 2, has a disturbing program, which the CD booklet describes in detail: its four movements portray the deranged mind of the murderer of five people. It is more disturbing to read in Cedille's press release (but not in the booklet itself) that the man was a former boyfriend of the composer. Is it presumptuous of a composer to imagine the inner torments of an actual person, with musical themes representing the demons and angels that struggled for the man's mind — or is this no different from, say, Morton Gould writing a ballet about a more famous murderer, Lizzie Borden (his Fall River Legend)? Listeners will of course have to decide for themselves. Can one enjoy Garrop's Quartet as "pure," i.e., abstract, music? Well, once one has read, for example, that the five jolting chords in the first movement are meant to represent the five victims, one may not easily forget it. In any case, the four movements fall into the traditional pattern of fast opening movement ("Demonic Spirits"), slow movement ("Song of the Angels"), brief scherzo ("Inner Demons") and finale ("Broken Spirit"). The third movement is especially striking. It begins with a series of dance figures, followed by a slow "Appalachian folk hymn" in place of a trio, and for the return features a deranged distortion of the dances, as the demons take over again. In the finale, the murderer paces restlessly around his prison cell, but eventually falls into what listeners could interpret as quiet sorrow. The Biava Quartet play with all the anguished feeling that the piece calls for, along with the necessary precision and clarity.
The last work on the CD, Vivian Fung's Miniatures, brings the sound of the clarinet to an otherwise piano-and-strings program. Miniatures is a set of variations on an Uighur folksong — the Uighur people being of Western China, along the Silk Road. The string quartet is almost always an accompaniment to the clarinet, though with ingenious rhythmic patterns and piquant harmonies, while the clarinet part is extremely virtuosic — splendidly played by John Bruce Yeh of the CSO. Here too "bent" notes are used, though now to imitate the sound of a folk instrument. (The piece also calls for glissandos that suggest Gershwin as much as the Silk Road.) The four short movements are titled "Floating" (slow and serene), "Light and Playful" (staccato syncopations in the clarinet, against a steady string pulse), "Improvisation-like" (with cadenza-like passages for the clarinet), and a longer finale, "A Piacere," which means "at pleasure," i.e., allowing ad libs — although the program notes don't specify whether this refers to the performance or to the composer's own improvisations on the folksong. In any case, the movement opens with the clarinet unaccompanied except for a few plucked-string interjections, then a final variation. Miniatures would be a fabulous piece to open a program featuring the Brahms Clarinet Quintet — here's wishing it a long life on the concert stage.
Although I found the Jalbert and Fung works the most musically rewarding — the ones I want most to hear repeatedly — the entire CD, a generous 78-and-a-half minutes, is a fitting tribute to an important organization for new chamber music.