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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Brilliant American Chamber Music

Paul MORAVEC (b. 1957)

Chamber Symphony (2003) [19:14]
Autumn Song (2000) [4:59]
Cool Fire (2001) [21:02]

Marya Martin, (flute)
Jeewon Park, (piano)
Stephen Williamson, (clarinet)
Erik Ralske, (horn)
Ayano Kataoka, (marimba/vibraphone)
Ayano Ninomiya, (violin)
Jessica Lee, (violin)
Cynthia Phelps, (viola)
Edward Arron, (cello)

Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, December 2007.

NAXOS 8.559393 [45:30]

Paul Moravec is one of those rare composers these days who writes music that is not only original, but is also listenable, yea, even enjoyable. Ever conscious of the power of a good melody, Mr. Moravec combines a winsome way with a tune with a very careful and thought-out use of dissonance to create music that is not only instantly memorable, but worthy of repeated listening. It’s a fresh change of pace from what spills out of most copies of Finale and Sibelius these days.

Moravec’s style is clearly American and yet it is somewhat difficult to pin down his influences. His melodies are not theatrical like Leonard Bernstein’s, nor are they colloquial like Aaron Copland’s, yet they are fresh. Further, Mr. Moravec, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for music, has managed to avoid the kind of episodic and disconnected formal style that ensures only a single performance of much new music. Rather, he says what he needs to say in just the right amount of time and stops. It is this compactness of expression and his careful attention to the sound and blend of instrumental timbres that makes his music so very appealing.

The three works on this program were composed for the Brigehampton Chamber Music Festival, long a stalwart summer event in New England. The Chamber Symphony is scored for seven instruments. It opens with a virtuosic fast movement that features an energetic underpinning from the piano and percussion with lyrical swaths draped on by the winds and strings. The tender slow movement reminds me a bit of Poulenc with its spicy harmonic language the floats gently between tasty jazz chords and blissful major triads. The third movement, labeled “Quick” is just that, a sprightly romp through a musical playground with everyone running as fast as they can. The work closes with a substantial finale that begins slowly and peacefully and ends in another fun game of chase.

The tender Autumn Song for flute and piano is reminiscent of Prokofiev to these ears with some sweeping gestures in the piano and a flute part that often soars above the thick piano texture to make itself known. Marya Martin and Jeewon Park give a warm and sensitive performance, just thoughtful enough to be reflective, but not so over-ripe as to be maudlin.

Finally, Cool Fire rounds out the program. This three movement work scored for flute, piano and string quartet is more adventureous perhaps than the other two pieces, but nonetheless reflects Moravec’s penchant for lyricism and his ability to write energetic and intricate counterpoint in fast sections.

All the performances here are of the first order, and it is evident that these players have spent some time with the music and have internalized it. There is a palpable sense of purpose to the playing; serious when called for and utterly fun when appropriate. Kudos to Naxos for making a goodly chunk of Mr. Moravec’s music available to us in recent months, but at only forty-five minutes, it would have been nice to have had one more piece on this otherwise fairly flawless recording.

I was also a bit disappointed in the program notes which spent far more time flattering the good nature of the composer than they did in explaining the music to us. Those quibbles aside, this is wonderful music and well worth exploring by conservative and adventuresome listeners alike.


hrunars said...

I want to hear this!

Kevin Sutton said...

Since it's on Naxos, it should be easy to get hold of. So how are you holding up with the big Iceland banking crisis?

Amalia said...

Well written article.