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Mark ZUCKERMAN (b.1948)
Introduction and Fugue (2001) [6:16]
Shir Kinah: Elegy for Victims of Terrorism (2002) [8:39]
Out of the Wilderness (1995) [16:35]
Shpatsír (2001) [3:32]
Theme Song (1999) [1:57]
String Quartet (2003) [36:14]
Seattle Sinfonia/Joel Eric Suben
Momenta Quartet (Miranda Cuckson, Annaliesa Place (violins); Stephanie Griffin (viola); Joanne Lin (cello))
rec. 12 February 2000, Kenmore, WA (Out of the Wilderness, Theme Song); 30 June 2001, Seattle, WA (Introduction and Fugue, Shir Kinah, Shpatsír); 6 July, 17 September 2006, Patrych Sound Studios, New York (Quartet). first recordings. DDD
MSR CLASSICS MS 1223 [73:19]



Mark Zuckerman holds a Ph.D. in composition from Princeton University where he studied with Milton Babbitt, David Epstein, J.K. Randall and Elie Yarden. A versatile musician, Zuckerman’s activities range from teaching composition, tonal and atonal theory, orchestration and computer music at Princeton and Columbia Universities, through writing on music to playing saxophone, clarinet and piano in stage and rock bands. In 2004 he was awarded a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Zuckerman is obviously someone steeped in his Jewish heritage as many of his musical compositions take inspiration from Jewish themes, including a growing number of a cappella arrangements of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. All the works here are making their first appearance on CD and represent both his tonal and not-so-tonal music, although not even the most complex music on this disc would prove a significant challenge for most listeners.

The first work, Introduction and Fugue, was written for the C. Milton Wright High School Orchestra in Bel Air, MD to help mark the 25th year of service by the music director and program founder, Sheldon Bair. It uses an ‘octatonic’ note series ( a quasi-modal scale of eight notes) and uses harmonies that sound like ordinary major and minor triads, although not functioning in a purely tonal way. I largely found the ‘empty’ sound of the harmonies and the steady tread of the music rather bland and lacking in musical tension.

Shir Kinah: Elegy for the Victims of Terrorism is simply a transcription for string orchestra of the second movement of the String Quartet (heard later on the disc). The victims of terrorism in the title are those that died in the atrocity in New York of 11 September 2001. It is a touching elegy that works equally well in this and its string quartet version.

Out of the Wilderness is effectively a five-movement passacaglia on another ‘octatonic’ note series and takes as its inspiration the Israelites’ wanderings through the Wilderness. The mood of the first two movements, Andante and Largo are almost identical and reminded me a great deal of the previous two works. At last, there is a partial change of mood with the Scherzo (which the composer suggests is representative of the biblical Golden Calf). There is a howling clumsy edit at 1:07 which one does not expect to hear on a commercial CD today. The following Finale is actually the penultimate movement (the Coda has that honour) and we are thrust back into more of the same kind of music that we have already heard throughout this disc. I have to say I was glad when Out of the Wilderness came to an end. It sounded to me that the composer does not have the ability nor the imagination to explore adequately the rather narrow technical parameters he sets for himself in the form of the composition, with the result that it all sounds rather ‘samey’ and uninteresting.

The next short work, Shpatsír is one of the two purely tonal pieces on this recording (the other being Theme Song). The title is Yiddish for "stroll". Thankfully short, this three-and-a-half minute ramble sounds rather like a bad Percy Grainger song arrangement. Even shorter, Theme Song apparently exists in several arrangements for a wide range of forces. Like Shpatsír, this piece tries to be accessible and jaunty but lacks the lyrical spontaneity to be really effective.

Throughout this CD the Seattle Sinfonia and Joel Eric Suben try to make the best of this music, apart from some noticeable lapses of intonation above the stave in the violins (particularly in the badly-edited Scherzo in Out of the Wilderness. The recording is perfectly good.

The String Quartet of 2003 is the longest and, in many ways, the most successful work on this disc. It was written as a tribute to composer and former teacher Milton Babbitt on his 90th birthday. The pared-down sonorities of the small ensemble better suit Zuckerman’s style of writing and seem to minimise the uniformity of mood that was so much less successful in the previous works. The first movement is a terse and well-argued sonata-form piece. In memoriam September 11, 2001 is the quartet version of Shir Kinah heard earlier on the disc. The Scherzoid third movement is also reasonably successful, with some nice pizzicato touches that give the music on this disc a bit of much-needed colouristic variety. The final Small Fugue (not so small at 12:10!) is a homage to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge and uses the great composer’s work as a model. This piece sounds rather contrived, however, and doesn’t sit comfortably alongside Beethoven’s craggy masterpiece.

The Momenta Quartet, a New York-based group who are resident at Temple University, play marvellously and idiomatically throughout, no doubt contributing a great deal the relative success of Zuckerman’s Quartet on this disc.

I’m not sure who this CD would appeal to outside the composer’s own circle of friends and colleagues. After more than an hour of the music I was relieved to move on to something else. Technically competent enough, the music lacks a strong enough identity, originality, variety or natural flow to bear repeated listening.

I have been struggling to find a stylistic comparison for the curious listener. There is a genre of music in the United States represented by composers such as Norman Dello Joio, Arnold Rosner and Alan Hovhaness – conservative, traditionally-rooted music that offers few challenges or surprises but is attractive enough in small doses - and some of Hovhaness’s works have gained enormous popularity in some quarters. If you are familiar with any of these, then that will give you a rough idea of what to expect here.

Derek Warby

 


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