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Thomas Oboe LEE (b.1945)
Morango...almost a tango (1983)
String Quartet on B-flat (1990)
Seven Jazz Pieces (1991)
ART: arias and interludes (1996)
Hawthorne String Quartet
Recorded: Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, July 1998
KOCH 3-7452-2 HI [64:03]


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Chinese-born Thomas Oboe Lee, who now teaches at Boston College, spent several years in Brazil before settling in the States. He studied with Gunther Schuller at the New England Conservatory (1972-1976), with Betsy Jolas at Tanglewood (1976) and with Earl Kim at Harvard University (1977-1981). Such varied background may partly explain his cosmopolitan approach; for, unlike that of some of his younger colleagues (Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi or Qigang Chen), his music seems more directly rooted in American or Western musical traditions than in Chinese musical past. That is anyway the impression I got when listening to this release of some of his works for string quartet. He admits the influence of many present-day musical trends, including some popular ones such as jazz and tango; but things are not really as simple as expected. In this respect the first work in this disc aptly illustrates Lee’s musical making. Morango...almost a tango (note the second part of the title: almost) inevitably nods towards Latin America and the popular tango rhythms. This lovely piece opens with a dreamy ostinato played by the cello, clearly unrelated (at least directly) to tango, whereas the tango itself is rather hinted at than bluntly imitated. More remarkably still,. as the other pieces here will also clearly demonstrate, the composer eschews any attempt at pastiche or parody. Rather his music, at least, in the pieces recorded here, pays sincere tribute to a number of musicians and musical styles that have obviously meant much to Lee.

This is quite evident, too, in the Seven Jazz Pieces which pay homage to Horace Silver, Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans and Jaco Pastorius by alluding to their music or playing style without slavishly mimicking it. The music may sometimes obliquely quote from them (but I am no jazz expert). What comes through quite clearly is the imagination and playful invention of Lee’s affectionate homage. Characteristically enough, though, the ‘homage movements’ are framed by a pensive, ‘prayerful’ slow Prelude and Postlude as well as including another reflective Interlude.

The somewhat more recent ART: arias and interludes is a substantial suite of five concise movements alluding to characters of the Commedia dell’arte beginning with a portrait of Pulcinella (a ‘mad polka’ depicting ‘a drunken lout whose every gesture was obscene’ [Stravinsky’s words]) and ending with Pantaloon’s Bolero, but also including a lament (Pierrot’s Dream), a virtuosic Scherzo (Harlequin’s Pantomime) and a frenetic, almost exhibitionist showpiece (Colombine’s Delirium). Again, neither pastiche nor parody in this superbly crafted music, although irony is not totally absent from these vividly depicted character sketches.

The String Quartet on B-flat (again, note the on rather than the more traditional in) is on the whole a more serious work though it too has its share of musical allusions to some superficially disparate musical modes. There is a Funky Scherzo and a Lamentoso...mazurka-like (sic), which say much about Lee’s dogmatically free approach to musical form. I found this work marginally less compelling than its companions here.

The Hawthorne String Quartet’s members (all members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) obviously enjoy the music and play with communicative commitment that is refreshing and irresistible.

Lee’s superbly crafted, appealing music was quite new to me; but I would now definitely want to hear more of it. Recommended and well worth looking for.

Hubert Culot



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