Crosscurrents: Music for Chamber Orchestra by American Composers
José LEZCANO (b.1960)
Tango-Overture, for strings (2006) [8:47]
Serenata no.1 (Imaginary Legacies) (2008) [12:53]
Dinos CONSTANTINIDES (b.1929)
China I - Shanghai, Songs of Departure, for soprano, bassoon and strings (1991) [15:42]
Stephen YIP (b.1971)
Spirit Labyrinth II, for harp and strings (2009) [11:41]
Max LIFCHITZ (b.1948)
Confrontación, for viola and chamber orchestra (2006) [22:50]
Elizabeth Farnum (soprano); Gilbert Dejean (bassoon); Megan Levin (harp); Rita Porfiris (viola)
North/South Chamber Orchestra/Max Lifchitz
rec. Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York, 7-13 January 2010. DDD
NORTH SOUTH CONSONANCE NSR1055 [71:51]
'Crosscurrents' follows hot on the heels of Expressions (N/S R 1054), a North South release very close in design and concept. The similarity extends to the curiosity of the subtitle, in that, once again, four out of the five featured composers were born outside the USA. As if to underline that irony, Seattle-born Brian Banks himself - not to be confused with the advert and film composer of the same name, who was born in 1955 in Los Angeles - actually resides in Mexico! Nevertheless, the album theme is clearly Crosscurrents, and the music in this programme reflects the heterogeneity of cultural influences on the various composers.
Mexico is also where Max Lifchitz was born and raised. Besides being a considerable pianist, conductor and composer, he is the founder and director of the hugely admirable not-for-profit North South Consonance project - aspects of which include the recording label, the Chamber Orchestra and a yearly series of free public concerts in New York. And for all that his name deserves to be widely known. As on the previous disc, the five works in his programme here are all first recordings. Premiere performances were given at those free concerts.
The disc opens appropriately enough with Cuba-born José Lezcano's Tango-Overture. Occasionally calling to mind the rhythms and lyrical moodiness of Piazzolla, the work is rather more North American concert overture than South American tango. It’s mainly upbeat in mood and lively of foot. Brian Banks' Serenata no.1 bears the Spanish subtitle Legados Imaginarios, the imaginary legacies referring to "four musicians whom I have admired": George Harrison, Lou Harrison, Henry Sapoznik, and Arturo Márquez. Cue elements of Hindustani raga, blues, klezmer and Mexican danzón, in that order, in the three short movements. Something for everyone, in fact, but the work coheres successfully to give a lightish whole of warmth and wide appeal - convivial evening music, as the title indicates.
Max Lifchitz studied early on under Rodolfo Halffter, before emigrating to New York and continuing under Berio, Kirchner and Maderna. Such an education may suggest an inclination towards modernism. The very title of Lifchitz's contribution gives some warning - the appeal of this complex work will not be universally immediate. The excellent American violist Rita Porfiris commissioned Confrontación and certainly got her money's worth. The work consists of a series of episodes in which the viola and string orchestra square up to each other in one argument after another, with music reminiscent at times of Ravel in his Tzigane, but more often than not something more modernistic, with plenty of spiky harmonies, mysterious musings and percussive effects. Lifchitz also memorably incorporates a Baroque tune here and a Renaissance one there, adding up to a gripping experience from beginning to end. With Porfiris painting some gorgeously vivid colours, and with Lifchitz's strikingly evocative orchestration - the sudden prominence of the becalming piano towards the end is inspired - and his feeling for narrative, Confrontación proves to be a work of such compelling originality that it makes this CD worth a place on any music-lover's shelf on its own.
The same might be said of Dinos Constantinides' movingly mournful China I, subtitled Shanghai Songs of Departure, inspired by a stay in China in 1990. The work is a setting of four poems by Li T'ai Po in a translation by Ezra Pound. With typical philosophical pragmatism, the poems contrast the permanence of the natural world with the transience, even futility of humanity. Constantinides' orchestration is rich in atmosphere and yearning, sung with beauty and clarity by Elizabeth Farnum, vividly accompanied throughout by North/South stalwart Gilbert Dejean's deeply expressive bassoon. The twice-sung line close to the end of the cycle, "I am sad", is very poignant. Texts are thoughtfully provided in the booklet.
Like Lifchitz's Confrontación, Hong Kong-born Stephen Yip's Spirit Labyrinth II has the makings of a modernist piece in its opening bars, with the harpist unusually required to make percussive sounds. Young American soloist Megan Levin commissioned the work, and like Porfiris is vigorously tested by its demands, which only begin with the wood-slapping. According to Yip, the three sections represent the emptying of the mind, meditation at the centre of the imaginary labyrinth and a spiritually replenished return. The folksy, ancient sound of the harp is the ideal medium through which to communicate such ideas, with the strings supplying extra body and texture, often of an exacting nature.
Besides the multi-faceted Lifchitz, credit is due to his North/South Chamber Orchestra, consisting here of up to twenty players. Their commitment to new music is incontestable, and their accounts of this often difficult programme professional and convincing, especially in the works by Lifchitz and Constantinides.
With regard to audio quality, North South point up the following: "Great care was taken to preserve the integrity of the concert hall ambiance when this album was recorded and mastered. Indeed, the listener will find that the natural resonance of the concert hall and the music's wide dynamic range were captured successfully. Please use a moderate volume setting when playing this disc." Sound is indeed decent - with just a little shortage of depth in the strings - but a higher volume does not seem to do any harm, and a good thing too, because most of this programme needs to be heard loud!
The booklet is well designed, neat and clear, the notes and composer biographies extensive and well written.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Worth a place on any music-lover's shelf.