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Paul MORAVEC (b.1957)
Northern Lights Electric (1992, orch. 2000) [12:12]
Clarinet Concerto (2008) [22:49]
Sempre Diritto! (1992) [13:11]
Montserrat: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2001) [22:28]
David Krakauer (clarinet), Matt Haimovitz (cello)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 21 December 2009, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, MA, USA (Northern), 29 June 2010, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA, USA (clarinet), 25 May 2007 (Sempre), Jordan Hall; 8 December 2008, Mechanics Hall (cello).
BMOP SOUND 1024 [70:42]

There are myriad examples in music of composers using natural phenomena to inspire their compositions. There are storms at sea, rocky coves, sunrises, nightfall, misty mornings, lightning strikes, the mystery of mountains, volcanic eruptions, dense forests and deserted land not to mention calm seas … with and without prosperous voyages. However, this disc is the first time I have ever come across a representation of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Penned by American composer Paul Moravec it is a brilliant musical depiction of this most spectacular natural occurrence. What a wonderful thing it would be to hear it while watching this shimmering light display unfold before you. Moravec explains in the accompanying booklet that he is often inspired by places or events. This piece was prompted by watching the phenomenon which was silently playing itself when he was in New Hampshire. The only sound was a seeming accompaniment from a buzzing streetlamp that seemed to suggest to him “perhaps a union of the ethereal and the earthly”; hence the addition of the word electric to the title. As the booklet note writer Denise Von Glahn puts it “The music that resulted suggests neither the silence of the light show nor the buzz of a streetlight per se, but the composer’s thorough wonderment at being present amidst such a dazzling and magnificent event”. Having once been fortunate enough to see it myself I can confirm that this music is a perfect musical picture of the Lights. It is, as the composer recognises, all the more powerful following his orchestration of the piece which was originally intended as a chamber work for a small number of players. I find that American composers have an uncanny ability to express nature; particularly the grandeur of vast open spaces from the Grand Canyon to the plains. This music perfectly creates a feeling of the light show being played across an endless night sky. It skilfully creates a sense of majesty as the phenomenon unfolds. Moravec has the music swerve and swirl as the lights shimmer and weave across the sky like a constantly altering illuminated curtain of subtly changing shades of colour. The piece ends with a chorale-like passage that sums up the quasi-religious experience that some will find in watching this most magnificent and awe-inspiring natural event; that and the simple wonder that it engenders in everyone who witnesses it. This is a powerfully and beautifully expressed work. The pleasure of listening to it will I’m sure only increase at each hearing.
 
David Krakauer, for whom Moravec wrote his clarinet concerto, suggested he make it ‘explicitly klezmer, but I demurred. I said that as an Episcopalian I didn’t feel qualified, to which he replied, “You’re Slavic. Close enough” ’. I know what he means but Moravec has cleverly managed to steer between the ‘klezmatic’ and the purely classical though with plenty of jazzy interludes along the way. The clarinet is played with the klezmer edge very much to the fore and with that special quality that klezmer clarinettists have of making their instrument moan and wail. While the first movement is upbeat and joyous with a dance-like theme the second is contemplative, sad and wistful. It is up to the third and final movement to change the mood again in a triumphant return to hope over anguish. It is very successful and satisfying and a valuable addition to the clarinet repertoire. This concerto should have no problem entering the lists of works that soloists will surely want to add to their own store. 

Sempre Diritto!
is a cleverly wrought piece that takes as its point of departure the oft-heard response to the question posed to Italians when asked directions. It means ‘straight ahead’ but since this was prompted by a visit to Venice that advice is problematic to say the least as anyone who’s visited that endlessly fascinating city will know. With hundreds of little winding streets cross-cut by dozens of canals there are few destinations further than a few hundred yards that can be reached by following that advice. Therefore this short work is concerned with overcoming that fact with its representation of the twists and turns necessary finally to arrive at the required destination and the obvious celebration in reaching it despite the lack of precise directions being given. Moravec writes that it is the nearest approximation of minimalism that he’s written which he explains may have been partly due to his listening to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at the time he wrote it. It doesn’t sound very much like minimalism to me except there is a similarity to the strongly pulsating spirit expressed in John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. In any event it is exciting with its almost exclusive use of a small string orchestra. It is what he explains is his most neo-classical piece with its Haydnesque orchestration.
 
The final work is Moravec’s Cello Concerto which is his tribute to Pablo Casals. It also pays homage to to Montserrat, the monastery at the top of the mountain outside Barcelona which became like a second home to the celebrated cellist. This single movement concerto is absolutely beautiful and fully exploits the instrument’s ability to sing. Taking inspiration from the fact that outside the monastery there is a centenary statue of Casals playing his beloved cello surrounded by the majesty of the mountains Moravec has managed to convey a sense of awe at the man, the landscape and the abilities of the cello to reflect so many deep felt emotions. The music soars, hovers and dives in the most glorious ways drawing the listener into a rapturous rhapsodic tone poem of a piece in which bells appear at certain moments to remind us where we are. As mentioned before the clarinettist Krakauer observed to Moravec “You’re Slavic”. This concerto underlines that as I was often reminded of Martinů. I’d never have guessed that it was composed by an American. It was interesting to read Von Glahn’s observation that Moravec seemed to be reluctant to let the music go. There are several backward glances before finally releasing the music and I must say I felt the same. I hope he writes more works for cello and soon.
 
As an introduction to the music of Paul Moravec one couldn’t ask for anything better but I’ll certainly be exploring the rest of his output as soon as I finish this review. The 100 plus members of this fine orchestra under their conductor Gil Rose play superbly as do both soloists David Krakauer and Matt Haimovitz. This is an altogether wonderfully satisfying disc of glorious music from a really interesting, thought-provoking and highly inventive composer.
 
Steve Arloff 



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