David CHESKY (b. 1956)
The Venetian Concertos
Concerto No. 1 [15.37]
Concerto No. 2 [16.49]
Concerto No. 3 [10.45]
Concerto No. 4 [15.50]
Orchestra of the 21st Century/David Chesky
rec. 20-27 October 2015, St. Elias Church, Brooklyn, New York
CHESKY JD379 [62:20]
Looking through Miami-born, David Chesky’s large opus list, you notice his love of the concerto form. There are at least eighteen of them. He has jointly set up his own recording company with almost twenty discs behind him. These have resulted in several prizes including a Grammy Award in 2005 for the ‘Best Engineered Classical Recording’. On this basis you might expect this disc to be wonderfully and vividly engineered. In fact, although everything is audible and clear, it sounds rather boxy and congested at times.
These concertos were an attempt to emulate the Concerto Grosso form so prevalent in the eighteenth century. As the very brief notes by Dave Eggar comment, Chesky here fuses ‘the traditional allegro molto figuration of the baroque genre … with funk, jazz and urban music”. This composer has been developing these ideas since forming a jazz-fusion group in 1978. His music however, has rarely been heard in the UK or Europe.
The modern Concerto Grosso has attained some precedence. Many will know the two works with that title by Ernest Bloch - also American. Chesky’s Venetian Concerto No. 1 is, like all of these pieces, in three movements. No Italian speed indications are offered for this or any of the four works but the form is a conventional fast-slow-fast. The emphasis is on energy and counterpoint with multi-layered and often strident rhythms ‘evocative of be-bop’. The concerto becomes a tour-de-force of rhythmic drama and constant polyphony. You are in the fast-lane throughout in the outer movements. The middle movement, although not conventionally fugal, has all those contrapuntal characteristics. Its main theme reminded me of the fugal subject in the second movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. We are only a few steps away from that composer’s Dumbarton Oaks. The scoring concentrates on strings but the flute is prominent.
The same comments apply to the Venetian Concerto No. 2, which opens with a Vivaldi-like, semi-quaver unison passage. The energy never abates and the harmonies are spiced with bi-tonality. The middle movement begins with a funereal theme in the minor key from the lower strings. This is taken up by the flute above some rather abstract counterpoint. A new subject spreads a major key light onto the texture with the now more dominant flute, winding its way chromatically, over a sometime pizzicato accompaniment. The rambling, rather directionless, melodies seem to outstay their welcome. The third movement begins again with strong Vivaldian unisons. The virtuoso flute part may remind some of you of a Brandenburg Concerto. The energy seems incessant but the end comes suddenly and unexpectedly.
I haven’t yet mentioned the role of the piano in these works. It acts as a sort of continuo but it can also enhance the top line at climaxes already pierced by the flute. This happens particularly noticeably in the first movement of the Venetian Concerto No. 3. Again the work starts off very busily but is in ternary form with a contrastingly more lyrical middle section. The slow second movement is rather akin to a heavy Sarabande. The shorter third is a virtuoso romp in which the strings are able to indulge an occasional short break when the flute takes over the rather breathless semi-quaver passagework.
Chesky is, by his own admission, an ‘urban’ composer and has written what he styled ‘urban concertos’ in 2007. To say that minimalism was a product of the American urban musician might imply that Chesky is also an adherent of that school. The fact that each movement of these concertos tends to develop from the most slender of material might prove the point. To call these works minimalist however would be incorrect. In the Venetian Concerto No. 4 the usual fast-moving ideas are suddenly stopped after three and a half minutes. We then encounter a calm middle section before, in the last minute or so, the opening is recapitulated. Chesky’s middle movements are for me the most interesting and this one is my favourite. It is mysterious and harmonically searching and is the longest in this concerto as if the composer knew that the melodic contours could be grippingly explored. The third movement ends the work in a fast and exhilarating style as happened in the earlier pieces.
Having said all that, I have found that four works of much similarity and seemingly composed with the aid of a computer programme do not appeal as regards repeated listening. The performances however are truly amazing. The strings especially have an enormous amount of work to do yet the ensemble is impeccable. The material however is only occasionally arresting and once you have grasped Chesky’s message, say in Concerto No. 1, there is little more to be added. That said, there will be many of you who might like to explore this disc and discover other music by David Chesky along the way. You may, perhaps, prove me quite wrong.