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Amanda HARBERG (b.1973)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (2011/12) [19:50]
Elegy for Viola and String Orchestra (2007) [8:59]
Max WOLPERT (b.1993)
Viola Concerto No.1 ‘Giants’ [21:18]
Brett Deubner (viola)
Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra /Linus Lerner
rec. 2016, The Catalina Foothills High School Auditorium, Tucson, USA
NAXOS 8.559840 [50:07]

Here we have another instalment in Naxos’ excellent ‘American Classics’ series of recordings. As is often the case, the orchestras used are not well-known ensembles and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra certainly fits that description, at least as far as most British people will be concerned. The notes mention that the orchestra has “brought together student, amateur and professional musicians with exceptional soloists” and at the mention of “amateur” I wondered if this was to be a recording marred by scrappy ensemble. I need not have worried. The orchestra is fine and the soloist is exceptionally good.

Amanda Harberg is a 44 year old resident of New Jersey who has won many awards for her music; she says that she “strives to find emotional and spiritual meaning through music”. Her viola concerto of 2011-12 is described as a “meditation on flight”. Initially trumpets evoke a pair of eagles perched high in the trees and the viola soloist then introduces the main theme of the movement, which is elaborated with a dance-like theme. Just occasionally I felt the influence of film music, but it was only ‘just occasionally’ – the piece is far too adventurous in its scoring and in its reluctance to ‘soup it up’ with John Williams-like brass. The low percussion are murky – appearing as an aural blur and I assume that this is due to the recording.

The slow movement is traditionally melodic, and I am not going to criticise that! It opens with a combination of viola and harp singing a memorable rising and falling tune that would make any composer proud of their melodic faculty. Harberg says that it is a meditation on the fragility of life and with the melody and its gently varying accompaniment, I think that she has succeeded admirably. I have just one minor criticism and that is her tendency to top emotional peaks with (restrained) cymbals – just a bit too Hollywood, I think.

The last movement is about celebration. It is a busy piece with the orchestra given a field-day: snake-like woodwind entwine with the viola’s syncopated theme but once again I feel that much of the low percussion is presented as a blur. The movement is full of dialogue between soloist and orchestra, but the busyness is interrupted by an expressive secondary theme which is allowed a degree of lushness. I have enjoyed this concerto a great deal; its recording alone is worth the price of this CD.

The concerto is accompanied by a short Elegy composed for violin and piano in memory of the composer’s teacher. Now arranged for Viola and String Orchestra by the composer, it is a suitably atmospheric piece.

Twenty-four year-old Max Wolpert, an alumni of Berklee College of Music, Boston, is a classically trained violinist and is already embarking on a compositional career as well as performer. So far his music consists of two string quartets and a couple of short works for small ensemble. For orchestra, there are three works for string orchestra and viola, with harp or violin and the viola concerto ‘Giants’, presented here.

Early on in the first movement, I detected a minimalist influence in the way the orchestra repeats itself, pulsing in the background whilst the viola rhapsodises above. However, this sort of influence is far from being dominant, and once the initial couple of minutes are done with, the orchestra explodes into wild abandon, only to be calmed down by a hectic few minutes of the viola, scurrying around. The calm returns with the viola to the fore and then the orchestra is awakened again by the sound of a bell tolling. All this is designed to represent “Old Father Time – the giant of giants who sleeps in the caverns at the bottom of the world”, and the hints of minimalism are explained by the composer’s desire to describe a clock ticking remorselessly. Initial peaceful music represents his sleep, but then he awakens to blow his horn as “the end of time” approaches. Thus, we are given the first ‘giant’ of the concerto. The orchestral writing is colourful and does not stray down the lanes of serialism, although I could wish for a bit more transparency in the scoring, especially in the lower reaches.

The second movement moves to the realm of the clouds. The harp, joined by a lyrical viola represents a sleeping giant who has a magic harp that plays continually by itself. When it stops he comes awake and shouts “four thundering orchestra syllables”, the first of which is the ‘fah’ (or ‘fee’ as the notes would have it) of the solfage scale, and we are invited to come to our own conclusion about the story from which this movement takes its inspiration. Again, the music, whilst not exactly easy listening, is certainly not challenging and I, for one, could have done with a bit more orchestral imagination and clarity, particularly when the “four thundering syllables” are supposed to be represented. However, this may be due to the recording being rather muddy at low frequencies.

The last movement is entitled ‘Dance of the Cloud Women’ and is inspired by the idea of a thunderstorm as created by giant-like activity – Thor the Thunderer, Rip Van Winkle’s Mountain Men or Tolkien’s Stone Giants. The composer uses a “wild dance party” to represent this, and he uses Easter European (Balkan) rhythms and tunes to give us a slowly increasing orchestral orgy, interrupted briefly in the middle for a moment or two of rhapsodic viola. As I listened to the ending of this work, I felt more and more convinced that the recorded acoustic does the piece no real favours – more clarity at the lower end, particularly for the drums - a dull aural blur, unfortunately – would have been welcome.

Still, I suspect that there are few 24 year-old composers who can point to a full concerto being presented by a major world-wide record label using a violist who has had more than 80 works for viola dedicated to him, of which 30 are concertos. I should think that Mr Wolpert is well pleased and I am pleased to have been given the chance to hear it.

Gosh, how often have I thought that over the years about Naxos’ recordings of rare repertoire?

The CD booklet is up to Naxos’ usual good standard, with informative notes about the composers, the works and the performers.
Jim Westhead



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