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George TSONTAKIS (b. 1951)
Anasa for clarinet and orchestra (2011) [23.42]
True Colours for trumpet and orchestra (2012) [18.06]
Unforgettable for two violins and orchestra (2009/2013) [21.24]
David Karkauer (clarinet)
Eric Berlin (trumpet)
Luosha Fang, Eunice Kim (violins)
Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
rec. 2011-2013, Troy Savings Bank Hall; EMPAC Concert Hall, Troy, USA
NAXOS 8.559826 [63.12]

As can be seen from his name, George Tsontakis is of Greek ancestry but now lives just outside New York having worked in America for several years. He has won a number of prizes and his works can be found on other labels such as Koch and Hyperion. It was Stephen Hough’s performance of Tsontakis’s ‘Ghost Variations’ on Hyperion, which first attracted my attention.

This combination of Greece and America hangs in the air, it seems to me, in the Trumpet Concerto entitled True Colours. Here the composer shows off his real self, his personal style- his ‘True Colours’, as he admits, to the full, so it’s a good place to start. The work falls into two sections the first, entitled ‘Echoing’ is atmospheric and has a memorable four note idea which is exploited, echoing around the ensemble and creating a somewhat impressionistic and steamy soundworld, which seems to me more European than American. This acts as an introduction to the main body of the work, a fourteen-minute movement called ‘Magic Act’ which is, I feel, even more ‘jazz’-tinged’ than the composer describes in his very useful notes, and could even be described as ‘brash’ at times, Bernstein plus, as it were. It does however end gently and thoughtfully and has several contrasting sections, manipulating the trumpet in all its possibilities but always being diatonic.
I enjoyed much more the Concerto for 2 Violins and orchestra, optimistically entitled Unforgettable. This is in three movements and it is interesting that the composer in his notes says that there is a passage in the first movement - ‘Changing Landscapes’ - which consists of “seemingly mantra-like phrases of Eastern meditative repetitions”. The finale (Ballade) he says has a passage which “evolves into a more contemporary and softly undulating melodic jazz-like ballad”, something I haven’t yet really fully appreciated. The Bach Double Concerto inspiration is, however more understandable and clear. But the point is that at least two of the facets of Tsontakis’s musical character are again exposed. In between is a sort of Scherzo called ‘Leapfrogging’, in which the soloists indulge in a type of imitative conversation, which contrasts well with the often nostalgic and elegiac nature of the rest of the work. The CD case’s reverse side says that it is a work of “drama and drive” but that was not my overall impression.

But the first piece on the CD is a Clarinet Concerto the longest work on the recording. Entitled Anasa, it was written for David Karkauer who is acclaimed for his mastery of Eastern Jewish klezmer music as well as being a classically trained musician. This lead Tsontakis to compose an eclectic work beginning in movement one with a klezmer-sounding introduction, illustrating the Greek word ‘Anasa’ which means breath or “to breathe life”, which leads into the main idea called ‘Pistoli’ which is a Cretan dance. I attended a Cretan mountain wedding back in 1980 and this brought back many happy and vivid memories of the event. The lengthy second movement - ‘Soliloquy’ - is in what the composer calls “[his] own style” which is rather sombre and freely tonal, never really settling on a key centre but including a wild cadenza towards the end which is, in part, accompanied by the high-hat, a nod towards a jazz influence again. The short finale is a mad romp suitably called ‘Bir-Zirk’ allowing Karkauer full rein for his famed klezmer style.

The performances are outstanding, especially the soloists who are each well acquainted with the composer and who clearly understand what he requires. It’s good to know that the Albany Symphony Orchestra, which has been commissioning new work for many decades mostly, but not exclusively by American composers, continues to do so.

Naxos has been developing its American series now for over two decades. It’s difficult sometimes to understand why some pieces are in this ‘Classics’ category but I do think that George Tsontakis deserves his place and this CD is a valuable window into his life’s work.

Gary Higginson



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