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Andrew WAGGONER (b.1960)
Quantum Memoir
Violin Concerto (2010, revised 2013) [16:22]
Piano Concerto (2013) [18:24]
Guitar Concerto (2012) [12:55]
Michael Lim (violin)
Gloria Cheng (piano)
Kenneth Meyer (guitar)
Seattle Modern Orchestra/Julia Tai
rec. 2018, Bastyr Chapel, Seattle, USA
BRIDGE 9521 [47:06]

I am far from being the only critic who takes regular pops at record companies for releasing discs with stingy playing times. Rare indeed are those discs which can justify this practice on either artistic or economic grounds, but this disc is unquestionably one example of the former. It lasts just 47 minutes but includes three exhilarating, succinct concertos by the American Andrew Waggoner. Each is substantial; I would go as far as saying these three works collectively incorporate more incident, originality, beauty, purpose and style than many full-length discs of new music. Not a note, pause, texture or gesture is wasted. There is more than enough to think about here.

Waggoner is a figure whose (rather memorable) name I have only encountered a couple of times on release schedules. His 2nd Symphony has been recorded by CRI Records (NWCR884). There is a portrait disc ‘Terror and Memory’ on Albany Records which comprises a string quartet, ensemble and instrumental pieces, book-ended by a couple of improvisations based on the pieces within (ALBANY CD 1307}. If any of these pieces are half as good as the three concertos on this new disc they will be worth hearing. I certainly intend to seek them out.

From the open fifth that the soloist plays to open the work, gesturally at least there is much in his Violin Concerto that seems to allude to Stravinsky’s pithy D major example, a work that’s referenced in the note. This a dynamic music which bristles with urgency without ever sounding rushed. A perpetuum mobile spirit in the solo writing underpins the entire edifice, and Michael Lim’s pinpoint, exciting playing is matched by the razor-sharp ensemble of the Seattle Modern Orchestra, seemingly a western seaboard equivalent of Gil Rose’s BMOP and every bit as impressive. If the violin writing which meshes with assertive brass and glittering gamelan percussion in the opening movement is attractively strident, the succeeding scherzo (marked ‘fast, dogged’ – seemingly a Waggoner buzzword) combines folk-fiddle like solo material with the hectic, urban feel of the orchestral undercurrent. The more spacious finale is outstanding – Waggoner’s sonic inspiration is often arresting and novel, while his ability to organise his material economically is unquestionable.

At eighteen minutes Waggoner’s Piano Concerto is the longest of the trilogy, it’s tautly conceived and projects compelling, succinct argument. Harp and tuned percussion dominate the orchestral textures of the opening; the limpid piano figures are repetitive but not overtly minimalist. The coherence of the initial Nocturne seems to depend on the slight elongation of each successive statement or figure, and close attention to the piano part may suggest the melodic sensibility of Morton Feldman, albeit in waves of sound that materialise far more rapidly. At one point the nocturnal ambience magically seems to give way to the excited chatter of a pre-murmuration ornithological convention. Waggoner’s music is assured and confident, spiky but likeable. His piano writing seems especially expert and falls with grateful inevitability under Gloria Cheng’s fingers. The central panel’s evocative title ‘…hands of the sisters, Death and Night’ perfectly fits the music it describes. Waggoner describes it as “…a meditation on solace and forgiveness”; it is certainly more inward and restrained than much of the music on this disc. Gentle washes of cymbal and tam-tam frame a nachtmusik mystery. It’s rather spare and communicates an icy beauty. The finale is subtitled ‘Quantum Memoir’, a deliberately enigmatic title which is also applied to the album as a whole. It is designed as a memorial to Waggoner’s late colleague Stephen Stucky and its staccato piano writing interlocks most satisfyingly with the mosaic-like orchestral accompaniment, with shrill turns from a puckish piccolo and a deadpan trumpet. It’s a terrific piece, brittle, engaging, mysterious, and offering fresh perspectives on each repeated listen. As with all three pieces, Bridge’s sound is spectacular and atmospheric.

The brief Guitar Concerto that concludes the album is arguably the most inscrutable of these three works. A percussive crash, low brass and and vaguely flamenco strumming and picking combine to provide an arresting opening. A diffuse array of pungent, quirky sounds coalesce and make unexpected sense. Complex patterns emerge over deceptively simple sustained note backdrops or Waggoner’s fingerprint trilling. Hints of portamento infuse the latter part of the opening panel. Another central fast movement marked ‘dogged’ involves a persistent dialogue between Kenneth Meyer’s guitar and a solo fiddle. Its neoclassical aromas are touched by Stravinskian strings, brass ritornelli that wouldn’t shame Tippett and insistent claves. The finale cuts a rather melancholy jib and yields a delicious, rather Messiaenic melody. Waggoner does a good ‘gnomic’ ending, and there’s another one in this work.

Far from implying derivativeness, my allusions in this review to other composers merely seek to hint at the cosmopolitan flavours of these works; as I suggested at the outset Waggoner is indubitably his own man, and in these compact pieces conjures music of astonishing and unexpected depth, precision and sophistication. The three soloists are evidently believers, and their eloquence and commitment are adroitly reinforced by the superbly prepared Seattle band. Each of these concertos has far more to offer than might immediately meet the ear. They offer a sleek and challenging beauty and I encourage the curious to make their acquaintance forthwith.

Richard Hanlon

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