Vince MENDOZA (b. 1961)
Freedom Over Everything
Julia Bullock (soprano), Black Thought (rapper), Alexej Rosík (violin), Jan Hasenöhrl (trumpet), Adrien Tilman (percussion)
Czech National Symphony Orchestra/Vince Mendoza
rec. June 2019 and February/March 2020, CNSO Studios, Prague; May 2020, Bavaria Studios, Munich; July 2020, 25th Street Recording, Berlin
MODERN RECORDINGS B0948RPQMB [64.20]
In his new recording Freedom Over Everything with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Vince Mendoza crafts a musical commentary on America’s political and emotional rollercoaster ride over the past few years. The album was five years in the making and includes his Concerto for Orchestra and New York Stories, both commissioned by the CNSO in 2016, and one that he conceived to bring hope to a divided country in the midst of a pandemic, To the Edge of Longing for soprano and orchestra.
Winner of six Grammy awards, Mendoza has long collaborated with the CNSO as both conductor and composer. The orchestra has a special affinity with his music, reveling in its melodies, moods and energy. This collaboration is also a masterful work of audio engineering, as the pandemic necessitated that some of the solos had to be overdubbed over prerecorded orchestral tracks. Jonathan Allen, formerly the chief engineer at Abbey Road Studios, was responsible for the recording, mixing and mastering of the album.
In commissioning Mendoza to compose a concerto for orchestra, the CNSO wanted a work that would feature its soloists, but also include jazz, improvisation and a rhythm section. It got that and much more in Mendoza’s powerful Concerto for Orchestra. When he began work on it in 2016, Mendoza sought to depart from tradition and use the concerto form to tell a story that captured America’s political environment at the time. By the time he was finishing work on it in 2020, the political noise was even more intense and grew even hotter with the murder of George Floyd.
Mendoza is a master at harnessing the massive sound of an orchestra, but there is also lightness in his concerto mostly provided by instrumental soloists engaging in dialogue with each other and the entire orchestra. These passages are often evocatively colored and luminously transparent. The third movement entitled ’Meditation’ featuring saxophonist Joshua Redman is particularly fine, especially those moments when he is paired with harp.
The words of rapper Black Thought pierce the fabric of Freedom Over Everything, from which the album takes its name, in an improvisation that was a direct response to Floyd’s murder. Black Thought challenges the status quo and the presumption that liberty and justice apply to all in America. He poses the question is justice only for the privileged, or is it available to the people in the projects, trailer parks and parishes who suffer from bad backs and malnutrition. These are difficult questions at this point in time that remain unanswered, which is why Mendoza ended the concerto with a question mark, rather than on the more hopeful note that he originally intended.
With To the Edge of Longing, Mendoza has his Straussian moment in a setting of verses from Rainer Marie Rilke’s poem ‘Gott spricht zu jedem nur, eh er ihn macht’, or ‘God speaks to each of us, even as he makes us’ from Das Stunden-Buch, or The Book of Hours as it is known in English. To sit side by side with the Concerto for Orchestra on this album, Mendoza sought to create a piece that seeks to unite people and give them hope for the future. With To the Edge of Longing, he composed one of the most stunning musical creations inspired by these troubled times. If there is justice in the world, it will be heard in concert halls everywhere.
The solo lines that Mendoza wrote for both violin and voice arch ever upwards, conveying the expectation of something mystical and wonderful that is expressed in Rilke’s words. And much like Richard Strauss, Mendoza has the ability to musically spin rapture and immediacy out of sound, as well as quiet moments of repose when time stands still. The violin soloist Alexej Rosík imparts Mendoza’s lovely musical lines with rich tone, vibrancy and emotion, with soprano Julia Bullock spinning the same sense of wonder with her sumptuous voice.
The final work on the recording is New York Stories, a concertina for trumpet and orchestra, which was commissioned by the CNSO for its founder, trumpeter Jan Hasenöhrl, who is the soloist in this performance. The original version had some jazz elements in it, but no rhythm section, which Mendoza added for this recording. It’s hard to imagine the work without the brilliant combination of Hasenöhrl’s trumpet playing and Adrien Tilman on percussion, who together create the energy and excitement that is ever present in New York.
Mendoza works jazz and blues elements into the score, but it is really just pure American music - majestic with spaciousness and energy - that doesn’t need a label. The final measures of New York Stories are a long, musical ascent that stops mid phrase, which is fitting for a city that has reinvented itself many times and is doing so once again as the pandemic ebbs.
Concerto for Orchestra: American Noise [9:47]
Concerto for Orchestra: Consolation [5.09]
Concerto for Orchestra: Hit the Streets [4:52]
Concerto for Orchestra: Meditation [3:47]
Concerto for Orchestra: Justice and the Blues [4:27]
Freedom Over Everything [1:27]
Concerto for Orchestra: Finale [2:16]
To the Edge of Longing [8:19]
New York Stories [15:31]
Freedom Over Everything (Edit version) [1:37]
To the Edge of Longing (Edit version) [5:51]
Concerto for Orchestra: Justice Blues (Edit version) [3:57