A Composer’s Musical Lineage | David Reviews New Classical

Hi there, I’m David Kulma, and this is Music
Corner: your source for nerdy thoughts on music. Today I’m reviewing a new album called “Into
the Silence” by violinist Nicholas DiEugenio and pianist Mimi Solomon. Don’t confuse this with “Into Silence”
another album I reviewed recently. Nicholas DiEugenio and Mimi Solomon are musicians
living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their joint essay in the liner notes for “Into
the Silence” talks lovingly about the fascinating idea for this album: musical lineage. Anyone who knows any classical musicians knows
how much they care about connecting with each other and long dead masters through teaching
genealogies: who studied with whom and how far can you trace it back. I guess it’s guaranteed to be an occupation
of such a tradition-bound art. This album of violin and piano works focuses
on a particular lineage of composers through their connections at Cornell University. The central weight is the late Steven Stucky,
an eminent American composer who died in 2016. We also get Stucky’s teacher, Robert Palmer
(not the “Addicted to Love” one), who Stucky studied with at Cornell, and two of
Stucky’s students: Jesse Jones and Tonia Ko. Before I go into each piece and composer,
let me say that DiEugenio and Solomon play with complete dedication here. They champion all four works on this disc
and give authoritative and convincing readings. I’m sadly ambivalent about the music, but
I’m sure that others will be devoted to “Into the Silence.” For me the most engaging and successful work
here is Stucky’s 2013 “Violin Sonata.” I’ve been searching for the right words
to describe Stucky’s musical world. A standard overgeneralization of composers
can place them into two types: innovators (those who invent new ways of making music)
and consolidators (those who take innovations and connect them with previous ways of making
music). Two famous examples from opposing types would
be Wagner and Brahms respectively. So this isn’t a matter of one being better
than the other, just of different artistic goals. It’s clear to me that Stucky is a consolidator. His major musical project appears to be taking
the sounds of the 1960s European avant-garde and placing them in the clear, understandable,
and vivid neoRomantic sphere. He wrote the book on Lutosławski, and his
music is full that Polish master, as well as Ligeti and others. There are other times when I’m reminded
of more traditional 20th century composers like Benjamin Britten. Stucky’s amount of worldly success is a
testament to his achievement of creating a 21st century style encompassing this stylistic
diversity. His orchestral music is vivid and bouncy. He write gorgeous textures and handles the
instruments with assurance. I don’t find much of his music memorable,
but I can’t demean or undercut his skill. Stucky’s late “Violin Sonata” is one
of the best works of his that I’ve heard. It begins in a stark world: solo violin slowly
leaping around while the piano marks the melancholy. Then the piano crashes in with big Debussyan
chords that set the music going. As it gets underway, I get shades of Brahms
in the slower music with piano arpeggios and Bartók in the faster sprightly music. This work would easily anchor the first half
of a usual violin recital focusing on the standard repertoire. I really have no problems with this piece. It’s well written. I can follow it. It has powerful emotions. An example is the build up in the slow “Interlude”
where the piano shadows the violin’s new notes as it slowly ascends by pounding each
one. It has beautiful moments. Most of these make me think of Debussy or
Ravel. It just doesn’t excite me. I liked it more by the third listen or so,
but since then my interest has dropped off. In the end, I think I would enjoy listening
to it during a recital, but I would remember nothing about it on the drive home. The album opens with “…In dulcet tones”
by Jesse Jones. It rhymes. Jones is the closest to Stucky in style on
the album. It’s got its Romantic leanings as well as
its modernist sounds and textures. It opens with flickering violin arpeggios
and stark piano chords. Then, the piano starts to brighten up and
the filigree takes on the aspect of an arpeggio fountain. It starts to sound more and more Romantic
as the violin takes up its first big tune. The music switches back and forth between
different slow and fast sections that use more ostinatos and big grand gestures. It has its beauties. Again the outbreaks of bright piano arpeggios
makes me think of Debussy. It’s a lovely piece, but again I’m not
really moved by it. Jones does have his own first album coming
out soon. I’ll take a listen to see if it changes
my mind. While the Stucky and Jones works were beautiful
in ways that didn’t stick in my mind, Tonia Ko’s “Plush Earth in Four Pieces” immediately
had my attention, and then made me furious on first listen. The first movement titled “Part” opens
with an arresting repetition of a Stravinskyan violin chord. I was so excited to hear something that sounded
like Stravinsky after all that neoRomanticism that my expectations were dashed by Ko’s
focus on sound. After listening to more of her work online,
I had to reevaluate my thinking. Each movement explores a series of sounds. “Part” explores repeated notes and downward
slides among short piano sweeps. “Jewel” focuses on swirls high in the
violin and grasshopper-like staccato jumping. The third movement, also called “Part,”
starts on a sudden chord and then mainly focuses on slides up and down and other effects. We get the wind-chime sound of swiping your
finger across the highest piano strings, and the sonorous thud of stopping the strings
with your hand while hitting the keys. The final movement, “Mud,” starts low
and thick in the piano in a texture musicians call muddy. We get short scales at different speeds that
then slowly fade. It’s like we’re following the moisture
evaporate from mud as it becomes dirt. Once I was able to hear this piece as sound
as opposed to the pitch logic of the other music on this album, I enjoyed this work much
more. I think it’s a solid piece, but I’m mostly
grateful to this album for introducing me to Ko so that I could listen to more of her
music. Look up her piece for bubblewrap and electronics
called “Breath, Contained.” It’s gloriously strange in all the ways
that I like. Robert Palmer’s more than 30 minute “Violin
Sonata” from 1956 ends the album. DiEugenio and Solomon extol this work in their
liner notes. Stucky introduced it to them, and they even
include in the liner notes Stucky’s article about his teacher that appeared in the webzine
New Music Box after Palmer’s death in 2010. It is a solidly built musical artifact. I’ve listened to it multiple times and I’ve
listened to most of Palmer’s other available recorded work. It appears that Palmer was supposed to be
one of the up and coming composers of the generation after Aaron Copland. Copland himself talked about Palmer’s work,
and apparently his first “Piano Quartet” was a mainstay of the chamber music repertoire
for a period. So what happened? My experience with this violin sonata might
give some insight. I genuinely lose patience with this overwrought
piece. It is squarely in the 1950s international
style that grew out of neoclassicism. I’ve heard pieces like this by Paul Hindemith
and Walter Piston. Hindemith usually relies on forbidding counterpoint
to spellbind you or to put you to sleep. Piston has a sentimental streak that can give
his music a lovely sheen, but most of it is boring. Now Palmer’s music does have some gusto
that both of these composers lack. It’s steely and stark. It’s mournful but it’s also calculating. But Palmer doesn’t come close to the best
of these two composers. He just doesn’t stand out from the crowd. For DiEugenio and Solomon this is a glorious
find, and I must admit that the double dotted French overture-style rhythms in the slow
third movement have a certain grandeur that keeps returning to me. In the liner notes, they quote Stucky referring
to Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” where poets reinterpret and wrestle with their
predecessors’ art to forge their own work. Stucky instead focuses on what he calls “a
sort of ancestor worship.” Palmer’s “Violin Sonata” made me think
of another idea of Bloom’s: the period piece. A work of art that belongs to its time, but
is not for all time. I come away from “Into the Silence” with
a few thoughts. This album is astoundingly played. I’m amazed by DiEugenio and Solomon’s
artistry. Their musical cohesion is superb, and I’m
grateful for their choice to make this kind of album. I like this curatorial mindset. Also right before this disc was released,
another recording was put out of Steven Stucky’s “Violin Sonata.” I prefer the sound and interpretation on this
disc. DiEugenio and Solomon give it real weight
and beauty. The Jones and Ko pieces both have their pluses
and minuses, but I’m grateful to make their musical acquaintance. I’m definitely going to watch out for more
of Ko’s music. And despite my general disinterest, I’m
grateful to hear Palmer. I’ve always been interested in seeing if
there are diamonds among the forgotten music of previous generations. There are beautiful moments in the dross,
and I’ve gotten excited by what I find there. But I usually realize that I’m discounting
the work’s weaknesses so that I don’t feel like I wasted my time. Robert Palmer’s output is likely to stay
in those Cornell library stacks unplayed. And just so you know, nothing would make me
happier that to be wrong about that. So what do you think of my review? Do you like “Into the Silence”? Tell me what you think in the comments. Please also point me to other music you’d
like me to listen to. There’s a link in the description to hear
some of the Stucky “Violin Sonata.” On the screen are links to another review,
a performance of Tonia Ko’s “Breath, Contained,” and click on my face to subscribe to Music
Corner. Thanks for watching. And as John Cage said, “everything we do
is music.”

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