NEW MUSIC WITH GUITAR, Vol. 10 / Steps (Gregg Smith) / Rosalind Rees, soprano; David Starobin, guitar. Variations on a Theme by Carl Nielsen, “Underlige Aften lufte” (William Bland) / Starobin, guitar; Vassily Primakov, piano. Four Stevens (Michael Starobin) / Patrick Mason, baritone; Starobin, guitar. The Girl from Yerevan (Paul Chihara) / Starobin, guitar; Movses Pogossian, violin; Paul Coletti, viola. Oh, Mother (Paul Ruders) / Camille Zamora, soprano; Robert Belinić, guitar; Giovanni Andrea Zanon, Jee Yoon Kim, violins; Thomas Howerton, viola; Blake Anthony Johnson, cello; David Starobin, conductor / Bridge 9458
Guitarist David Starobin, who is also the founder of Bridge Records, is certainly one of the most adventurous of classical musicians. Since 1981 he has been recording his series of “New Music With Guitar,” first for LP (Vols. 1-3), then conventional CDs, and now as combination CDs/downloads/streaming audio. For those who wonder as to my own proclivities, yes, I take advantage of downloads and streaming but if I like the music I’ll burn it to a CD. I want to hear good music through a good audio system, and no one has yet developed (to my satisfaction) a purely computer-based audio system that delivers realistic sound compared to my amp and 3-foot-high Technics speakers.
But I digress. The music on Vol. 10, mostly recorded between 1995 (Four Stevens) and 2015 (Oh, Mother), also includes a selection—Steps—originally recorded and issued on LP by Turnabout in 1976, and as it turns out, this is the absolute gem of this collection. It was composed by Gregg Smith, the famed choral director who specializes in modern music and in fact was one of the late Robert Craft’s most trusted associates in many a performance and recording project. As it turns out, Smith is also a heck of a composer. Steps is based on one of Frank O’Hara’s wacky, surrealistic poems, and heaven knows we could use someone with his light spirit and free-associating sense of humor in these dark days! Steps alternates between tonal and atonal passages, the music coruscating in little jagged spikes of melody that perfectly mirror O’Hara’s poem. (My favorite lines: “Everyone’s taking their coat off, so they can show a ribcage to the rib-watchers!” and “The Pittsburgh Pirates shout…because they WOOOONNN!”) Starobin was very lucky to have a soprano who can sing modern music with a splendid voice, Rosalind Rees…and in the photo of her, she looks like a dead ringer for Elaine May in her mid-‘30s.
Perhaps because of its juxtaposition with Steps, I found Bland’s Variations on a Theme by Carl Nielsen a relatively weak piece. I say this with no sense of disparagement to Bland, whose music I am otherwise unfamiliar with, but simply my personal feeling about this specific piece. Perhaps it is because he builds his eight variations and a coda on a Nielsen song, and a fairly simple song at that, and the structure strikes me as derivative of Beethoven’s variation style without having Beethoven’s sense of adventure or invention, despite his use of more modern harmonies. (For an example of what I mean, listen to Beethoven’s imaginative and constantly-growing variants on the little operetta tune, “I am the tailor Kakadu.”) Mind you, it’s not a bad piece by any means, but I just find that it tends to drag on a bit too long, an impression bolstered by the fact that many of the variations are slow and dirge-like. It is, however, splendidly played by Starobin and pianist Vassily Primakov.
Indeed, Blands’s piece can be contrasted with the next selection, Four Stevens by Starobin’s brother, Michael. Here, too, we have songs, and a lyrical ones at that, but Michael Starobin has composed music that not only engages the mind but mirrors the text of each poem beautifully. I think you might say that simplicity is the key here, meaning that Starobin doesn’t try to do “too much” with each poem, yet he also varies his tempos more interestingly. Interestingly, I found his composition style in this specific set of songs very similar to that of some of the modren British songs that tenor Peter Pears recorded for Argo in the 1960s (i.e., Lennox Berkeley), which is not a bad thing. Note, too, how Starobin varies his textures, such as using a sparse backing and having the guitarist use percussion effects in “The Snow Man.” I was very much taken with these songs, and kudos to baritone Patrick Mason, yet another singer with a splendid voice. We’re on a roll here!
I’ve had occasion to praise Paul Chihara’s music previously, and I will do so again here. He has his own very personal style, sort of “modern lyrical” with astringent harmonic touches, yet music that continually touches the heart as well as the mind, and The Girl from Yerevan is no exception. In fact, once it gets going, it almost sounds like a tango, albeit a slow-moving one (the liner notes cite the influences of Armenian music and the bossa nova), the interesting melodic contour almost, but not quite, graspable by the ear…it keeps changing, just enough to force you to pay attention. Moreover, Chihara has his own unique sense of how to build” a composition using contrasting snippets in double time, sudden a capella passages for the two strings alone, a long pause before the guitar re-enters, and a quiet but discernible sense of humor. One thing that I really liked about this piece was the clever way Chihara uses descending chromatics and his way of suddenly transposing on a dime. The end result is unique, engaging, and interesting.
We close out this program with an aria from Poul Ruders’ chamber opera The Thirteenth Child, based on the Grimm Brothers’ tale of The Twelve Princes. Because this was taken from a fairy tale, there is a good chance that the opera is meant to appeal to children, at least children old enough to appreciate subtle music. The score is delicately crafted, melodic, and not too challenging tonally. Soprano Zamora has a bit of a flutter in her voice and unclear diction (too often the bane of modern singers) but by and large does a nice job with the music. It would be interesting to hear more of the opera, however; I’m not sure that taking this aria out of context does the score justice, although I was impressed by Ruders’ delicate writing for string quartet.
As usual, Starobin’s own playing is clean and beautifully articulated. All in all, an excellent addition to his ongoing series with at least three truly great pieces on it you’ll want to listen to again and again.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley