CAROLLO: Starry Night for String Orchestra. Anguish (in Every Household). Transcendence (in the Age of War)* Nothing Shall Come of This / Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; Peter Vronsky, *Jan Kucéra, conductors / Quartet No. 1: A Worded Grey Enigma / Vit Muzik, violinist; Marian Pavlik, cellist; Lucie Kaucka, pianist; Ales Janecek, clarinetist / Moravian Sax in the Afternoon / Brno Saxophone Quartet / Navona Records NV5844
Having been impressed by John Carollo’s trumpet-guitar duo Burlesque on the Abrazo CD I reviewed last year, I was curious to hear this album devoted entirely to his music. I was not disappointed. Carollo, who worked full time as a mental health counselor for the State of Hawaii, turned his attentions to music in 1997 when he began private composition lessons with Dr. Robert Wehrman. In 2006 he retired from his state job in order to devote himself full time to composition.
The music on this CD, which has one of the cutest covers I’ve ever seen, was recorded during July 2010 in Olomouoc, a city in the Czech Republic. It more fully fleshes out the good impression I had of his music from the Burlesque. He writes in a combination tonal-atonal style, and has as firm a grasp of form and technique as any composer you are likely to hear. His music skirts the feeling of edginess while consistently attracting the ear to its underlying structure. Thus the opening selection, Starry Night, is not one of those soft, lush, bathe-you-in-mushy-string-sound pieces you hear all to much of nowadays, but a fairly sinister starry night with a well-constructed fugue in the middle. Despite its short length (eight minutes), Carollo manages to say quite a lot and hold your attention as he does so. This is a starry night with meteors and perhaps an exploding star in the midst of it!
Much to my surprise, Anguish (in Every Household) was neither as edgy nor as loud, as Starry Night. Rather, the music remains almost sub-tone throughout, depicting a quiet sort of anxiety rather than full-blown musical neurosis. With the Quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano (ironically, the same combination used by Messiaen for his Quartet for the End of Time), Carollo does a 360, giving us a much jollier but also more abstract piece, here almost completely atonal yet literally bursting with ideas. Once again, it is the structure of the music that commands one’s attention, although the third movement creates a surprisingly warm feeling despite the use of atonality. Carollo creates a delicate balance between the instruments, allowing each one an equal part within the whole; there is no feeling here of the piano “merely” acting as accompanist or the violin and clarinet vying for attention in the lead line. Rather, the music is a juggling act in which all four players have their say with democratic equality. At certain moments, Carollo even seems to be using a hocket style, having each of the four musicians play a note following each other to create a whole bar or statement At others, he uses a call-and-response technique, giving one instrument a few notes to play which are then replied to by the next. I was particularly impressed by the way he used the piano, mostly for rhythmic counterpoint, only rarely playing chords so as not to intrude on the delicate balance of the other three instruments. This is definitely the piece that the ballet-slippered cat on the cover is dancing to…you might almost describe it as “whimsical Webern!”
Moravian Sax in the Afternoon continues in the same mood as the Quartet, here using one each of the four most common saxophone ranges (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone), yet somehow making them all sound as if they were playing their middle ranges. By doing so, Carollo manages to create a homogeneous sound even when writing very individual lines for each instrument. Despite the use of traditionally jazz instruments, there is no hint of jazz in his writing; like the previous Quartet, it is in very strict rhythm and uses a great deal of counterpoint. Also, even though it was four and a half minutes long, it almost seemed to be over as quickly as it started.
Transcendence (in the Age of War), written for concert band, is by far the meatiest and most serious work on this disc. Interestingly, although he has here a full band to write for, Carollo continues to pursue many of the same techniques found in the previous two works: clarity of texture, openness of sound and a method of bouncing the notes off one another. The difference is that, with more instruments to play with, his score becomes much denser at times, with so many different lines going at once that it almost sounds like a huge canon. At one point the music slows down, loses its rhythmic push and pursues a more lyrical atonal theme. Here Carollo plays more with texture, creating an interesting ambience into which the saxophone returns and leads the music back to its more rhythmic style incrementally. A march beat comes in, with snare drums leading the band, but this, too accelerates to an almost manic pace, with trumpets and flutes blasting their way through the now-congested orchestral texture. A return to the syncopated style of the opening is accompanied by an even greater acceleration of tempo; the clash of instruments becomes almost brutally manic. Then, another point of relaxation as the volume and pitch of the band move way down, creating a disturbing calm-after-the-battle feeling. This, too, eventually accelerates to an almost grotesque fast march tempo, everything now cacophonous, as the music piles on top of itself and collapses in a crashing final chord.
Nothing Shall come of This almost seemed to me to be a sequel, or answer to, Transcendence. It is a slow, tonal work for string orchestra in the manner of Strauss’ Metamorphosen but far shorter and less repetitive and boring. Its long string lines seem to be expressing warmth and comfort after the storm of the preceding track, and it makes a fitting conclusion to this CD.
One of the cool things about this CD is that when you insert it into your computer (sorry, iPhone users, it won’t fit there!) you can access complete scores of each piece, still photos of Carollo and the musicians, videos of the Moravian Philharmonic rehearsing his pieces and wallpaper of the dancing cat’s face.
The only negative comment I had of this album is that the string section on Starry Night and Transcendence sounded a bit harsh, as if it were over-recorded. Other than that, this is a fascinating album of music with a unique point of view. Well worth seeking out!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley