Harberg & Wolpert’s Viola Concertos

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HARBERG: Viola Concerto. Elegy. WOLPERT: Viola Concerto No. 1, “Giants” / Brett Deubner, violist; Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra; Linus Lerner, conductor / Naxos 8.559840

I normally don’t find myself drawn to too much modern American classical music these days, not because there’s not much being written but because there doesn’t seem to be much that strikes my ear as original. Too many composers seem to be in one of two “bags”: melodic but sappy or edgy in a formulaic sort of way. But the music of Amanda Harberg (1973 – ) is neither; it is melodic and predominantly tonal, yet her melodic line tends to sound like it is based on old American folk songs, though it is not, and her ear for color leads her to some particularly original orchestration.

The latter really impressed me. In my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extensive and detailed guide to the intersection of jazz and classical music, I spent a great deal of time describing the more unusual and innovative orchestrators of the last century, from Ravel, Stravinsky and Jelly Roll Morton to Eddie Sauter, Leonard Bernstein, George Russell and Fred Katz, and pointed out that with such a wealth of different orchestral textures to choose from, it makes no sense that classical composers are still using the Rimsky-Korsakov playbook. Harberg’s orchestration seems to me to combine elements of Aaron Copland with bits of Bernstein, Stravinsky and even some touches of Sauter. One hears much more brass in her Viola Concerto than is usual, as well as vibraphone and a bevy of percussion. Her wind passages are pungent and telling, and even when she uses a “string cushion,” as in the slow movement, low brass is mixed in with it. Moreover, her melodic line in this movement, though decidedly lyrical, has neither pathos nor bathos to bog it down. It is wistful but not morose. I liked it very much. Even more interestingly, the last movement, written in D minor but emphasizing the lower fifth (A) as a ground bass, begins with a slightly ominous low bassoon solo before leading into the viola and then a rhythmic-polyphonic passage for a group of strings. Although the music is not jazzy in the conventional sense, there is a great deal of syncopation and backbeats here to add rhythmic interest—and again, Harberg relies more heavily on the brass (and occasional winds) to make her point than just throwing in more strings. In short, it’s the kind of music jazz-based musicians could play if they also have classical technique. Although conductor Linus Lerner does a pretty good job with the Southern Arizona Symphony, I think someone like Michael Tilson Thomas would bring out more of the jazz allusions. Brett Deubner’s playing of the solo part is vivacious and lively, and he has a good sense of how his part fits into the surrounding structure.

The Elegy was originally composed for viola and piano, but Harberg arranged it for string orchestra. It’s a wistful piece, written by Harberg as a memorial to her deceased teacher, Marina Grin, and Deubner plays it with just the right amount of feeling—again, without slipping into bathos. Without trying to be critical, however, I must say that the string arrangement of the accompaniment, although good, doesn’t quite have Harberg’s “fingerprints” on it.

By contrast, the music of Max Wolpert is much more ominous and dynamic. The liner notes tell us that he “conjures up monsters where the traditional, classical, and theatrical meet,” but since I outgrew monster movies when I was 10 years old I didn’t particularly respond to that side of him. Fortunately, this specific concerto was inspired by a Biblical quote from Genesis that “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Wolpert takes this to mean that the world is diminishing, thus his music is built “around a melodic interval which gradually diminishes and draws together,” the first movement generally built around an ascending perfect fifth, the second on a fourth and the last on a major third. What I liked about it was his ability to create contrasts in sound and texture. Although the work is indeed a viola concerto, Wolpert, like Harberg, tends to use the solo instrument as a form of obbligato commentary rather than as a dominant solo voice, although in Wolpert’s concerto there were more moments in which the solo viola “sang” melodic lines all by itself. In terms of style, I didn’t find Wolpert’s music quite as individual as Harberg’s—at times it tended towards the kind I mentioned in the first paragraph—but at least he gave his best and tried to create an individual sound world.

The first movement is linked to the second via a solo harp interlude, and thematically the movements are also related. In the slow movement the solo viola plays in its lower, darker range, and Deubner manages this without making it sound forced. Wolpert doesn’t have quite the gift for melodic construction as Harberg, but his music is interesting in a modal sort of way. I felt, however, that the tune he introduced at the three-minute mark in this movement was just a tad banal; fortunately, it moves on from there. The third movement, titled “Dance of the Cloud Woman,” begins in a quiet, almost ruminative vein, with the solo viola alternating comments with the cello section of the orchestra, before the tempo increases and an almost Hasidic dance tune predominates. This is a wonderful piece, harking back to violin concertos from the late 19th century when such things were commonplace. Wolpert juices up his score with some powerful orchestration here and there.

All in all, then, a refreshing and engaging disc of modern Americana. Despite its moments of power and tragedy, I found that this music was wonderful for lifting up your mood on a blah summer day!

—© Lynn René Bayley

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