The Music of Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon

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ZOHN-MULDOON: Candelabra III & IV.+ Songtree* / *Tony Arnold, sop; Zohn Collective; Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble; Timothy Weiss, cond; +Duo Damiana / Oberlin Music OC18-03

Mexican-Jewish composer-guitarist Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, who now teaches composition at the Eastman School of Music, was a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his piece Comala. He has studied with such noted modernists as George Crumb, Franco Donatoni and Jay Reise. In the liner notes, he explains that all of the works in his Candelabra series “were conceived as memorials to members of my father’s family, Jews who fled Vienna in 1938 to Tlaquepaque, a small village near Guadalajara, Mexico. Despite this radical cultural transplantation, the family flourished. The title derives from the candelabra cactus, which grows and flowers even in inhospitable surroundings and is named for its resemblance to the candelabra.”

Yet considering the rather short duration of this CD (50 minutes), it’s a shame that he only have us two of them. These are clearly interesting, inventive pieces, combining modernistic harmonies (Candelabra III seldom comes to a rest in a settled tonality) with strict classical development and Latin rhythms. It’s such a pleasure to hear a modern composer who actually has a beginning, middle and end to his pieces, and doesn’t just throw out “startling ideas” as a means of dazzling his listeners without any real substance!

Between the two Candelabra pieces we get his song-cycle Songtree. Based on the poetry of Raúl Aceves (in Spanish) and William Shakespeare (in English), Songtree was developed over five full years, from 2012 to 2017. The vocal line, sung here superbly by the great Tony Arnold (in my view, the true successor to Bethany Beardslee as the premier modern music soprano of her time, despite the excellent work done by Anu Komsi in Europe), is primarily percussive, mostly a series of little rhythmic motifs sung in a style that veers towards Latin folk music. In the Shakespeare pieces, which include Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed and Who will believe my verse in time to come, this style seemed to me less appropriate to the material despite its originality, and perhaps because of the short, percussive notes being sung, Arnold’s diction is not entirely clear here—a rare thing for this superb artist—though her vocal placement is perfection and her tone quite beautiful (even prettier, even in the extreme high range, than Beardslee). There also seemed, to me, a certain sameness in each poem setting, at least in terms of tempo and basic tonality (several of these songs actually do have a tonal center as compared to the Candelabra pieces)., which led to a certain amount of listener fatigue. Only Lejos, Night and Cesa were in consistently different (slower) tempi. In Night, the texture is also much thinner, consisting mostly of one obbligato violin, and a second playing light pizzicato figures. I realize that modern composers try to find their “voice” and stick with it in most of what they write, but I would politely like to caution Zohn-Muldoon against repeating the same basic devices over and over and over again, particularly in a cycle such as this. In Tropo 3, Zohn-Muldoon varies the orchestration by adding an alto saxophone to the mix, and in Ineffable he gives us a “broken” tempo with many rests between the notes. It is in this second half of the cycle, then, that we finally get to hear a somewhat different and more interesting style.

With Candelabra IV we are back in percussive counterpoint in another piece that is superbly crafted. Considerable praise should also go to the three ensembles used on this album, each of which plays with commitment and energy. Despite my caveats, this is certainly an interesting disc. Zohn-Muldoon is clearly a skilled composer and has some wonderful musical ideas.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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