Raaf Hekkema Re-Writes “Dido and Aeneazz”

PTC 5186655 Schubert Symphonies Foster cover

HEKKEMA-VLOEIMANS: Dido and Aeneazz / Eric Vloeimans, tpt; Gulli Gudmundsson, bs; Jasper van Hulten, dm; Calefax Reed Quintet / Pentatone PTC5186758

My readers know that I’m not generally a fan of arrangements of classic pieces for other instruments or ensemble sizes other than the originals with the exception of expanding certain pieces of Baroque solo music for instrumental combos, and only then in rare occasions. The reason is that, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out in his Young People’s Concerts, you are taking an original conception meant to be played by a specific group of instruments and tinkering with what the composer envisioned. But of course there are exceptions to every rule—Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition being probably the most famous example, but there is also Gil Evans’ complete rewriting of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for jazz ensemble and trumpet soloist (Miles David)—and this modern instrumental version of Henry Purcell’s late 17th-century opera is, in my view, one of them.

As Raaf Hekkema puts it in the liner notes,

Where is the boundary between arranging and (re-)composing? I find it a hard line to draw. How much tinkering can the notes take until an existing piece of music has been fundamentally transformed? And then, who is the ‘author’, or what is the relationship between composer and arranger? On the other hand, can an original composition—simply, one in which the melody and harmony did not exist before—in fact have been created by a single brain, and thus claim to be ‘original’? Certainly in times when we are bombarded with music (which is also becoming steadily more diverse), it is difficult to determine where the source of the musical idea lies.

To put it in simpler terms, as once explained to me by Byron Olson, whose highly imaginative jazz-classical arrangements of Sketches of Miles and Sketches of Coltrane made such a strong impression in the 1990s, that “an arranger is a composer.” Of course, the degree to which the arranger is successful or really creative depends on the finished product and how different and detailed it is. This re-writing of Purcell’s opera for trumpet, bass, drums and a reed quintet is clearly one of the more complex I’ve ever heard.

And, as it turns out, the reference to Gil Evans is quite apt, as Hekkema and Eric Vloeimans, who composed five new pieces on this CD (“A splendid time together,” “Love Dance,” “Horizon,” “Sailors & Witches” and “Crazy Witches”), use a miniature version of some of the timbral blends that Evans created in the 1950s. The difference is that, as the suite (for that, in essence, is what it really is) moves along, we hear much more high reed sounds than in Evans, who preferred to work with low, soft brass players mixed with reeds. Of course, the orchestration here dictates much of the scoring. Calefax is made up of Oliver Boekhoorn, oboe and English horn, Ivar Berix on clarinet, Hekkema on alto sax, Jelte Althuis on bass and contrabass clarinets, and Alban Esley on bassoon. Not since Paul Laval’s “Woodwindy Ten” on the old Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street radio show have we had such an eclectic group of reeds playing jazz.

By and large, the music leans far more towards jazz than classical. Even in the many ensemble passages the rhythmic feel is that of a jazz ensemble rather than that of a classical one, although the opening of the second piece, “Peace and I are strangers grown,” is purely classical in both rhythmic feeling and phrasing. Once the solo bass enters, however, we begin moving again towards a jazz sensibility, and it is this spirit that permeates the CD. And yet Vloeimans’ trumpet solo in this piece stays quite close to the original melody rather than taking off on it in a jazz solo. Perhaps he felt that, internally speaking, he didn’t want to go too far outside the parameters of the original score in this respect. Certainly, the unusual and harmonically modern canon that follows, played by the ensemble, is not score at all. Low clarinets playing in bouncing unison and counterpoint lead off “Fear no danger, Cupid has thrown the dart,” after which the trumpet, playing now in a lower register, blends with the low clarinet, oboe, English horn and saxophone in an interesting ensemble passage. “A splendid time together” is indeed a jazz piece, in what sounds like 5/4, and sounds like a more modern interlude written as an insert into the Purcell-based music. It’s a fine piece on its own, but I’m not sure it really fits except in mood and orchestration. Here, too, Vloeimans’ solo is more adventurous, having no classical frame of reference to hold him back.

Interestingly, “The triumphs of love” also sounds entirely new and not directly based on Purcell while Vloeimans’ “Love Dance” does sound like Purcell, only updated. Even the faster middle section, which starts out in a jazz vein, eventually becomes a sort of classical canon. Go figure. For whatever reason, “The Witches” sound like a group of drunken sailors, but this is clearly fun music. “Ritornel,” after a classical-sounding reed intro, moves into a slow bass solo, then an uptempo jazz section with drums underpinning both bass and trumpet. There’s also a nice drum solo towards the end.

In “The Sailors,” Hekkema gives the music a sort of seaman’s drinking-song feel except with a jazz beat behind it. The band also sings on this one. In fact, as one listens more and more to this suite, the less one worries about the connections to the Purcell original or how close or how far it is from it. You just enjoy the music as music, for it is clearly very original and well-written and arranged. “Sailors and Witches” turns out to be a pretty jolly round in 6/8 time, with brief spots in a fast 4, before morphng into a sort of medium-slow belly dance—then, at its mid-point, a manic polka with a jazz trumpet solo. Naz drovya!

“Triumphant Witches” also starts off rather drunk-sounding before moving into Raymond Scott-type of uptempo “cartoon” music, complete with muted trumpet, then a crazy or drunken-sounding exchange amid the winds, followed by a bass solo with the winds not playing out-of-tonality drunken-sounding figures above it. “Crazy Witches” sounds like a hora which, after several permutations, increases in speed to become a kazatsky.

Needless to say, we also get a very imaginative treatment of Dido’s lament, “When I am laid in earth,” and this may be one of the very few tracks on this disc that you just might hear on FM radio sometime (but not on a classical station; they’d hate it), and this is followed by the sad finale, “With drooping wings.”

This is an altogether amazing and imaginative album, clearly one of the finest I’ve heard all year.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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