The Music of Steven Gerber

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GERBER: Sinfonietta No. 1 (Piano Quintet, arr. Hagen).1 String Sinfonia No. 1 (String Quartet No. 4, arr. Williams).2 2 Lyric Pieces for Violin & Strings.*2 String Sinfonia No. 2 (String Quartet No. 6, arr. Williams).2 Sinfonietta No. 2 (String Quartet No. 5, arr. Williams)1 / *Emily Davis, vln; 1English Symphony Orch.; 2English String Orch.; Kenneth Woods, cond / Nimbus Alliance NI6423

This CD presents the music of Steven R. Gerber (1948-2015), a composer who wrote in a style that straddled the divide between traditional and modern classical music. Judging from the opening selection on this CD, his modus operandi was to present a few kind-of-edgy chords at the outset, then quickly revert to jolly tunes in a mostly tonal style with occasional bitonal bites added here and there for seasoning. He clearly knew how to compose—none of his pieces are poorly written or without interest—but his desire to please the masses more than his own muse led to what I feel is a compromised situation.

Of course, it’s hard to judge how these works sounded in their original configuration since none of them except the 2 Lyric Pieces for Violin & Strings were actually written for a string orchestra. The others are all orchestral adaptations of Piano Quintets or String Quartets by another hand, and to be honest, when listening to the Sinfonietta No. 1 I didn’t hear a string quartet in any of the movements and had a difficult time imagining this music played by such a quartet at any given point, since so much of it sounds like what I would call “jolly British festival music.” Take, for instance, the third-movement “Presto” with its swirling, moto perpetuo figures, which sound so right played by an orchestra but, in my mind’s ear, just wouldn’t sound proper if played by a piano quintet. It’s just too lightweight and a bit trivial, although hugely entertaining. The only real gravitas in this piece comes in the slow fourth movement, and this is indeed an excellent piece of music that I could imagine being played by a piano quintet. The rapid fifth movement also sounds somewhat piano quintettish.

The String Sinfonia No. 1, which is actually his String Quartet No. 4, follows an opposite pattern, opening in a tonal style but constantly dipping into close chords and a bit of bitonality. Some of the slower middle section of the first movement bears some resemblance to early Benjamin Britten, while the second is somewhat near what Robert Simpson wrote, if not quite as complex or interesting.

There’s a certain amount of gravitas in his Lyric Pieces for violin and string orchestra that appealed to me because, for once, Gerber seemed to be able to settle on a consistent style throughout the entire piece despite being mostly tonal and rhythmically conventional. I think this is where his heart really was, but I could be wrong. If so, then he most certainly liked writing a Good Tune That the People Could Hum on their way out of the auditorium, and that’s not my idea of great music.

My overall impression of Gerber, judging by these specific pieces, is that he was a good, solid composer of music that straddled the divide between art and entertainment, but that he never seemed to decide which side of the fence he wanted to come down on once and for all. It’s a nice CD, and by no means without interest, but for me the music just doesn’t stick.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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