This past Wednesday, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg released a new album on her NSS Music label entitled From A to Z: 21st Century Concertos. It presents four compositions for violin and string orchestra, all of which were commissioned as part of the Featured Composer program of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO), where Salerno-Sonnenberg is Music Director. The album title reflects the choice of composers, presented on the recording in alphabetical order: Clarice Assad, William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. (Note that I did not say anything about their being evenly distributed across the alphabet.) All of the tracks are based on live recordings made at each of the concerts that premiered these four compositions.
For better or worse, there is a certain irony that this album appeared so soon after Gil Shaham’s release of the first volume in his 1930s Violin Concertos series. Juxtaposing these albums is likely to prompt two contrasting responses, One is “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” The other would be “Thank God for that!,” or the somewhat tamer “This is not your father’s violin concerto.” On the other hand what these two albums have in common is that each presents a diverse set of perspectives on what a violin concerto can be, which may suggest that the act of composing music is as alive and well as it was a little over 75 years ago.
One consequence of that diversity is that different readers are likely to have different favorites. My own happens to be at the very beginning of the alphabet. I was fortunate enough to be at the San Francisco premiere of Assad’s “Dreamscapes;” and the most salient reaction that I committed to writing was that there was more to the music “than can be grasped in a single listening.” Assad is a composer whose interest embraces far more than the nuts and bolts of making music; and I observed that she had “obviously built up a considerable understanding of the phenomenology of dreams and their daunting mix of logic and illogic.”
Returning to this piece I have come to believe that she realized this goal through an almost frighteningly penetrating musical realization of free association. It is also worth noting that “Dreamscapes” is a single-movement piece; and Assad’s is the longest track on the album. Thus, I find myself drawn to her music for its ability to hold my attention over durations longer than those achieved by the other composers on this album.
By way of contrast, the newest work on the album is Michael Daugherty’s “Fallingwater,” given its premiere in November of 2013. Each of the four movements of this concert was inspired by a different building designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is hard to approach this piece without thinking of that (in)famous quotation (which may have originated with Martin Mull):
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
It is hard to imagine that Daugherty was not familiar with this quip and decided that making music about architecture would be a suitably prankish response to it. How successful he was will probably be up to the individual listener. For me, however, the crystalizing moment came in the first movement (inspired by Taliesin), in which the composer evokes the architect’s Welsh roots with a not-too-veiled appropriation of “Ar Hyd y Nos” (all through the night).
There is also some degree of appropriation in Zwilich’s concerto, “Commedia dell’Arte.” Each of the first three movements evokes one of the stock characters of Commedia dell’arte, followed by a cadenza that introduces what might be called a “finale frolic.” Zwilich associated each of these characters with a percussion instrument to be played by members of the ensemble, and the booklet identifies which performers these were and what they played. The result is one of the better examples of music wit I have encountered, although I have to say that, because I have been listening to so much of Benjamin Britten’s music during his centennial year, I felt I could detect influences of Britten’s rhetoric on Zwilich’s writing, along with a toy drum rhythm that recalled the finale of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Pulcinella.” Regardless of context, however, this is definitely the “fun concerto” of the album and makes for a delightful conclusion.
There is also more than a little wit in Bolcom’s “Romanza,” particularly in the concluding “Cakewalk” movement. In this case, however, that path to that punch line tended to feel more labored during a follow-up listening than it did on first impression. Reading the booklet notes, I found myself wondering whether Bolcom’s Italianate title had missed the point. The Italian noun refers to the act of romance, rather than the aesthetic movement of Romanticism, which seems to have been his source of inspiration. Still, there is a sense that the music is “shamelessly” (Bolcom’s word choice) overt about its emotional stances. So it may be that the concerto is a journey through different emotions that eventually arrives at the “Cakewalk” as its terminus.
As a final observation I should note that this may well be the most cleverly conceived album cover I have seen in a long time. Graphic designer Carmen Calderon did a thoroughly engaging job of folding together into a single abstraction the title of the album, the performers, and the contributing composers. Just looking at that cover makes for an engaging “preview” of the “coming attractions” of the music itself.