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J Scott Morrison
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After a couple of weeks of listening pretty exclusively to complex and knotty new music, I came upon this CD of string orchestra music by Eric Ewazen and it was like a long, slow drink of cool, clear spring water to a parched throat. Not that I disliked the tough music, not at all; but this music is so good, so right, so smoothly crafted, and so songful that one can simply sit back, close one's eyes, open one's ears and go 'Ahhhh!' It doesn't hurt that the playing of the brilliant new conductorless string ensemble, International Sejong Soloists, is sensational. This group, mostly young players of Asian origin and all former Juilliard students, has been getting laudatory reviews all over the world since their formation in the mid-1990s. I've heard them live and they ARE fabulous.
Ewazen (b. 1954; pronounced eWAYzen) is a professor at Juilliard. His music has gotten a lot of play but I guess his name hasn't entered the general music-lover's consciousness quite yet, more's the pity. I've heard a good deal of his music for brass played at the Aspen Music Festival by the spectacularly talented American Brass Quintet, and I've always liked what I've heard. This is the first of his music for strings that I've ever heard and I have to say I am extremely impressed. It is generally in a tonal, even diatonic, language, with nothing more advanced harmonically than, say, Prokofiev; I'm often reminded of the music of Lars-Erik Larsson. It tends to have lean and pellucid textures. Form is readily apparent and tends to be neoclassic. His use of rhythm is often quite exciting, sometimes surprising or quirky. It tends, even in polyphonic sections, to dance or sing. His fast movements are quicksilver, his slower movements often plaintive or melancholy and always gorgeously tuneful; this guy can write soaring melodies. I'd love to hear songs, choral music or an opera by him.
To the music on this disc: "Concerto for Violin and Strings" is a three-movement neoclassic concerto with a spirited first movement that allows the soloist plenty of opportunity for virtuoso display. The Adagio is a set of variations on a long-limbed and soulful minor-key folk-tinged melody that sounds like it could have come from one of Schubert's strophic songs; it rises to a mezzo-forte climax culminating in a short cadenza that then blends into a backward-looking utterly serene morendo ending. The bustling, high-spirited last movement skips along in good humor like a young man, newly in love, overflowing with exuberance; there are several slow sections where he bursts into song, exclaiming his love for the world to hear. The violinist in this recording is Adele Anthony (who is married to violin superstar Gil Shaham) and she is absolutely top-notch, with silvery, tightly focused tone, musicianly phrasing and impeccable technique. She's one to watch.
"Down a River of Time" is a concerto for oboe and string orchestra. It was commissioned as a memorial tribute to her father by the recording's oboe soloist, Linda Strommen. Ewazen's father had also recently died and obviously he felt a strong identification with the notion of a memorial. The title comes from a phrase he read in an essay by Richard Feagler about long-gone relatives: "Moving, though they can't feel the current, down a river of time." The first movement, now rushing, now pausing, describes the onward flow of time full of hopes and dreams. The second movement, subtitled '... and sorrows,' limns feelings at times of loss. The oboe sings a plangent threnody upon a bed of chorale-like string chords. The third movement, '... and memories of tomorrow,' is a squaring of shoulders to face the future, buoyed by happy memories of the lost loved ones. Ewazen's music and his soloist convey the rush of energy that comes from the determination that Life Be Lived. This concerto has every reason to enter the rather small repertory of oboe concerti. Linda Strommen's playing is neat, musical, feelingful; her sound is somewhere between the beefy tone so often used by American oboists and the rather more reedy tone of Europeans, a very satisfying sound for me.
"Sinfonia for Strings," in three movements, is, if anything, even more neoclassical than the other pieces. One hears vestiges of such baroque dances as the bransle (whence our English word 'brawl'), the hornpipe, and the sarabande. One hears fugal passages, stretti, a canon. String textures vary from sonorous divisi legato chords to energetic passages of complex, virtuosic writing for all the players; even the inner parts must have been great fun to play! There are moments of breathtaking lyrical beauty and passages of fiery, foot-stomping verve. Let there be no doubt, Ewazen, a pianist himself, knows how to write effectively for strings. I want more!
This CD gets my strongest recommendation.