American Record Guide
Allen Gimbel
November 1, 2010

Prix de Rome recipient Lisa Bielawa (b. 1968, daughter of composer Herbert) has recently been composer in residence with Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project (2006-09). Ms. Bielawa (brought up in San Francisco but now living in Manhattan) is a Yale graduate, but her degrees are in literature and critical studies; she is also a performing soprano, making for an interesting and quite striking list of accomplishments. This collection documents the product of the three Boston seasons and includes some earlier music.

The set opens with Roam (2001), a 12-minute orchestral tone poem written before her Boston appointment. Inspired by a passage from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin where the narrator interrupts his own narrative to muse on his individual oceanic drifting, Ms. Bielawa’s music is appropriately distant and meandering, misty and vast, lonely and existential.

The Double Violin Concerto (2007-08) that follows continues the expressive character of the previous piece and is hardly the virtuoso extravaganza one might expect. The first movement consists of quiet imitative counterpoint with a Debussian aura. II is a setting of a passage from Goethe’s Faust sung tryingly by Carla Kihlstedt (in English translation) at the same time she’s playing the second violin part (her shtick—likely to eliminate many performances of this piece). The finale uses Gregorian settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah as material for another placid, drifting movement, this time ending with flavors of Gypsy fiddling, which is Mr. Jacobsen’s specialty, eventually drifting into a mildly intense barcarolle, ending with a touch of mild, tonal, determination. The endlessly dreamy overall effect lacks direction, but maybe I’m imposing my masculine expectations on what is most assuredly feminine music.

unfinish’d, sent (1999-2000) is in two parts; the second is a setting of a line from Shakespeare’s Richard III (“…unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world…”) for performance by the composer herself. Ms. Bielawa, who has sung with The Philip Glass Ensemble, has a clear, accurate soprano that she uses with impressive virtuosity.

In Media Res (2009), the disc’s title track, is a two-movement Concerto for Orchestra written for Rose’s ensemble with material taken from the 15 solo Synopses written for individual BMOP players between 2006 and 2009. These take up the second disc in this set. Each is about 4 minutes long; they are intended as portrayals of the musicians involved. All have titles reflecting circumstances known only to the people involved, which limits the public interest of the enterprise somewhat. These clever little studies would make attractive encore pieces. Some are particularly memorable: I especially like Synopsis #1 (a vivacious piano piece), #9 (an amusing Rite of Spring meditation for viola called “I Don’t Even Play the Bassoon”), #11 (for frustrated speaking drummer), and #15 (a lovely harp solo), though all show great skill and abundant personality. The composer stirs these up and serves them as ingredients for her Concerto; the piece makes little sense without knowing the many short pieces that supply the material, so be sure to listen to Disc 2 before you attempt to manage the Concerto. The quodlibet-like idea works better in theory than in practice, though I give it points for originality.

Disc 1 is an SACD; disc 2, the solo pieces, is not.

- Allen Gimbel

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