Clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel has donned the motley hat of eclecticism early in his career. For the most part, it’s a happy fit. His Voices CD showcases multiple styles and influences and succeeds in presenting him as an individualist composer. Dust Dances begins with a dance melody, inspired by his experiences with a marimba-like instrument, the Ghanaian “gyil.” I like the way he establishes an ostinato early in the piece, breaks away from it into with a calming interlude, then returns to it with a vengeance, spiked with variations that recall the latter works of Aaron Copland.
An eerie piece ensues, Thracian Echoes. If you remember your high school ancient history, Thrace was a region encompassing parts of modern day Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. The first half of the work reminds me of the spooky crepuscular side of Bela Bartok (particularly his Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta). Tension builds and the piece turns frantic, as it wriggles for identity. Several times it bursts into a rollicking dance, Bulgarian style, with strange dissonant chords thrown in for seasoning. Much more magic occurs in this 19-minute piece, but it’s best you hear it for yourself.
Elixir has a free-flowing mood that evokes Debussy, particularly in its dreamy tempo and avoidance of firm thematic development. It’s the least notable piece on the CD, perhaps because it’s the least successful musically. Much more intriguing is the title track, Bermel’s jazz-inspired Voices, for solo clarinet and orchestra. With klezmer intensity, Bermel works his clarinet through seductive runs and opera-bouffe-inspired cackles. Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project expertly accompanies him, producing a work of humor and considerable virtuosity. Cranky dissonant episodes abound in the first section, contrasting heavily with the dreamy lyrical second section. Like Dust Dances, there are a few grand sweeping figures reminiscent of the work of Aaron Copland. In the finale, a blowsy theme breaks through, all snapping fingers and funk-inspired themes. It’s quite entertaining, and yet has its subtle edges. As much as you expect him to, Bermel doesn’t dominate the proceedings with his clarinet, but treats it as an equal accomplice with the orchestra. Remember to listen for the cowbell toward the end. I could swear he needed more of it.