Classical Lost and Found
Bob McQuiston
September 10, 2010


A 1990 graduate of Yale University with a degree in literature, San Francisco-born Lisa Bielawa’s (b. 1968) literary background is quite evident in this sampling of her music. Hearing these selections, it’s immediately obvious she’s an extremely talented composer, and easy to understand why she won the 2009 Rome Prize in musical composition. On the other hand, having read the album notes, some may find her creations with all their attendant subtitles and literary references, a tad sophomoric in concept. Incidentally, this album is a mixed bag from the format standpoint with the four orchestral pieces presented on a hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0), disc, and fifteen Synopses for solo instruments, on a conventional CD.

Turning first to the hybrid disc (disc-1), the leadoff selection is entitled Roam and dates from 2001. It’s a twelve-minute tone poem the composer tells us was inspired by a spoken passage (see the album notes) in Alexander Pushkin’s (1799-1837) verse novel Eugene Onegin (1825-32). The general subject is the sea, and her music is meant to reflect the speaker’s state of mind rather than be a pelagic impression like Debussy’s (1862-1918) La Mer (1903-05, see the newsletter of 9 March 2006).

The piece opens with eerie descending flute glissandi, which immediately catch the listener’s attention, followed by a repeated riff [disc-1, track-1, beginning at 01:36] somewhat reminiscent of the tune for “Three Blind Mice” (see the newsletter 31 July 2009). The music builds to a striking crescendo via a series of dramatic chromatic transformations, and then fades away into quiet haunting ambiguity.

The next selection, Double Violin Concerto of 2008, is dedicated to Carla Kihlstedt and Colin Jacobsen, who are the soloists here. In three subtitled sections, the first, “Portico,” is a subtle delicate spider web of sinuous silken melodic threads where the soloists are rarely heard. The composer’s literary background surface once more in the second part, subtitled “Song,” where Ms. Kihlstedt, playing a scordatura (specially tuned) violin, sings an English version of a song from Goethe’s (1749-1832) Faust (1806-32, see the album notes). The overall effect is psychedelic.

Knowing the composer’s preoccupation with things literary, the finale entitled “Play Within a Play” would seem to have some arcane association with Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Hamlet (1599-1601). It begins reservedly with the soloists rhapsodizing on a melody derived from the Gregorian chant setting of The Lamentations of Jeremiah (1538-39). This soon evolves into a toe-tapping dancefest, which eventually takes on Gypsy trappings. The concerto then closes with a cadenza improvised by the soloists, and an ebullient final coda for the orchestra.

Written between 1999 and 2000, the nine-minute unfinish’d, sent is for orchestra with a soprano part that doesn’t begin until almost halfway through. The text is a nine-word phrase (see the album notes) from a soliloquy delivered by Richard III in the Shakespeare play (circa 1591). The composer wrote it to be sung by herself, which she does here.

It begins as the orchestra gradually materializes with percussive licks on the snare drum along with the piano, and more of those Bielawa glissandi. The pace then quickens in some brilliantly scored passages that slowly fade away as the soloist enters [disc-1, track-5, beginning at 05:03] singing the Richard quotation to a bizarre atonal melody spiked with quarter tones. This psychotic aria only lasts about three minutes, and then the orchestra returns with a rustic singsong idea that brings this fascinating piece to a sudden conclusion.

The disc ends with In medias res (In the middle of everything), which is a concerto for orchestra written in 2009. As the title implies, the listener is thrown right at the outset into a developmental musical melting pot, whose thematic elements become obvious only as the piece progresses. These are for the most part derived from the fifteen Synopses for different solo instruments (indicated in parenthesis) that appear on the second disc included here. But more about that later!

The concerto is in two unusually titled movements. The first one known as “and” opens with a variant of Synopses #14 [trombone; disc-2, track-14], which begins with a horn fanfare triumphantly taken up by the other brass. The movement is notable for its initial rhythmic drive, and a lovely central episode based on Synopsis #15 [harp; disc-2, track-15]. Towards the end there are some colorfully scored strumming effects that seem related to Synopses #6 [cello; disc-2, track-6] and #9 [viola; disc-2, track-9]. The movement concludes with chortling bassoons followed by a chugging bass fiddle recalling Synopsis #4 [double bass; disc-2, track-4].

The second movement called “or” begins with the same fanfare, but soon turns dark and pensive, if not threatening. After a couple of dramatic transitional passages highlighting the harp, violin and piano, the mood becomes increasingly optimistic. As the concerto draws to a close, there’s a flamboyant percussion cadenza bringing to mind Synopses #2 [unpitched percussion; disc-2, track-2] and #11 [drum set and spoken voice; disc-2, track-11]. The final measures build to a tumultuous conclusion where that melting pot boils over, concluding this hybrid disc in dramatic fashion.

The second disc is a conventional CD with the fifteen Synopses mentioned above. Written specially for members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project Orchestra (BMOPO) while Bielawa was its Composer in Residence (see the album notes for details), they last three to seven minutes each, and typically consist of a melodic fragment followed by a brief development. All of them have six-word monikers (see the album notes), making one wonder if the composer has some kind of hexadic fetish.

Canned on CD instead of being done live, they come off more as a reference tool for In medias... than concert material. Consequently just a couple of further remarks about them should suffice.

The sixth [cello; disc-2, track-6] alludes [beginning at 00:17] to the Dies Irae, while the ninth [viola; disc-2, track-9], quotes [beginning at 00:53] the opening bars of Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Rite of Spring (1913, revised 1947). When Bielawa wrote the tenth [English horn; disc-2, track-10], it would almost seem she had the shepherd’s pipe passage in the third act of Wagner’s (1813-1883) Tristan and Isolde (1865) as well as Richard Rodger’s (1902-1979) “If I Loved You” from Carousel (1945) in mind.

You’ll find the eleventh [drum set and spoken voice; disc-2, track-11] a hep tattoo, while that slippery clarinet in Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924, revised 1942) takes center stage in the twelfth [clarinet; disc-2, track-12]. Hearing the demanding fourteenth [trombone; disc-2, track-14], it’s easy to understand why they call it a slide trombone. Many will find the lovely fifteenth [harp; disc-2, track-15] the most relatable Synopsis here.

A big round of applause goes to violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Colin Jacobsen for their fine fiddling, as well as to Carla for her vocal contribution to the double concerto. That also applies to the composer who sings the brief demanding vocal part she wrote for unfinish’d, sent.

All three soloists receive first-class support from the BMOP under their conductor Gil Rose. They give what will probably be definitive performances of the orchestral selections for a long time to come. This can also be said of the Synopses, which are played here by their dedicatees, all of whom give virtuoso accounts of their respective pieces.

The hybrid disc in this release is one of the most spectacular sounding orchestral releases to appear in some time, no matter which of its three tracks you play. The only differences would seem to be a marginally smoother high end on the SACD stereo track versus the CD one, and a center seat, total immersion listening experience in the multichannel mode.

Recorded in two different venues, the soundstages projected in the stereo modes are extensive in depth as well as breadth, and amazingly consistent. There’s just enough reverberation to smooth any high-end hot spots, while keeping all the instrumental detail of these colorful scores immaculately balanced and sharply focused. The orchestral timbre is crystalline yet natural sounding, and both of the female voices are pleasing to the ear with no hint of shrillness.

Made at a third location, the CD of the Synopses sounds equally good. All of the solo instruments are convincingly captured across a soundstage that’s appropriately reduced, but far from dry. Audiophiles desirous of auditioning a variety of solo instruments the next time they go on a listening safari, might want to take this along.

- Bob McQuiston, Classical Lost and Found (