Thomas Oboe Lee weaves many influences into a distinctive artistic voice. Born in China to nightclub singers, he spent his teenage years living in Brazil, then moved to the United States to study composing at Harvard and the New England Conservatory. Along the way he picked up the sounds not just of bossa nova and samba, but the cool American jazz of Davis, Coltrane and Evans.
What’s delightful is that all this merged together into a composer of really interesting music. These six concertos show his range and his talent for catchy, tuneful music with strong rhythms and emotions.Flauta Carioca (Carioca is an adjective meaning from Rio de Janeiro) is the liveliest of the works, and the most obviously influenced by Brazil; the flute part dances with aplomb and a colorful orchestral accompaniment is only marred by the overenthusiastic triangle which dings all the way through the flautist’s cadenza. A central movement entitled “Bossa nova” does conjure up thoughts of the Getz/Gilberto moment when Brazil’s big musical trend moved north. The harp concerto, named …bisbigliando… for reasons which elude me, also has a heavy stamp of Brazilian folk music, its repetitive finale overshadowed by the truly gorgeous, sensitively scored slow movement.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are two more austere works based on ancient myths: Persephone and the Four Seasons, a tiny oboe concerto, and Eurydice, a half-hour work for cello and orchestra.Eurydice begins with a snarling full-orchestra wail, and the cellist’s lyrical tendency is often set against a hostile orchestra in a work of contrasts and volatile emotions.
Don’t let the title or the opening fool you: the piano concerto Mozartiana isn’t overtly Mozartian. It begins almost exactly the way Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 does, before Lee veers very sharply off into his own direction; the finale returns us to his jazzy, indeed samba-like roots. I think the most successful work that doesn’t have some element of Brazilian folk music is the Violin Concerto, a work with shades of Sibelius, Prokofiev, and late Martinu that still sticks to Lee’s own voice. It’s a terrific piece worth listening to many times; the first movement contains some of my favorite music in the whole set, and the violin part is breathtakingly lyrical and ecstatically played by Irina Muresanu.
Actually I should note here that all six soloistsare superb advocates of the music. Pianist Robert Levin even gets a chance to improvise a cadenza in Mozartiana, which, as the booklet observes, sounds as well-composed as anything else here, a mark of Levin’s stature as a performer. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is totally engaged in the proceedings, although there are occasionally hints that half the series was recorded in a single day.
One thing I find quite interesting is the contrast between the two booklet notes. Thomas Lee writes a two-page essay that is a model of clarity and good writing. Here’s how he describes the genesis of one piece: “I wrote the flute concerto Flauta Carioca for Bart Feller and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. The executive director of the NJSO at the time said to me, ‘Instead of a standard concerto, why don’t you write something that’s in your blood: Brazilian music?’ Sure!” By contrast, the four-page essay by Martin Brody is full of nonsense about “a latent anxiety hovering around the musical oeuvre of Thomas Oboe Lee,” a cartoon from the New Yorker, “Tom’s own galaxy in” a “parallel universe” where obscure 19th-century musicologist Hugo Riemann knows how to dance, “Proustian gambits,” “incommensurability,” and how the primal wail at the start of Eurydice is a “rendering of Life Without Mozart.” Apparently the purpose of good music such as this is to dispel our root fear of Life Without Mozart. Neither essay comments on the fact that Lee bears the name ‘Oboe’.
Thomas Oboe Lee writes music like he writes words: clear, direct and effective, a pleasure to experience. His music is not simple, in that it’s worth analyzing and well worth hearing many times over, but it’s not obtuse either: its challenges are natural, and its rewards bountiful. It can be sweet, moving, withdrawn, outgoing.