American Record Guide
Patrick Hanudel
March 1, 2010

The American composer Elliott Schwartz (b. 1936) has carved out a niche in the postmodern movement through his synthesis of 20th-century idioms into a highly individual voice. A native New Yorker and a longtime professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, Schwartz has enjoyed no shortage of international performances, and he has been widely praised for his innovative use of juxtaposition, collage, theatrical gestures, and orchestral color. While Ives is a key influence, others are more subtle; in fact, one could argue that as Mahler summed up the best of the 19th Century, Schwartz is trying to do the same for the 20th.

This release, courtesy of Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, presents one of the most important entries in Schwartz’s instrumental music. The Chamber Concertos I-VI range from the late 1970’s to well into the new millennium. As Schwartz discusses in the liner notes, they are a blend of the romantic ideal of the “heroic” soloist and the baroque notion of rigorous ensemble involvement and team play. Although the soloist is front and center, the music is of seamless collaboration and conflict, where individuals and sections from the orchestra engage the performer in persistent and often aggressive dialog. The result is a surreal soundscape of classical references and modernist allusions that transport the listener into a sort of nightmarish Impressionism—a world of strange, frightening, and almost always unpredictable events.

Specifically, the Concertos are I (1976) for double bass; II (1976) for clarinet; III (Another View, 1977) for piano; IV (1981) for saxophone; V (Water Music, 1991) for bassoon; and VI (Mr. Jefferson, 2007) for violin. The first five concertos have only one movement, ranging from 7 to 13 minutes, but the latest one is more ambitious. Inspired by the Founding Father of the same name, it is a five-section programmatic work that explores several aspects of the third U.S. President’s life and personality, including his love of the violin.

As expected, all of the performances are of the highest caliber. The orchestra fully embraces Schwartz’s forceful ensemble concept, and each of the soloists brings to the table every technical and artistic resource he has, from clean and penetrating timbres to a complete command of extended techniques. To be sure, Schwartz’s music is not for everyone; the constant stream of angular themes, ferocious dissonances, and jagged rhythms will make most traditionalists run for the hills. But one cannot dismiss the commitment and professionalism of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

- Patrick Hanudel

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