Classical Lost and Found
Bob McQuiston
February 25, 2013

With these two recent releases from BMOP/sound we get an attractive bouquet of concertos from a couple of America's most highly regarded contemporary composers, Thomas Oboe Lee (b. 1945) and Paul Moravec (b. 1957, see below). Lee was born in China but left there with his family in 1949, spending ten years in Hong Kong and another six in Brazil. He then emigrated to the United States in 1966, where he pursued extensive musical studies, graduating from Harvard in 1981. He's received a number of outstanding awards, and now teaches at Boston College.

The album pictured above and to the left includes two discs devoted to six of his concertos, beginning with Flauta Carioca of 2000 for flute. In three movements it reflects the composer's Brazilian years with catchy rhythms like those that had infected Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) when he was a French attaché in Rio de Janeiro (1917-9). The initial "Chôros vivo!!!" ("Loud Cries!!!") starts with an orchestral flourish and an antic flute melody, after which it chugs along like the "The Little Train of Caipira" (Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2, 1930) being pulled by The Little Engine that Could.

The second movement marked "Bossa nova" is melodically mesmerizing with accents on woodblocks. The final "Pastorale - Forró" opens slowly, comes to a complete halt, and then goes into an animated Brazilian dance with a jazzy flute line and more knocks on blocks.

The next selection is a concerto for harp entitled ... bisbigliando ... (2009), which refers to the soft tremolo produced on that instrument by rapid back-and-forth motions of the fingers. In three movements, the first is dominated by minimalistic repeated harp motifs over an alternately lyrical and prickly orchestral accompaniment with more woodblock accents.

The middle one is a moving lamentation for orchestra embroidered by the soloist, and may bring Gliere's (1875-1956) harp concerto (1938) to mind. In the flighty finale, one can imagine the harp as a moth hovering around and getting caught in a flickering orchestral candle flame. Once again there's more woodblock, and what the piece may lack in profundity it makes up for with immediate appeal.

The first Lee disc is filled out with his violin concerto of 2009 which abandons the "New World" for the "Old", and is in two movements simply designated "Part I" and "Part II." The opening one [track-7] has a slow rapturous introduction smacking of Sibelius (1865-1957) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949). This suddenly turns nervously animated with a virtuosic display from the soloist set against a colorful accompaniment having a catchy recurring five-note motif (RF) [07:19]. The movement is sometimes reminiscent of Prokofiev (1891-1953), and ends perfunctorily with a final reference to RF.

The second part [track-8] begins nostalgically in the orchestra with the violin rising out of its depths to deliver a soaring bravura commentary over passages again of Straussian persuasion. After a brief pause the mood becomes vivacious [08:36] with some fireworks from the fiddle and a lupine tutti snapping at its heels. Then after a challenging final cadenza the concerto concludes with an infectious coda involving everyone.

The other CD in this album begins with a piano concerto called "Mozartiana", which is a name that's already popped up a couple of times in these pages (see 12 March 2009 and 16 January 2013). It gets its moniker from being based on some forgotten Mozart (1756-1791) fragments, and was written in 2007 for the soloist, who's the distinguished pianist and Mozart scholar, Harvard Professor Robert Levin (b. 1947).

In two movements, the first [track-1] opens slowly with the orchestra stating a lovely singing theme (LS) [00:09] set to a gently rocking keyboard accompaniment. The piano then picks up on LS, and a developmental reverie follows. This becomes increasingly aggressive [04:52] with soloist and tutti entering into a march-like passage based on LS that ends the movement uneventfully.

The concluding one [track-2] begins quietly with delicate trill-adorned piano passages over a yearning accompaniment. The piano part becomes more legato sans trills [02:48], and a rapturous episode follows. It ends with repeated chords in the orchestra and a short piano passage [06:34] that bridges into a final rondo [07:13]. Here pianist and tutti chase each other around in a frenetic tarantella that turns into a courtly dance [09:01]. This gives way to a thrilling ad libitum cadenza by Dr. Levin [10:27], where he shows off his exceptional improvisatory skills. The orchestra then joins the soloist to end the concerto in high spirits.

The two concerti filling out this disc are based on Greek mythology, and Lee tells us they both double as tone poems. The first known as Persephone and the Four Seasons (2006) is for oboe. It takes as its subject the goddess who was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld, and became his queen (see 21 September 2011). She also had agricultural associations, and consequently Lee has cast the concerto in four movements each representing an imagined seasonal aspect to the myth surrounding her.

The opening one titled "Summer (Persephone Dances)" begins with a doleful theme for the soloist who's soon joined by the orchestra. After a brief pause, the oboe introduces a perky piquant dance tune that's tossed back and forth between soloist and tutti. With only a couple of pensive passages for the oboe in the following scherzoesque "Autumn (The Abduction of Persephone)," it becomes subservient to a menacing snare drum and its fellow winds.

But it once again dominates the concluding "Winter (Persephone's Soliloquy)" and "Spring (Persephone's Dances Joyously)." The soloist delivers a winsome sinuous extended song to a hiemal orchestral accompaniment in the former, and a challenging cadenza in the latter, which ends the piece recalling Persephone's initial dance.

The final concerto billed as "Eurydice ... A Tone Poem for Cello and Orchestra" (1995) is in four movements like its predecessor, but based on the Orpheus legend and the most progressive piece here. The initial "Orpheus weeps" opens with pounding drums of grief, and a sustained orchestral chord over which the cello intones a lament. A mournful, overwhelming timpani-accented exchange between soloist and tutti fills out the movement ending it in an anguished cadenza over a drumroll pedal point.

The next "Orpheus's resolve" opens with a heady theme for the cello followed by another thunderous orchestral outburst. A frenetic virtuosic exchange between soloist and tutti ensues with a couple of introspective moments before the movement ends indecisively.

The following "Orpheus and Eurydice" begins as a love duet in which the cello and winds, particularly the oboe (shades of Persephone... above), presumably represent the respective lovers. But Lee hints at the fate awaiting them, concluding the movement with an anguished cello cadenza and another tragic eruption from the orchestra. The final "Orpheus's apotheosis" ends this concerto-tone-poem with a dirge for cello and a dissonant tutti shriek of agony.

Pianist Robert Levin (see above) will be known to most but not the other soloists, flautist Sarah Brady, harpist Ina Zdorovetchi, violinist Irina Muresanu, oboist Jennifer Slowik and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer. All six are superb, delivering performances that are not only technically perfect proving each a virtuoso in their own right, but totally committed. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under their founder and conductor Gil Rose provide them with ideal support making them shine all the brighter.

The recordings were done at the identical locations and around the same time as those on the Moravec disc discussed next. Accordingly please see that recommendation for comments regarding the sound.

The album pictured above and to the right expands BMOP/sound's coverage of contemporary American concertos with music by Paul Moravec. Like Lee he has an equally distinguished academic background that also includes a degree from Harvard, and has garnered numerous prestigious awards, one being a 2004 "Pulitzer Prize" for his Tempest Fantasy (2002, see 7 April 2007). He is currently a professor at Adelphi University in New York.

This disc gives us two more concertos along with a couple of symphonic impressions, and begins with one of the latter entitled Northern Lights Electric [track-1]. Originally an octet dating from 1992, Moravec would orchestrate it in 2000, giving us the version here. Inspired by an impressive display of the aurora borealis seen during a nighttime stroll, where the only sound was the hum of a nearby streetlight, the composer says it perhaps suggests a combination of the ethereal and earthly.

It opens with pianissimo rising passages that suddenly burst into the musical equivalent of those colorful dancing sheets of light that make this natural phenomenon so breathtaking. The orchestral texture ebbs and flows with the tempo accelerating into a lovely melodic episode followed by a brief pause.

Then this sonic light show really takes off [06:01] as the music turns chromatically kinetic, only to become momentarily chorale-like implying wonderment at what's just been seen by the ear [09:44-11:05]. But more is to come as the preceding colorific frenzy resumes [11:06], ending the piece in a state of bedazzlement.

The concerto that's next is a follow-on to the Tempest Fantasy mentioned above, and like that, it was written for clarinetist David Krakauer, who's our soloist. Dating from 2008 and in three movements, it's scored for an orchestra of just strings to insure soloist and tutti stand out from one another as much as possible.

The initial "Lively" [track-2] begins in the barnyard with the some pecking pizzicato strings. The clarinet soon enters playing a cheeky theme with virtuosic excursions that range far and wide over a rhythmically catchy, attractively tuneful accompaniment. There's an innocence and lightness of touch somewhat reminiscent of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony (No. 1, 1916-7).

The movement quits unceremoniously, and we get "Expressive, melancholic" [track-3] that's much as advertised. It opens with a laid-back wailing clarinet and weeping strings. The music then becomes excited and anxiety-ridden, only to fall back into another funk, ending the movement despairingly.

The final "Slow; Quick" [track-4] begins with soloist and tutti reassessing their past grief, and casting it aside in favor of a carefree romp. With frequent virtuosic shrieks of joy from the clarinet, the concerto concludes in the same spirit it began.

A symphonic impression that's meant to be an excursion through Venice comes next [track-5]. Scored for strings, two oboes and a couple of horns, it's titled Sempre Diritto! (1992), which is Italian for "straight ahead," and apparently the cheery hackneyed response one often gets when asking directions in Italy.

It opens with a subdued searching theme where it's easy to imagine a tourist who's lost his way on one of those circuitous Venetian streets. Using some mind-numbing Minimalistic repetition, the composer creates a musical image of our visitor's growing frustration with his surroundings. But in the end he finds his way, and this unusual travelogue ends with some joyous fiddling.

The disc is filled out with another concerto, this time for cello. Called Montserrat (2001), it pays homage to the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1976), and the mountain monastery by that name north of Barcelona where he spent many of his younger days. In one movement lasting a little over twenty minutes [track-6], it falls into five contiguous sections. The first opens with a three-note rising motif (TR) on the cello set to a reverential accompaniment with hints of church bells. A rapturous elaboration of TR follows where the music waxes and wanes dramatically in a series of romantic groundswells.

After a brief pause, we get a second section [05:41] with a short wistful introduction followed by a bubbly episode [06:24]. Here the soloist gets a chance to strut his stuff in front of a cheering tutti. The music then slows segueing into a third captivating hymnlike offering (CH) [09:41], which brings a sense of peace to the listener. Somewhat resembling Vaughan Williams' (1872-1958) rhapsodic creations, it achieves celestial heights in the cello's extreme upper registers. However, heavenly bliss suddenly turns to earthly bustle in the next part [13:48], which is a dramatic virtuosic tour de force for soloist and orchestra.

The music then falls away to a pianissimo sustained note for cello and violins that prefaces the final section [18:06]. This is a serene nostalgic epilogue in much the same mood as CH but riddled with cyclic recollections of TR [18:10, 18:42, etc.]. The concerto closes with one last reference to TR on the cello, bringing this exceptional contemporary concerto full circle.

Clarinetist David Krakauer (see above) and cellist Matt Haimovitz are outstanding in the concertos, playing them with technical precision and boundless enthusiasm. As was the case with the Lee release above, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under their founder and conductor Gil Rose couldn't be more supportive, and deliver spirited renditions of the two impressions.

The recordings on these albums were made between 2007 and 2010 in Jordan Hall, Boston and Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, which along with Symphony Hall, Boston are among the finest venues in the United States. The sound is amazingly consistent, and there's no sign of an audience.

The soundstages are impressively large, but remain well-focused in pleasingly reverberant acoustics, which enrich the music all the more. The balance between the various soloists and orchestra is generally good, but one could wish for a bit more highlighting of the piano in Mozartiana to better show off Dr. Levin's immaculate playing.

The orchestral timbre is musical with glassy highs, and an extremely clean low end. As for the solo instruments, the piano sounds a little veiled and occasionally grainy, but the others are well captured.