In the introduction to his Albany Records CD Passing Through: groove-oriented music, vol. 3, composer Gernot Wolfgang states, “Ever since I became interested in contemporary classical music, the prospect of integrating grooves from musical styles such as jazz, rock & roll, pop, world music and electronica into my concert works has intrigues me.” The five works on Passing Through are substantial, provocative, entertaining examples of the now and future of chamber music, and the album as a whole is well deserving of its 2017 Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Compendium” not only for its intense and skilled performances but for the intriguing program.
Austrian-born but now residing in Los Angeles, Wolfgang is active in film music orchestration, composing chamber music and orchestral works, lecturing, and serving as guitarist for the Austrian jazz ensemble “The QuARTet.” His music has been performed and recorded extensively in the USA and Europe by several prominent artists and orchestras.
The opening composition, the jazzy and compact Flurry (2011), is sparklingly-performed in a version for bassoon (Judith Farmer) and piano (Nic Gerpe). Tightly unfolding in a fast-slow-fast form with a brief, swirling cadenza for bassoon and a rock/jazz groove on the piano thrown in, the aptly-named Flurry packs a lot of material in its brief, propulsive three minutes.
With its intimate and tight ensemble, perfectly balanced textures plus a seemingly endless expressive palate, few composers have been able to resist the temptation to write for the traditional string quartet. String Theory for String Quartet (2013) is inspired by and named after the complex physical theory describing the basic substance and organization of the universe. At around 16 minutes, this energetic yet frequently lyrical work is an important and accessible addition to the vast string quartet repertoire. The first movement is an affectionate homage to the quartets of Béla Bartók. As with those remarkable works, this is skittish, dark, and propulsive music with the hint of exotic folk dance, quarter tones, and melismatic melodies. The lively second movement, “Cartwheels,” a pizzicato scherzo evoking cartwheeling people, contrasts with the third movement’s coldly brilliant meditation on the “Northern Lights.” A brief coda-like finale “Nashville,” named for the composer’s enthusiasm for the TV program, brings String Theory to a close. The New Hollywood String Quartet (Tereza Stanislav and Rafael Rishik, Robert Brophy, and Andrew Shulman) negotiate String Theory‘s rapidly changing moods, tempi, and textures with ease. The bright sonics capture every nuance of the ensemble from almost imperceptible microtones through the clear, tight pizzicati and on to the rich, deep chordal passages.
Bassoonist Judith Farmer returns and is joined by oboist Jennifer Johnson for Passing Through, a bouncy, even a bit cheeky three movement divertimento. Highlighting the short work is the slow, threadbare middle movement “Evening Song.” Plaintive birds, slowly passing clouds, and setting suns all make an appearance in this satisfying 3-minute tone poem. The final movement, “Flea,” as jumpy and unpredictable as the annoying little bug, is a quirky little romp that concludes with some spry humor with dots of lyricism. Farmer and Johnson are outstanding masters of their instruments, remarkable for the many colors and moods derived from the limited resources of the two similar instruments.
New England Travelogue (2008) is a four-movement suite for piano quintet, performed by the Eclipse Quartet (Sarah Thornblade, Sara Parkins, Alma Lisa Fernandez, and Maggie Parkins) with Joanne Pearce Martin (piano). Each of the movements find their moods and rhythms in the worlds of jazz and pop with a touch of Impressionist tone painting. “Vineyard Reggae,” inspired by a busy evening on Martha’s Vineyard, introduces an intoxicating, repetitive bass figure (trust me, it will stick with you) over which the composer floats the sights and sounds of the “tourists in a vacation mood.” The parties end, and Martha’s Vineyard is all misty and silent… or is it? Impressive and expressive performances from the whole ensemble contribute impressively to this complex little piece. “Vermont Magic” is a wistful reminiscence of a Christmas-time drive in the snowy, dark forests of Vermont. Individual string solos express their wonder at the landscape and then move on, leaving the snowy vista behind in this frosty, awe inspiring tone poem. “Inman Square” is a short jazzy interlude leading to the glassy and threadbare “Mount Desert Island,” which evokes the quiet majesty and smooth waters of the many inland lakes on the island. New England Travelogue is a most impressive and stunningly performed work that would not be out of place in any piano quintet program.
The jazz infused Trilogy (1999) for oboe, bassoon and piano (Robert Thies on the piano this time) is earliest composition on the program. The composer writes that the “piece reflects my equal love of contemporary concert music and jazz.” And true to this statement, the sound is jazz but the structure–a three movement fast-slow-fast suite–is straight from the concert hall. Especially moving is the bluesy, languid middle piece “Another Life.” The final piece, “Looking East,” takes on the sounds and colors of Eastern European music. Trilogy‘s movements combine for a “groovy” way to end the program.
The expected excellent sonics from Albany Records provides a clear and wide canvas for the varied styles and colors from the palate at the composer’s disposal. This is one that will stay on my must hear list. And yes, I still have “Vineyard Reggae’s” bass figure in my ear.