Saturday, August 10, 2013

Among The Torrid Vines

I have long rhapsodized over the Sunday morning chamber music concerts at Tanglewood, in Lenox, MA. Performed brilliantly by students in gorgeous Ozawa Hall, the concerts are like expertly sequenced mixtapes of music from the Baroque era to right now. Often featuring world or American premieres, the concerts are a great place to bring an open mind. Sometimes they can lead to frustration, however, as it can be hard to track down a new work due to the vagaries of the music business.

In July 2010, I heard a fascinating work by Australian composer Nicholas Vines called Economy Of Wax, which has just now been released - although it was recorded in January 2012. The other two works were recorded in 2008 and 2010, which makes one wonder what they were waiting for. But here we finally have it, an album of Nicholas Vines's music called Torrid Nature Scenes.

Now for those of you who see Schoenberg's forbidding and humorless face when you hear the words "contemporary classical," relax. Vines is anything but humorless. After all, the first piece on the disc, The Butcher Of Brisbane, is based on a series of Dr. Who episodes from the 70's - although liking or knowing anything about that show is not a prerequisite for enjoying the music. Described as a "Carnival for solo saxophone(s) and chamber ensemble," The Butcher Of Brisbane shows its hilarious, if unsettling, hand early on, in the Prologue. After an angular and combative start by the sax and ensemble, the horn lets loose four loud foghorn blows that are startling and raucously funny. Those bleats return throughout the work, serving as a reset button and a reminder of who's boss.

All is not spiky sturm und drang, though. The fourth movement is questing and spare, with some sinuous lines from the sax, and the Epilogue starts off clangorously but tails off with gentle flute trills and single notes from the horn. Overall, the 22 minute piece is a fast moving delight with enough twists and turns to keep a listener on their toes.

Economy Of Wax, the short centerpiece of the album, is from a series of works commissioned from eight Australian composers to commemorate Darwin's 200th birthday. The title refers to Darwin's studies of hive construction by bees and his conclusion (as paraphrased in the liner notes by Andrew Robbie), that while "...bees know nothing of the geometric principles that guide their economy of wax, they nontheless behave in ways that contribute to it faithfully." Vines, inspired both by Darwin's scientific methods and the bees own systematic activities, prepared a set of scales and motifs from which to assemble the composition. Scored for soprano (the majestic Adrienne Pardee), flute/piccolo, viola and harp, the piece completely avoids any cliched buzzing sounds and instead stays in constant motion to represent the movements of the insects as they build their warehouse of honey.

There are melodies that appropriately recall the Rite Of Spring, and the use of coloratura in the soprano line cannot help but lead one to think of Mozart's Queen Of The Night from the Magic Flute - also appropriate when you consider who rules the hive. It's a blazing little piece, a remarkable coming together of the worlds of science and music, and the lives of humans and apians. Here's hoping The Origin Cycle gets a full New York City premiere one of these days.

The final and longest piece on the album is Torrid Nature Scene, a "Romp in Seven Parts for soprano, mezzo soprano, and chamber ensemble." Vines himself describes it as "a squelchy, romping obscenity" - don't you just love this guy? - based on the "lewd and crude" poetry of the aforementioned Andrew Robbie. The text is certainly purple, loaded with obscure words and elaborate descriptions of animal activity, about as far from Darwin's rational, precise prose as possible. The third movement describes a firefly's feeding thusly: "Soon aroused, his arcs of gold encrust a monkshood, whose perfumes unfold a Hecatine entreaty; he obeys, alights, and fueled with fervent ardor splays the lacquered surplice." So THAT'S what's going on outside on a hot summer night!

The dynamics of the different movements and the interaction between the two singers gives Torrid Nature Scene a distinct theatrical flavor. This is obviously an area of interest for Vines, and one at which he excels. His lively imagination, mastery of scoring for a variety of instruments, and structural gravitas all make him well suited to telling stories through music. Based on what I've heard so far, I'm very interested to hear his (also bee-inspired) 2004 opera, The Hive, not to mention whatever he come up with next. His website lists no fewer than three new recordings coming out sometime in 2013, so it seems like we can look forward to an overgrowth of Vines.

Whether Darwin himself would have predicted the death of the CD due to evolutionary pressures is debatable. However, he certainly would not have thought anyone would release an enhanced CD in 2013 - but that is exactly what we have here. The note on the Navona Records release states: "Place this product in your computer to access study scores, extended liner notes, videos, and more." It feels somewhat archaic to double-click the Flash logo and see the slightly rudimentary "website on a disc" that appears. However, the liner notes are certainly a deeper dive than the CD booklet has space for and students and composers might enjoy poring over the score while listening, so in this case the physical product gives good value for money. Mention should also be made of Stephen Drury's expert conducting throughout, which keeps the energy up, while also keeping the thicket of Vines's music from getting too tangled.

Economy of Wax by Nicholas Vines from Nicholas Vines on Vimeo.


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