Saturday, August 08, 2015

A Pair From Plum

“Through the ear, we shall enter the invisibility of things.” - Edmond Jabes (French-Jewish Poet, 1912-1991)

Sarah Plum's new CD, Music For A New Century, which features two world premiere recordings, has actually been in the works for four years. It was in 2011 that she gave the first performance of Sidney Corbett's Yael for violin and orchestra. She had just released Absconditus, an album devoted to Corbett's work and knew that this new piece should be recorded as well. But paired with what? When the perfect choice failed to present itself, she took matters into her own hands and commissioned a new concerto from Christopher Adler, another young composer whose music she had championed.

Plum is a fine example of the activist performer, having commissioned nearly a dozen compositions in the last three years alone. Talk about being the change you wish to see - or in this case hear - in the world! Her hope, of course, is that the life of Corbett and Adler's music will not end here, but that others will take it up and make it part of the modern repertory. For that to happen the music must be of sufficient quality and her playing must be very convincing. Is that the case? Read on...

The first piece on Music For A New Century is Corbett's Yael, a work in four movements that takes inspiration from the writings of Edmond Jabes, specifically his work about Yael, a fairly obscure biblical figure known for killing an enemy general by hammering a tent peg through his temple. Corbett describes the music as a depiction of Yael wandering the "ruins of Judaic culture," but I'm not sure if that is before or after those dramatic events.

But you don't have to know any of that to feel the questing nature of the violin writing, and the tension in the melodies. Unlike the sometimes oppositional nature of the traditional concerto, the orchestra is often there to support what the violin is going through. Like a Greek chorus, the other instruments amplify the violin's oratory and provide commentary and illumination. Kudos to the Chamber Music Midwest Festival Orchestra and conductor Akira Mori for their sympathetic playing.

The first movement, Breath, has Plum tentatively emerging from the darkness, a melancholy wisp looking for signs of life. Winds and other strings gradually emerge, almost appearing the breathe alongside the violin. Pizzicato sounds delicately encircle the violin, providing a little sparkle but there is little respite from the almost exhausted sound world. An image of people waking from a drugged slumber with no idea of where they are or how they got there comes to mind, as the other instruments poke and prod with their questions.

The movement ends with gathering strength and then we're into The Dark, angular, fragmented, trying to marshall forces. For brief moments, the instruments take up a martial tone, driving forward, relentless but unsure. The triangle is a marvelous touch here. Dance rhythms are hinted at, the horns bleat, and then...steel drums! A most unusual, original touch, which works wonderfully, the bright metallic sounds finding the spaces between the strings. This moment also showcases the excellent production, which is warm and involving while still transparent and well-defined. 

The violin is alone again, mostly, at the start of Shirayael, the third movement. Single notes talk back and forth, seeming to be too devastated to create whole phrases. Then comes crescendo, horns and percussion raising a whirlwind of sound. But it does't last. Yael, or Plum, is alone again at the start of the fourth movement, called Archipelago. More questions, maybe the same ones, end this distinctive, quietly intense piece. 

Christopher Adler's Violin Concerto is quite a different thing, kicking off with Shift (The Knife Grinder), spiky and full of stop-start rhythms and clattering percussion. The call and response between soloist and orchestra is a little more traditional and the movement ends with what feels like a cadenza. The second movement, Verelloe, quietly spooky with low sounds from the harp, stands in for the adagio that often forms the middle movement of three. So, classical architecture then, but the steel and glass sheath is purely modern. Adler's writing here is very beautiful, but also unsettling, and he develops his ideas impressively in this long movement.

Verelloe grows darker as it nears its end, fading out before the start of Tektonika, the final movement. There's lots of drama here, with a wide dynamic range and some violence to the rhythms, especially in a Stravinskian herky-jerky section in the middle. San Diego New Music and conductor Nicholas Deyoe handily dispatch anything the composer throws at them. Adler counts Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich as an influence and you can hear it in the angles and sharp contrasts. The end of the movement, and the concerto, is pensive and lyrical at the same time, with a worried ostinato working behind the violin line, which eventually ascends on its own, seeking a hopeful future from a new perspective. 

Both Corbett and Adler are accomplished composers and each piece feels very complete. This is not difficult music but it is challenging on an emotional level and well worth the journey it takes you on. Each artist draws on something with great personal meaning for them but puts it in a context that allows anyone to find their place in the sounds. Plum's playing is exemplary throughout, with a level of comfort that allows you to concentrate on the music fully. Based on her performances, both works deserve to be heard and played widely. However, until the next brave soul schedules a performance we have these excellent recordings to enjoy.

Plum - busy as ever - also just released volume one of her traversal of Bela Bartok's music for violin and piano. Christopher Lovelace is her partner here and on this well-programmed collection they play the Romanian Folk Dances, Rhapsodies 1 and 2, Sonata No. 2, and three Hungarian Folk Tunes. There's a lot of playfulness to Bartok's writing and Plum's approach is very lighthearted on the whole. While I prefer the gutsier attack of, say, Peter Nagy or Isabelle Faust in this repertoire, Plum's take is perfectly valuable and I look forward to hearing Volume 2. 

These releases continue to establish Sarah Plum as a valuable presence in the world of music, new music especially. It's great to hear her making her mark with these two releases and I just hope I can keep up with her in the future!

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