Lewis Spratlan; Andrew Rudin; Jeremy Gill

Three CDs with Philadelphia connections

Three recent CDs highlight the Philadelphia music scene.

Venus (Hesperus/Phosphorus) reflected in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Brocken Inaglory via Creative Comons/Wikimedia)

Hesperus Is Phosphorus by Lewis Spratlan. The Crossing (conducted by Donald Nally) and Network for New Music. Innova

This work for small ensemble, chorus, and vocal soloists from 2012, a joint commission of the Crossing and Network for New Music — two invaluable Philadelphia presenters of music by composers of our time — is a grand, swirling composition of multiple inspirations. It is, first of all, a work of spiritual and philosophical introspection, but not necessarily a religious work, at least in the traditional sense, as the words offer more questions than answers. Appropriately, it is constructed as a cantata, though much larger and longer than any by Bach, the standard-bearer for the idiom.

One of the most compelling features of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan’s work is the clever assemblage of writings for the text. The structure is bookended by excerpts from the fascinating book Sum by neuroscientist David Eagleman and is filled in with poetry and prose from Wallace Shawn, A. R. Ammons, and Adrienne Rich, as well as brief Latin snippets of biblical origin.

The music is also diverse, including serenely soaring choruses, spacey polychromatic material in the manner of Ligeti (which the Crossing delivers with exquisite accuracy), a couple of bluesy numbers, a Mahler quote, but also some rather prosaic singsong word-by-word readings of the texts. I was in the audience for this live recording and recall feeling at the time that, although the overall effect of the music was exhilarating, the architecture of the score seemed unwieldy. But in the comfort of one’s own home, this is a rich and even inspirational listening experience.

Three String Sonatas by Andrew Rudin. Centaur

Andrew Rudin writes in a self-described theatrical manner, especially apt for chamber music, in which the individual instrumental voices can take on individual characteristics. Thus, in the Sonata for Violoncello and Piano, the music opens with a menacing growl, but in the course of the music, our actor reveals himself (this cello has a decidedly masculine profile) as thoughtful and, especially in the lovely slow movement that ends the piece, heartfelt. Rudin’s contrasting of long, lyrical cello lines with repeated, evenly spaced notes on the piano is reminiscent of the sublime slow movements of Messiaen’s epic Quartet for the End of Time.

The music for viola and piano was conceived as an homage to Rudin’s main teacher at Penn, the late George Rochberg, who famously changed his musical language from strict serialism to a more eclectic style, including lush tonality. Rudin, however, draws his inspiration from an early serial composition, the Symphony No. 2. And as is the case with his teacher’s music, Rudin manages to build a rigorous structure that can be both expressive and even beautiful despite a forbidding external face. This is the music of a precise, artistically economical spirit.

The music for violin and piano is in one movement, but it contains great textural and dramatic variety within that envelope. This 2001 composition is the darkest and most somber of the three pieces here, but, in a last gasp, manages to conclude in a deliberate, soft, yet positive voice, a striking effect indeed.

Rudin has a knack for recruiting top-notch musicians to play his new works, as evidenced by these uniformly superb performances.

Capriccio, by Jeremy Gill. Parker Quartet. Innova   

Jeremy Gill, like most serious composers, has a deep appreciation for the history of music. And like most creative people, he is a romantic, but not, in his case, with a capital R. He seems to be especially inspired by the music of the baroque, and even earlier; there is, in some of his previous chamber music, a sense of reaching back to prehistoric sounds, to the very essence of music as a core element of humanity.

This 2012 work for string quartet has some of those ambitions, but Gill casts an even wider net in an attempt to construct a treatise on the art of the string quartet, one of the most venerable and structurally pure of all musical formats. This is a big work, consisting of 27 movements divided into two sections. The construction, and some of the individual pieces, mirror baroque practices (one can imagine a sort of theme and variation pattern), and at times Gill goes beyond mere allusion and quotes original music, including, emblematically, the mighty Bach.

The overall stylistic profile of Capriccio is intensely eclectic. Some of the movements, if standing alone, sound pedantic, as if to demonstrate specific technical parameters (as per the composer). Capriccio, however, is the sum of its parts, and although many of the movements are lovely in their own right, the greatest impact is registered globally. I have listened to Capriccio in its entirety three times as of this writing, and it grew in effect with each repetition.

It is certainly a challenging work, but I have never known Jeremy Gill as a composer to let his listeners off easily. The imaginative and intellectually curious music lover will be amply rewarded for deeper listening.

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