Now Your Colors Sing, a generous new double album of the music of Swarthmore-based composer Gerald Levinson, is presented not chronologically, but rather in a way that gives the program an interesting flow of texture and dramatic impact, in the manner of a giant suite.
Gamelans and orioles
The opener, Avatar, is a large-scale orchestral piece featuring an element that pervades much of Levinson’s oeuvre: the use of gamelan-like effects, heard mainly in the percussion section. Gamelan ensembles, notably those coming from Bali (where Levinson has spent several years studying the art form) have influenced Western composers ever since Debussy. A beautifully textured and colorful work, Avatar exudes a sense of solemnity.
At the Still Point of the Turning World is for a much smaller ensemble and half again as long as Avatar, running more than 21 minutes in this performance. The dance here is mystical, even fleeting, as the pulse bounces around with colorful blends of the instrumental timbres, beautifully expressed by the superb Network for New Music Ensemble, led by fellow composer Jan Krzywicki.
The brightly hued Now Your Colors Sing was written as a tribute to one of Levinson’s teachers, Olivier Messiaen, and his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, and incorporates birdsong, a vital element in Messiaen’s work. In particular, we hear the song of the golden oriole (in French, loriot), a play on Loriod’s name.
Bali, Mahler, and Barone
The big work of the collection is Levinson’s Symphony No. 1, Anāhata, completed in 1986. There are multiple cultural and aesthetic effects here, melded into an impressive cohesion. The influence of Bali, including gamelan, is vividly present in the delicate use of a large percussion battery. Whole-tone intervals in the melodic patterns enhance the Asian feel of the piece. But there is also a lushness in the string and wind writing that evokes Mahler, particularly in the grandly paced decrescendo of the coda. As annotator Paul Griffiths explains, “the title is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘unstruck,’ which connotes what is immanent in the universe but not yet perceived by human beings—except through meditation and, indeed, music.”
The pianist Marcantonio Barone, who plays Mozart as elegantly as he does the music of our time, performs on four of the selections here, including a haunting tribute to Messiaen, Chorale for Nanine, with Birds, that seems to take its cue from the French composer’s masterpiece for solo piano, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus. There is also a concise tribute to Bartók. In Ringing Changes, a fascinating work for two pianos (Barone is joined by another wonderful artist, Charles Abramovic), Levinson neatly tosses bright bundles of notes back and forth between the musicians, as in a game of catch. There is also the delightful Crickets, for piano and string quartet, which may be the most purely “pretty” work on the whole program.
The heart and the dark
With the solo organ music of Au Coeur de l’Infini we are back in the world of Messiaen, with a performance from one of his great exponents, Olivier Latry, and played on an instrument Messiaen knew well, the great organ of Notre Dame (the piece was written to commemorate the 850th anniversary of the cathedral). This is music that boldly harnesses the immense potential power of a great organ, as it alternately roars and radiates an otherworldly spirituality.
In dark, the final work on this collection, also happens to be the earliest work, completed in 1972 as a 20-year-old Levinson was finishing his studies with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. The composer admits to the influence of the teacher in this brief song cycle (heard mainly in the instrumental textures), but his own voice emerges clearly (and distinct from that of Crumb) in the beautiful, fluid lyricism, graciously conveyed by soprano Carmen Pelton. The music sets the poetry of Robert Lax and that of his (then) future wife, Nanine Valen. It is a lovely way to conclude a mighty assemblage of music of our time.
What, When, Where
Now Your Colors Sing. By Gerald Levinson. Innova: May 22, 2020. Get it here.