Stephen Jaffe: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Gregory Fulkerson, violin, Odense Symphony Orchestra, Donald Palma, conductor; and Jaffe: Chamber Concerto ("Singing Figures"): Stephen Taylor, oboe, Speculum Musicae, William Purvis, conductor. Bridge 9141 (57'17"), approx. $17. http://www.bridgerecords.com/
Four things in these works immediately strike the listener: 1) the tuneful, often soaring melodies; 2) the creative use of percussion, often involving untraditional instruments; 3) the way the solo instruments both stand out and are woven into the fabric of the whole; and 4) the composer's individual sonic world. Jaffe, a native of Washington, DC, and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is professor of composition at Duke University.
The 34.5-minute, 3-movement Violin Concerto had its world première in Greensboro, NC, in a pair of performances in March 2000, with Durham native Nicolas Kitchen as soloist and the Greensboro Symphony under the baton of Stuart Malina, for which forces the work was composed. This writer also had the privilege and pleasure of access to a recording as well as a review by CVNC writer John Lambert of that performance. Lambert noticed (and noted), as did I prior to reading his comments, the resemblance of this work's texture to Berlioz' Harold en Italie , one of my all-time favorite pieces. This is no showpiece for a flamboyant Romantic-tradition violinist, but the virtuosity required is no less for that. It is not a dialogue where one part of the forces is trying to argue with and stand out above the other, but rather one where they try to blend, meld, and agree, and its orchestration is extremely well crafted. Lambert also noted the inheritance of Stravinsky in the use of percussion that had also already caught my ear on my first of many listenings. And that is the key here: this music does not wear out after one or two hearings, and each additional one reveals something not noticed before. It is a truly rich work. In spite of the striking connection to Stravinsky, it is also most definitely original and most definitely American, both in its content and its choice of instruments. The percussion section consists of some 30 instruments, including some pretty exotic ones like Jamaican steel drums and the Chinese lujan. Jaffe often, but not always, uses evocative titles for the individual movements. The work's first is "Passage," referring to the melody line with which it opens as a violin solo. Think Berlioz's idée fixe here; it is picked up by the orchestra and recurs repeatedly throughout the movement as well as reappearing briefly elsewhere. The second is "Variations," but the composer tells us he initially wanted to complete that phrase with "on a song of ascent." He probably should have followed his instinct. The third movement is simply "Allegro vivo," but the music is no less intriguing and engrossing for its lack of an evocative title.
The 20.5-minute, 3-movement Chamber Concerto, originally commissioned by the St. Luke's Chamber Orchestra and première by it under the baton of the composer with Melanie Field as oboe soloist at New York's Guggenheim Museum in April 1996, makes a terrific partner for the Violin Concerto on the CD. Other instruments that have solo roles in this similarly structured tuneful piece are the piano, harpsichord, and celesta (shared by two musicians), the violin, the viola, and the cello, although that given to the oboe is considerably greater, including cadenzas at the end of each movement, thus justifying the identification of the oboist on the cover. Its movements are entitled: "Dance Prelude," "Water Music" (nothing to do with Handel, but from a poem by Robert Creeley), and Finale. The sound world here is perhaps a bit more exotic than in the former Violin Concerto, but there is nothing dissonant. This is music that pleases the ears, not music that sets them on edge.
These performances are truly fine and the sound quality is superb. The attractive booklet contains illuminating and interesting notes by the composer, an analytical tribute about Jaffe's music by Yehudi Wyner, composer and artist bios and photos, and acknowledgments and credits. It is in all these ways typical of Bridge productions. Washington Post writer Tim Page said of the première of Jaffe's latest work, the Cello Concerto, by the National Symphony under Leonard Slatkin with its principal cellist David Hardy as soloist in January 2004: "This is something of a rarity - a virtuoso piece with genuine intellectual aspirations, combining rapt lyricism with a sense of sonic adventure." I couldn't say it better, and it applies equally to these works and this CD. This is a wonderful addition to anyone's library of contemporary music. You should most definitely add it to yours. Every writer receives CDs to review that s/he ultimately decides to part with for reasons of space to store and time for re-listening. This will not happen to this recording. Perhaps its existence will encourage more well-deserved live performances of these pieces around the country?
Marvin J. Ward