Classical CD Reviews

THOMAS OBOE LEE: Six Concertos – Sarah Brady, flute /Ina Zdorovetchi, harp /Irina Muresanu, v. /Robert Levin, p. /Jennifer Stowik, oboe /Rafael Popper-Keizer, c. /Boston Modern Orch. Project / Gil Rose – BMOP/sound (2 CDs)

Eclectic music by a composer whose roots and here and there. And there.

Published on October 4, 2013

THOMAS OBOE LEE: Six Concertos – Sarah Brady, flute /Ina Zdorovetchi, harp /Irina Muresanu, v. /Robert Levin, p. /Jennifer Stowik, oboe /Rafael Popper-Keizer, c. /Boston Modern Orch. Project / Gil Rose – BMOP/sound (2 CDs)

THOMAS OBOE LEE: Six Concertos = Flauta Carioca…; bisbigliando …; Violin Concerto; Piano Concerto…Mozartiana; Persephone and the Four Seasons; Eurydice… A Tone Poem for Cello and Orchestra – Sarah Brady, flute /Ina Zdorovetchi, harp /Irina Muresanu, violin /Robert Levin, piano /Jennifer Stowik, oboe /Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello /Boston Modern Orch. Project / Gil Rose – BMOP/sound 1020 (2 CDs), 65:02, 69:54 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Chinese-American composer Thomas Oboe Lee (b. 1945) has had a peripatetic life, one that couldn’t help but add spice and local color to his music. What of that bossa nova beat in Flauta Carioca, Lee’s flute concerto? Turns out Lee comes by Brazilian musical influence honestly, his family having lived in São Paolo for seven years, after emigrating from Communist China by way of Hong Kong. Lee moved to the United States in 1966, studying composition at the New England Conservatory and Harvard University. Another thing that comes naturally to Lee is writing for the flute in an especially jazzy way. He established his musical credentials in Brazil as a jazz flutist playing with topflight groups.

Lee is prolific: his opus numbers run to over 150, and he’s written no fewer than eight symphonies and six concerti in addition to the six featured on this BMOP/sound CD. All of them are influenced by jazz—that’s a constant—but otherwise, Lee writes music that seems especially framed to the character of the solo instrument involved. One of my favorite movements is the lightly dancing finale of Lee’s harp concerto, intriguingly titled … bisbigliando …. (And by the way, I’m not sure why he seems to be addicted to titles with ellipses in them; ellipses indicate something left out, so what’s missing?) Here, the harpist gets to showcase the capabilities of the instrument, from quick bouncing arpeggios to strumming in the manner of a guitar, to swirling glissandi, while the orchestra cleverly echoes the harp’s frequent pizzicatos with pizzicato sounds not only from the strings but in the curt passages played by brass, winds, and percussion. By the bye, appropriately enough bisbigliadno is a musical notation meaning “Very light and murmuring.”

In contrast, the simply named Violin Concerto begins in a slow, dreamily Romantic vein with a hint of dark melodrama about it that reminds me of the more serious passages in the first movement of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto. The middle section of the opening movement (noted as Part I) is a click-clacking perpetuum mobile. Again, I’m reminded of Prokofiev though I’m sure there’s little if any direct influence; it’s just that both composers have a way of quickly shifting gears, from quasi-Romantic tenderness to the coolly frenetic. The work ends with another bright musical whirlwind—so much so that it almost gets away from soloist Irina Muresanu toward the end.

Also in two movements is the Piano Concerto… Mozartiana written for Robert Levin, a neighbor of Lee’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Levin is the best-known performer represented here; his series of Mozart piano concerti, played on the fortepiano and accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, was perhaps the first important recording of the concertos on period-authentic instruments. About his concerto, Lee writes, “Bob is a Mozartian scholar and is renowned for his cadenzas in concertos by Mozart and Beethoven. I did some research in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe and found some Mozart fragments that I kidnapped for themes in my concerto, Mozartiana. As a tribute to Bob’s improvisatory skills, I gave him a blank measure toward the end of the work where he could extemporize to his heart’s content.”

So just how Mozartian is Mozartiana? Not very, though there are some obvious homages to Mozart, as well as references to his style. The piece starts off sounding like a Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 wannabe, but it quickly segues into Thomas Oboe Lee territory: a tune ripe with quasi-Romantic longing and repetitious figurations in the piano, until the music builds to a big, declamatory section followed by a hushed passage in which the piano is accompanied by quiet taps on the timpani. After that, the piece takes off in a lively, almost boogying Allegro. I have to say this is by no means my favorite among the concertos, but it has all the earmarks of Lee’s pop-inflected but quite serious classical style.

Along with the four purely abstract concertos considered above, we have two that are frankly programmatic. Persephone and the Four Seasons takes us through the seasons of the year while retelling the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, god of the Underworld. You remember the myth: Broken up about the loss of her daughter Persephone, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, refused to let anything grow on earth. Zeus (Persephone’s absentee father) brokered a deal whereby Persephone could return to the earth for three seasons of the year. During winter, however, when Persephone was forced to return to Hades, Demeter refused to let anything grow on earth. In Lee’s piece we have dancing music for summer and spring, sad music for winter (“Persephone’s Soliloquy”), while Persephone’s abduction is associated with autumn (the militant second movement, with prominent parts for snare drum and muted trumpets). The oboe, capable of both brilliance and plaintiveness, is a believable stand-in for the figure of Persephone. Then again, I’m not sure the jazzy accents of Persephone’s soliloquy are entirely the right ones for a winterscape. It’s not a very bleak winter, anyway.

The Orpheus myth informs Lee’s cello concerto Eurydice. I suppose that Orpheus, the famed singer and player of the lyre, could have been represented by a plucked rather than bowed instrument, but the cello tells the tale of the loss of Orpheus’s wife Eurydice—again to that old tyrant Hades—movingly and well. Lee’s recounting of the Orpheus story is altogether more dramatic and, I think, more memorable. This is one of my favorite works on the program, along with the harp and violin concertos. It receives a fine, emotionally satisfying performance from Rafael Popper-Keizer.

This is not to single out the cellist’s contribution especially—all the works are well done by the artists for whom they were written. But like me, you’ll probably gravitate to some concertos more than others and will find the performances of them the most satisfying. But taste being what it is, I leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide where your fancy lies. There’s much excellent music-making here, under the very capable direction of Gil Rose, and the recording, while a bit close-up, is warm and invitingly detailed, a fine job by the engineers working in two different but equally reliable venues.

—Lee Passarella




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