DELIGHTS & DANCES
Mel-Ann Chen, cond; Harlem Qt;
CEDILLE 90000 141 (64:10)
Delights & Dances.
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra.
West Side Story Concerto
The idea of a disc of works for string quartet and orchestra is a pleasing one. There are precedents, as he booklet points out, from the likes of Martinů, Spohr, and Elgar; but it is good to have a smattering of works from more contemporary voices.
Michael Abels, trained at the University of Southern California, gives us the piece that in turn gives the disc its title,
Delights & Dances
. It is a delightful work that begins with a solo cello cadenza-like passage. All four instruments are given chances to shine in music that owes much to the blues. The final section is marked “bluegrassy.” The work is lightly and expertly scored, with its Finale presenting just the right amount of party-like abandon. The recording is bright but not brash and gives a nice feeling of space around the orchestra and soloists (the venue is the Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College, Naperville, Illinois).
The name of Benjamin Lees (1924–2010) is much more familiar. He, again, studied at the University of Southern California. The Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra dates from 1964. Like all of the works by Lees I have heard so far, it is the product of a questing imagination and expertly scored. It makes for enjoyable, but not necessarily lightweight, reading. There is some wonderfully spiky, Stravinskian writing in the first movement, given in the most spirited fashion by the members of the quartet. The central
is fascinating. Those soft timpani strokes that underlay the opening pages—are they the reassuring pulsing of a heart, or are they threatening? Such ambiguity destabilizes the music, giving it the perfect starting point for its explorations. The harmonic language sometimes seems to refer to French neoclassisism; sometimes it reveals an altogether more furrowed brow. The diatonic ending leads to an angular
finale, an exciting ride that enables the solo quartet to shine. And shine it does here. I refer the reader also to the disc of piano music played by Miriam Conti on Toccata Classics, reviewed by myself in
Chinese composer An-Lun Huang studied at the Beijing Central Conservatory but emigrated to Canada in 1980. His “Saibei Dance” is a lollipop for orchestra that would make a tremendous, invigorating encore. Finally, there is Randall Craig Fleischer’s
West Side Story Concerto.
Fleischer, known as a composer and an arranger, presents a glorious revisiting of Bernstein. Everyone concerned is having a ball, that much is clear, even if the rip-roaringly high trumpet part in the first movement lacks the complete abandon of the composer’s own late DG recording. There are a total of 11 movements (more properly, sections). There are two cadenzas for the quartet, the first one of which is over four minutes long and which actually contain some of the most interesting writing, unshackled from a more straightforward transcription of Bernstein’s original. The tenderness of “Tonight” is just as effective as the more outgoing passages. A lovely idea, and well realized.