American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

David Toub’s Ataraxia, a unique compositional vision


ataraxia

World Edition 0029

David Toub is a composer whose name is known to perhaps relatively few right now but whose star is clearly rising.  Born on the east coast he studied at Mannes College and at Julliard with Bruce Adolphe and others but his musical education reached maturity when he was studying at the University of Chicago and running the contemporary music programming at the college radio station.  While he had written some twelve tone and freely atonal music it was his encounter with a 1979 WKCR broadcast of Einstein on the Beach that changed his compositional vision.  The musics of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and protominimalist Morton Feldman would henceforth infuse his style.

drtoub

David Toub

He is also what I have termed a composer with a day job.  Like Charles Ives (who sold insurance) and Alexander Borodin (who was a chemist, physician and surgeon) he makes his livelihood in the decidedly non-musical world of gynecologic surgery.  Another analog for people like David would have to be William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician whose place in American letters is assured by his poetry and novels.

I personally discovered David’s music via his website where one can find a great deal of his scores and (very helpful) sound files of many of his works.  It is definitely worth your time to browse these scores and sounds if only to get an idea of the scope of the composer’s visions.  By his own admission his music resembles that of Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Morton Feldman but perhaps it is more accurate to say that one may be reminded of these composers since his music is anything but derivative.

Some of his music has been championed by the fabulous Monacan pianist Nicolas Horvath whose You Tube Channel is a feast for new music aficionados.  In fact Horvath’s reading of “for four” (2012) can be heard and seen there.  David also has a You Tube Channel with some live performances that are well worth your time.

Many of David’s scores do fit the more conventional (ca. 20 min) time frame of most concert music but some of his most interesting scores lean toward the extended time frames common to Morton Feldman’s late work (in the liner notes he refers to a recent piano piece which lasts four hours).  These require a bit more concentration and multiple hearings to be able to perceive the compositional unity but, having done that, I can tell you that my time was well spent.

ginsburgh-de-face

Stephane Ginsburgh (from the pianist’s web page)

Stephane Ginsburgh is a Belgian new music pianist whose repertoire traverses some of the work of Morton Feldman as well as Frederic Rzewski and others.  He, along with Alessandra Celetti and Louis Goldstein were the dedicatees of the “quartet for piano”.   Having been already familiar with Toub’s work I was pleased to find that Mr. Ginsburg’s interpretive skills both do justice and provide insight to these scores which on paper (or in a PDF file) are difficult to grasp.  In fact these performances are mesmerizing.

“quartet for piano” (2010) comes in at 46:48 and the second track “for four” (2012) comes in at 22:58 but the timings are ultimately superfluous once the listener allows themselves to be taken by the collaborative adventure of this composer and performer.  I don’t think I can do justice speaking of the structure of this music except to say that, in this listener, it was like listening to the slow ringing changes of Zen Temple bells in a distant dream.  I have had the opportunity to play this CD without distraction a few times and each time found it transporting with the music taking on almost symphonic dimensions despite it’s outward simplicity.

This is a crowd funded effort in which I was a willing participant.  The lovely graphic design is by faberludens utilizing detail from a mysterious photograph by Richard Friedman (long time host of Music from Other Minds) and provides an apt visual metaphor for the music therein.  The conversation between the composer and Udo Moll dominate the liner notes and provide very useful insights to the origins and intents behind the composer’s work.

The sonorous piano is a Bösendorfer 225 and the recording was done by Daniel Léon with mastering by Reinhard Kobialka.  CD production curated by Udo Moll on Maria de Alvear’s World Edition label.  Soon to be available on iTunes and Amazon.

The other supporters named include: Maria de Alvear, Sergio Cervetti, Carson Cooman, Chris Creighton, Kathie Elliott, Paul Epstein, Sue Fischer, Alex Freeman, Richard Friedman, Stephane Ginsburgh, Louie Goldstein, Matthew Greenbaum, Hazem Hallak, Barnabas Helmajer, Christian Hertzog, Robert Kass, Harry Kwan, Steve Layton, Connie Lindenbaum, Richard Malkin, Shadi Mallak, Leah Mayes, Kirk McElhearn, Juhani Nuorvala, Rebecca Pechefsky, Lou Poulain, John Prokop, Simon Rackham, David Reppert, Larry Roche, Larry Rocke, Dave Seidel, Kel Smith, Beth Sussman, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Samuel Vriezen, and Ann Wheeler.  The composer also includes his family, Debbie Bernstein, Arielle Toub and Isaac Toub for their emotional support and (in his typical self-effacing humor) “tolerance” of what he calls his “odd compositional habit”.  As habits go this one appears to be a winner.