Part of a Fine Body of Work by a Virtually Unknown Composer
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 06/13/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"James Yannatos arrived at Harvard in 1964 to take up what was supposed to be a temporary assignment as conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Symphony Orchestra. He's still laboring in that vineyard after more than forty years and during that time has coaxed, cajoled, led, inspired the orchestra to play as well as they are able -- a very high standard indeed. They have played hundreds of concerts, made a number of fine recordings and have added immeasurably to the cultural atmosphere of Cambridge. All the while, Yannatos was composing music, much of which the orchestra has now recorded -- several of his five symphonies, his moving Trinity Mass, his Piano Concerto -- and now we get live performances of his Symphony No. 1 (Sinfonia Brevis), his Violin Concerto, and his marvelous Concerto for Contrabass and Chamber Orchestra. The Harvard-Radcliffe SO perform the first two, the second is accompanied by a Boston new music group called Collage.
The violin concerto, played here by a recent Harvard graduate, and now a burgeoning concert violinist, Joseph Lin (not to be confused with Cho-Liang 'Jimmy' Lin), is a four movement work with two brief interludes between movements II-III and III-IV, all played without pause. It is neoclassic in spirit and is a sort of altered arch form, with first movement elements recurring in the finale. The interludes, miniature cadenzas or, better, recitatives for solo instruments, make use of material in earlier movements as well. The general thrust of the concerto is lyrical, making use of the violin's unsurpassed ability to sing. Lin's small tone is sweet and well-tuned. The orchestra, in this and the following Sinfonia Brevis, is excellent; where are all these good college groups coming from? One keeps hearing about the lack of musical education in the US but I keep hearing wonderful playing from college groups. Cream of the crop, I guess. At any rate, one would not guess from listening that this is a group of amateurs. OK, this is not the Chicago Symphony, but it's also better than many community orchestras across the country. My point is that one need not fear that the playing will be inferior because it's 'only' a student orchestra.
Sinfonia Brevis (1987) is in similar form -- namely in four movements with two interludes -- but it is an altogether knottier piece, based as it is in dodecaphonic procedures. It is jazz-inflected for much of its almost thirty minute length and it is the sophisticated use Yannatos makes of irregular and jazzy rhythms, even in the lyrical sections, that gives the work its élan. There are a few passages where the orchestra has uncertain tuning, but overall this is a fine performance. Of the three pieces, I had the greatest trouble 'getting' this one, and I'm still not sure I have penetrated its inner core.
For me the highlight of the CD is the final piece, the Contrabass Concerto, a post-Stravinskian neoclassic marvel. The soloist, Edwin Barker, is the principal bassist of the Boston Symphony and his playing is, in a word, a wonder! He manages the incredibly stratospheric writing with aplomb and absolutely reliable tuning. The piece was written for him and he gave its premiere. None of that would matter too much if the music itself was negligible, but indeed this is an engaging, fascinating piece. The orchestral texture is unfailingly interesting, the solo part is lyrical in the extreme, the rhythmic qualities are even more catchy than those of the Sinfonia Brevis. The finale is a kind of drunken 5/8 barn dance. I can easily imagine other virtuoso bassists taking up this piece.
I'm glad to have made the acquaintance of all three of these pieces, but especially that of the Contrabass Concerto. Huzzah, Mr Yannatos.