Reviews From The Press
James Farmingdale | New York, NY USA | 09/03/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"From Mark Estren at Infodad:
"The big question for modern classical music is whether a work is worth a second hearing. Audiences have become sufficiently sophisticated and sufficiently interested in new sonorities and instrumental combinations to try out many pieces once - but not necessarily again. Steven R. Gerber's 10-movement suite, Spirituals, is a work that will repay multiple listenings, and to which audiences are likely to return after they first hear it."
"Written between 1999 and 2001, Spirituals is highly congenial for Gerber's musical temperament: sensitive, quiet and thoughtful. The first nine movements are inspired by spirituals; the 10th is an arrangement of a work by Ravel. The movements' pacing is generally deliberate, but the treatment of the themes is highly varied. The first and longest movement, which takes off from a tune by Harry Burleigh - the man who introduced Dvorák to spirituals - is reminiscent of early Ives in its full harmonies, warmth and expansiveness. Among the other highlights are the sixth movement, based on Go Down, Moses, whose fascinating orchestration makes it sound for a moment as if woodwinds have joined the strings; and the light and dancelike ninth, derived from Glory to That Newborn King. But every movement has its own charms, and hearing the original songs peek through - sometimes their melodies, sometimes their rhythms, sometimes their harmonies - makes Spirituals an involving experience, and one to which listeners will want to return. Vladimir Lande and the St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony play the work with warmth and understanding, which are just the qualities it needs."
"The Clarinet Concerto was written from 2000 to 2002 for Jon Manasse, whose performance here is both skilled and knowing. In the first of its two movements, a serious introduction gives way to a bouncy segment with prominent harp and a particularly effective string-pizzicato section. The clarinet floats naturally into and out of the orchestra - even the cadenza sounds integral to the movement. The second movement, which largely retains the deliberate pace of the first, explores more of the chalumeau register. The brief faster sections here seem like interludes as the music waits to slow down again. The work is meditative, exploring the clarinet's songful side but not its exuberant one."
"The opening of the Serenade Concertante (1998) makes Gerber's distinctive sonic world clear. There is a lot of ebb and flow in the first of the two movements, with the solo violins cooperating rather than competing: they often twine around each other. The writing for the orchestra's lower strings is particularly well done, but the overall sound of the work is rather monochromatic. After a brief slow introduction, the second movement introduces some welcome liveliness: on this entire CD, the tempo marking "Allegro" appears only twice, both times in this movement, and both times qualified by "non troppo." This movement has a distinct American flavor in its rhythms and intervals, plus some attractive pizzicati - a pleasant recurring feature of Gerber's style. Its central section of variations is loosely based on the name "Brahms," but this is rather contrived, mixing musical meanings from different notation systems. Still, the variations themselves are clever and interesting. Both this work and the Clarinet Concerto are worthy of more-frequent performance, but it is Spirituals that is most likely to appeal to audiences time after time."
From Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger:
"For his "Spirituals" set of 10 brief pieces for string orchestra, Steven Gerber channeled elements of age-old, African-American sacred songs, much as an Eastern European composer might a folk tune or sacred chant. "Homage to Dvorak" taps "Goin' Home," the tune source for the Lento in the "New World" Symphony; in Gerber's hands, it sounds like one of Arvo Part's string hymns -- hardly original, but lovely and affecting. Minimalism and tributes to John Harbison and Ravel feature in the rest. Gerber, a 60-year-old New Yorker and Princeton alumnus, also includes his lyrical, meditative Serenade Concertante and more complex Clarinet Concerto, the latter wonderfully played by virtuoso Jon Manasse."
From James Mannheim at allmusic:
"American composer Steven R. Gerber has achieved his greatest success, oddly enough, in Russia, and the venerable St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony plays his very American music as though to the manner born (although the strings are less than silken in the highest notes). Among the hundreds of concert works that engage with the raw material of the African-American spiritual, Gerber's is unique. In his own words, his Spirituals for String Orchestra "are not arrangements, but new works inspired by the original songs." Further, "[m]y intent was neither to deconstruct the original material nor to treat it ironically, but simply to pay homage to its beauty by creating new compositions out of it." What this means in structural terms is that Gerber neither quotes entire tunes nor reduces them to abstract motivic or intervallic content. Instead he selects a specific detail that carries something of the mood of the whole, and extends it into a compact form -- with the exception of the first one, all the spirituals are quite short. Not all the pieces are based on actual African-American spirituals at all: the first piece, "Homage to Dvorák," draws on the spiritual-like first-movement theme from the "New World" Symphony, whose authorship by African-American singer Harry T. Burleigh is nowhere near as settled as Gerber makes it out to be, and "Amazing Grace Notes" combines material from "Amazing Grace" (not a true spiritual, either, although it certainly entered African-American tradition) with a detail of a work by John Harbison. Nevertheless, Gerber captures something intangible about the spirituals: a weightiness, a melodic density that evokes great depths. The concise forms of the Spirituals suit Gerber ideally; the two short concertos that round out the disc are more diffuse although flattering to the soloists, violinists José Miguel Cueto and Natalia Malkova, and clarinetist Jon Manasse. Anyone interesting in the continuing musical and, well, spiritual ramifications of the African-American spirituals should hear Gerber's entirely original take on them.""