February 11, 2020

  • A Quintet of Trios


    Extant Blues
    Trio Accento: Limor Toren-Immerman, violin. Garik Terzian, cello.
    Nora Chiang Wrobel, piano.
    Michael Chang, viola.
    Troy 1792
    Total Time:  72:27
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Extant Blues is a collection of new music for piano trio by five California-based composers.  The Trio Accento has chosen these works for their exploration of a common parallel to popular music styles filtered through the unique lenses of each of the composer’s represented here.

    There are three single-movement works that provide bookends for the two larger multi-movement works on the album.  The opening piece, Polarized, has a repeated, asymmetrical ostinato pattern that helps unify the work as different contrasting sections provide intriguing rhythmic interest.  The pattern itself has a samba-like pattern that helps give the work its energy.  Rather fascinating is the way the work’s arc begins with the instruments in unison and then diverging outward into quite distinct, and often contrary explorations of the material.  Kenneth Froelich’s work builds towards this extreme conflict and then pulls back to a unison conclusion providing a musical allegory for our current society, hence the title.  In Gernot Wolfgang’s Jazz and Cocktails, he explores a musical party of sorts where different styles are referenced to depict intimate conversations with some of the great composers and performers of the 20th Century.  Wolfgang’s use of extended harmonies makes for a striking backdrop to the way jazz and classical styles merge and move through different moods.  It is at times like a third-stream jazz number of Shostakovich mixed with a little Grusin.  There are also some sections that have an improvisatory feel.  Many of the composer’s signature uses of jazz syncopations and styles also pop in this work as well.

    The first larger work is Juhi Bansal’s Wings.  The concept of the work is one of flight and imagery that links this to other natural depictions.  Interestingly, the opening movement has a construction that seems almost raga-like with its restricted pattern helping to create a sense of flight that twists and turns with moments of lyrical beauty for the primary strings.  The piano adds harsher harmonic arrival points and enhances the drama of the music.  A more rhythmic exploration is the focus of the interior movement.  Here the three-note motive flits about somber lines adding to an intense dramatic conversation.  The finale is more of a perpetual motion explosion of energy with voices that come together and then fly apart until they move to an almost impressionistic exhaustion of pentatonic flourishes and ambivalence.  What is rather fascinating is that this tightly-constructed work maintains connections both motivic and thematic that are transformed across the movements and provide a host of things to listen to on repeated explorations of this work.  Russell Steinberg’s Paleface found its inspiration in the pop art of Jerry Kearns who explores hero myths in the work chosen here (nicely reprinted in the booklet notes!).  Each movement tackles one aspect of these American heroes beginning with the “Wild West” with its advanced contemporary techniques for piano to add special effects and folkish, Americana references (and a host of quotations in an Ives-ian approach).  It is interesting to hear the piano shift from a classical to more saloon hall style too.  The “Action Hero” is an exciting scherzo taking its inspiration from Hollywood and secret agent and superhero music.  It even has a little surprise for listeners when kazoos appear.  It is a more cerebral and intense section.  The final movement, “Into the Night” is a contemplation of what a “hero” is in the shadow of historical events such as 9-11.  The music references hymn-like music in a reflective opening that moves into touches of pop gospel before dying away, in a way, echoing the earlier 19th-century hymnody of the opening movement.  With these various musical ideas, what really stands out is that one can approach this music with this sometimes humorous quality, but it as it plays out, there is an often darker, sardonic quality that makes the listener further reflect on these images and expectations of what these symbols really mean and how they impact the culture.

    The last piece on this striking program is a piano quartet by Jeff Beal.  Almost Morning was commissioned for choreographer Claudia Schreier who premiered it in 2015 at the Alvin Ailey dance theater.  It opens with a flurry of arpeggios that move across the ensemble with striking lyrical phrases that float above this forward motion.  A nice syncopated section helps invite into a modern jazz style with Beal’s gorgeous melodic lines often soaring above these harmonic punctuations.  In some ways, there are approaches here that parallel what one has heard in the Bansal and Wolfgang pieces which further makes this a fitting conclusion.

    The recording sounds great with a perfect imaging of the two solo instruments against the piano.  The latter’s sound has good ambient capture which adds to the sense of presence.  The clarity of the sound picture is also quite admirable.  These are committed performances that really feel very natural in pieces that are essentially new.  This lends to music a “comfortability” that eases the listener into these musical arguments well.  Sequencing of the album creates a program that moves toward more intense musical expressions.