CD of Elliott Schwartz concertos merits multiple listens

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Portland Press Herald
Christopher Hyde
October 18, 2009

The long-awaited CD of all Maine composer Elliott Schwartz's chamber concertos has finally been released by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP/sound, 1013) and it lives up to expectations. Conductor Gil Rose and his orchestra are among the foremost interpreters of modern music, and their performances of these six works, from 1976 to 2007, with the composer's input, can be considered definitive.

Too many recordings of contemporary music sound as if the players are going through the motions. In the BMOP performances (which should be heard live if possible) the loving attention to structure, detail and emotional content becomes quite apparent.

The violin solo part of Chamber Concerto VI: Mr. Jefferson, masterfully interpreted by Charles Dimmick, concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, contributes another Maine voice to the project.

Even the presentation of the CD, in a double-fold with the recording in a pocket on one side and a booklet of voluminous program notes in the other, is a work of art, illustrated by the composer's wife, Dorothy Schwartz. And it can be opened without a blowtorch.

I've listened to the recording several times already, and every concerto seems new on each hearing, as more details fit into the overall structure. All best repay close listening, as if to an unfolding drama or interior monologue, almost literary—Schwartz is also an author—in creating a desire to see what comes next as the soloist interacts with the orchestra or elaborates on his or her own ideas.

What is immediately apparent is the progression of the composer's work from what could be considered a desire to shock, in 1976, to a more measured and almost Romantic approach in Mr. Jefferson of 2007. The material—aspects of inventor, violinist, gardener, lover and statesman Jefferson's life—may have something to do with the different feel of the sixth concerto, but there is a lengthy hiatus in Schwartz's concerto composition between 1991 and 2007.

As pointed out in the excellent program notes by the composer and Stephen Guy Soderberg, there is also a consistency in the works, in their use of collage, subtle quotations from other composers and combination of the Romantic concerto, the soloist as hero, and the baroque concerto grosso, which can be considered anti-heroic. One might think of Mr. Jefferson as a throwback to the heroic form, a sort of "Ein Heldenleben." It even has a final cadenza for the violin, based on a three-note invention from the first movement.

Another unifying aspect is the composer's use of aleatoric methods, allowing the musicians to improvise, as if in a jazz ensemble. This is not a 20th century technique but dates back to the baroque era, in which musicians were expected to improvise on chord progressions.

As Soderberg mentions, this means that the famous Bach Chaconne, whose interpretation has solidified over the centuries, could actually be played in many different ways, all of them acceptable.

Finally, each concerto explores the possibilities of a solo instrument in surprising ways. The instruments, in chronological order, include the double bass, clarinet, piano, saxophone, bassoon and violin. The soloists are uniformly superb and handle even the most fiendish passages with aplomb. There is a section in the saxophone concerto, No. IV, that sounds incredibly like a screaming match in a parrot cage. I love it.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal