Gramophone reviews David Rakowski: Winged Contraption

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Gramophone
Andrew Farach-Colton
October 1, 2009

There are marvelous ideas in David Rakowski's music. At the very end of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto (2006), for instance, the soloist suddenly switches to a toy piano to play a flourish that's at once otherworldly and mischievous. Similarly, the jazzy syncopations and riffs in the movement that follows convey simultaneous feelings of playful spontaneity and lurking menace.

Indeed, there's usually some striking element in Rakowski's work to attract one's attention. In Winged Contraption (1991), it might be how the fast, motoric main section is affected by the aching emotion of the slow introduction, which hovers like one of those dark storm clouds that doggedly follow a cartoon character. In the Elegy that opens Persistent Memory (1997), it might be the way the long phrases open and spread like tendrils of a fast-growing plant.

And, yet, for all Rakowski's inventiveness and clever ideas, there’s something missing, though what exactly that something is is difficult to pinpoint. At first I thought it might be a sense of direction or, to be more precise but less grammatical perhaps, a sense of directedness. But that's not really true. That vegetal Elegy grows quite assuredly until it bursts into the intricate and prickly bloom of the variations that follow.

No, I think it's the material itself that lacks character. The big, overarching concepts are imaginative and effectively rendered, and so are a great many of the details and gestures (like that toy piano flourish). But melodically, thematically, motivically—however you see fit to describe this particular "horizontal" aspect of music—there's not much to grab on to.

Certainly, the performances here are top-notch. Pianist Marilyn Nonken, who's had a long association with Rakowski's music, plays the tricky solo part of the Concerto with great flair and finesse. And under Gil Rose's direction, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project has developed into a true virtuoso ensemble.

- Andrew Farach-Colton

© Copyright 2009 Gramophone