Literary Triumph in CD form

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The Star-Ledger
Ronni Reich
November 12, 2010

What composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa does with text might be considered the exact opposite job of a music critic. Instead of putting music into words, she turns words into music — not just setting them for songs, but using them as the jumping-off point for much of what she does.

With her literary term-titled two-disc album In medias res, the Rome Prize winner draws mostly on Russian, German, British and American classics, ultimately creating music that is meaty and substantial, cerebral but not remote. The release culminates her three years as composer in residence with the pioneering Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The music often sounds as if it might have come out of a film score — not splashy blockbuster schmaltz, but something startlingly, viscerally evocative. Her creative soundscapes can be starkly serious or borderline absurd, but they are rarely uninteresting. They're strongly executed by Gil Rose and the orchestra, though occasionally a more transparent sound might more effectively bring out intricacies.

Roam, based on a passage from Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, begins with mournful, lonely solo lines and grows to a thick, unsettled, churning atmosphere. It grows increasingly agitated then lingers uncomfortably, the sound of the orchestral mass subtly expanding and contracting with what liner notes describe as "smeared harmonies." A heavy mood prevails.

The title work takes on a more festive tone. The first movement, "and," features a close-harmonied brass fanfare: martial, driving rhythms and swooning glissandi that build to raucous heights, at one point resembling a swarming hornet’s nest as the sounds of high strings and winds pile up.

The second movement, "or," contains many of the same elements but also features private-sounding stirrings of harp and piano that provide refreshing contrast.

Concerto for Two Violins, written for and performed by Carla Kihlstedt and Colin Jacobsen, is more than the title suggests: halfway through, Kihlstedt's voice swoops in with a song from Goethe's Faust. The pure, straight-toned vocals are similar to those employed in unfinish'd, sent, which utilizes a short text from Shakespeare's Richard III. It's a difficult first listen — but not in the sense of difficult implying hard on the ears. Rather, it's dense, original and full of intriguing ideas that slip away and morph in elusive ways that make you want to hear them again.

The second CD brings a series of short solo instrumental works whose form comes partly from Luciano Berio's "Sequenzas." Ernest Hemingway's very short story — "For sale, baby shoes: never used."— is inspiration for the pieces named Synopses #1-15, each of which has a six-word title. These include the slinky double bass solo "I'm Not That Kind of Lawyer" and the amusing ode to fatherhood "No, No, No — Put That Down," for trombone. Many of these works made it into the larger-scale pieces on the first disc, and listening to the pair in reverse provides a compelling view into Bielawa's composition process.

© 2010 Ronni Reich