Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Time Alone
Baird Dodge, violin; Chicago Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen;
Color Field Quartet
Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano
On his latest CD for Yarlung, composer James Matheson presents strong essays in both the concerto and string quartet genres. His String Quartet, played in vibrant fashion by Color Field Quartet, is filled with overlapping scales and glissandos, post-minimal ostinatos, and impressionist harmonic colors. Thus, it presents as a postmodern response both to composers such as Ravel and Debussy and more recent figures such as John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis.
There is a similar variety of instrumental color in Matheson’s violin concerto. Its conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, is described in the liner notes as a great champion of the piece, helping to arrange for its recording (a live tape of the Chicago Symphony). The muscularly motoric violin part, played here by Baird Dodge, is formidable. The violin soloist is required to execute limpid runs clear up into the stratosphere of the instrument’s compass. In addition to its impressive solo part, the concerto’s orchestration has a cinematic sweep that is most engaging. The second movement, Chaconne, features a gradual build by the soloist, with the part starting down near rumbling cellos and basses and concluding within striking distance of high flutes (which seem to mimic gestures from movement one in slow motion). The concerto concludes with Dance, a moto perpetuo in which the violinist faces off with a boisterous orchestra (which ends on the supertonic!).
The songs are idiomatically set, but I was left wishing for a less diffident performance than the one provided here. They were written for Kiera Duffy; perhaps we can hope that she gives them a hearing soon.
Matheson’s musical language is appealing in its variety. He is also a creative orchestrator, parsing multiple threads of activity yet always providing music with a clear surface.