Dedicated entirely to works by Arlene Sierra, this disc simultaneously gives an overview of the state of her art while whetting the appetite for more.
The world of winged creatures provides the impetus for the first two works.
The two equal parts of Cicada Shell—without the program note describing the link to the larger project, Art of War—seem much too powerful to relate to the delicate insect. Yet the effective use of percussion (decisively rendered by Nathan Davis)—particularly the snare drum, conjures up an aural link to the edgy, repetitive (and surprisingly strong: some species have been measured at 120 dB) insects. “Marziale’s” three main sections start out with brute force that is at one with the overarching subject matter, only to be gradually calmed as the intensity dissipates: liquid, dry or pizzicato in turn. “Misterioso expressivo” marvellously lives up to its billing, featuring thoughtful highs and brooding lows (especially well anchored by Joshua Rubin’s skill on the bass clarinet). The thematic germ (with a remarkable tinge of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring just prior to the incredible bombast) works well in all of its forms and the childlike violin (David Bowlin is crystal clear and secure in all ranges) provides much-needed relief and contrast to the weightier ideas.
Perhaps “scheduling” Birds and Insects—Book 1 first would allow the ear to better make the transition from “Cicada Sketch” to Cicada Shell. Pianist Vassily Primakov employs his vast array of touches effectively, giving each of the five movements a distinctive colour. The moody, rather detective-TV feel of “Sarus Crane” finds its polar opposite with the antics of “Titmouse.” The extended, closing “Scarab,” with its stop-and-go construction infused with a rhapsodic scrap of Gershwin, is emotionally rich and superbly balanced.
Surrounded Ground might well be subtitled L’histoire de la tactique given its historical source: The Art of War by Sun Tzu. The dissonantly triumphant “Preamble” (where only the clarinet’s inability to match the pointed attacks of his colleagues causes any concern) convincingly set the stage for the coming manoeuvres.
Curiously, the opening of “Feigned Retreat” seems compositionally adrift before a beautifully crafted viola line (Jessica Thompson) helps to refocus the ear. Once the “battle” begins, it’s not hard to imagine the violins’ bows as weapons, trying valiantly to survive the barrage of rapid-fire blasts from their musical combatants. The purposely jagged, dance of near-death (“Egress”) provides the requisite opening, leading to defeat with honour. If only real conflicts could be settled just as harmoniously!
The two settings of Odes from Pablo Neruda are engagingly sculpted. Soprano Susan Narucki’s consummate skill of moving into and out of all registers makes her the ideal interpreter. Cellist Raman Ramakrishnan’s tawny, eloquent tone is the perfect foil even as pianist Stephen Gosling provides stellar work as the “glue.” More’s the pity that texts are not provided in the otherwise informative booklet.
Colmena (beehive) is a delightfully active, largely inventive sound painting. Conductor Jayce Ogren keeps his talented charges (special mention to James Austin Smith for his delectable contributions on oboe and English horn) artfully a-buzz. Even after the piano (Cory Smythe) valiantly tolls for calm before the triplet-rich swarm resumes, there’s no sting here.
During Ballistae, Ogren is not quite as successful leading the ensemble to the razor-sharp category required, yielding —at times—a frantic result that suffers from an over-abundance of horizontal lines. The two percussionists are kept busy—the gourd marvellously at one with winding up the taut tension prior to unleashing the missile. As effective as all of that is, the closing “thud” only lacks the brief cries of anguish from the invisible targets to, perhaps, drive home a further thought on the evil of warfare no matter what its era. JWR