This disc is a wonderful introduction to Melinda Wagner’s considerable abilities in many diverse genres.
The program begins with a scintillating performance of Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. How fortunate to have trombonist Joseph Alessi do the honours and be accompanied by his colleagues in the New York Philharmonic—the empathy between soloist and players is immediately apparent due in no small part to then-Music Director Lorin Maazel leading the charge. Alessi soars through the demanding part with deceptive ease. The cadenza in the late stages of “Satyr” is a master class on control (breath and pitch) as well as subtle nuance of the brief slides and longer lines in the quasi lament, which also features superbly rendered vibrato and a magical hand-off to the insect-like high strings as they sneak in just prior to the last syncopated dash to the conclusion.
“Elemental Things” is most certainly the heart of the work. Wagner creates a marvellous soundscape set in motion by a singular, repeated pitch that will play many roles before journey’s end. The slumbering giant, once finally awakened, begins—initially in slow motion—to reach and search through the music but is now more collegial than during the combative opener. The return of the stratospheric pedal draws the listener into a most intimate/mysterious point of view which is soon rewarded with a chorale (“Litany”) that is awash in feeling.
The finale is a veritable catch-me-if-you-can. Maazel’s enthusiasm bubbles over to the musicians and the race is on! Wee bits of Villa-Lobos’ train keep the ear on track. Wagner wisely allows both listeners and the protagonist to catch their breaths in the middle section, demonstrating even more “oneness” between trombone and orchestra and a mighty aura of consonance after the final run concludes to the satisfaction of all.
The quartet of songs that comprise Four Settings are filled with a preponderance of dark intensity that binds the set together even as their texts appear to be so disparate. Soprano Christine Brandes takes on the role of passionate declaimer and musical advocate with commanding authority and superb ability to appear out of nowhere (“I have so fiercely dreamed of you” in “Last Poem” whose final word is so perfectly handed off to the musicians that there is a tonal weld which creates a colour all unto its own) or drive the—at times: I know it’s black / a hump on my back from “The Wings”—terrifying imagery into consciousness with unforgettable conviction. Wagner’s penchant for generously repeating lines or fragments of the texts or editing the original (“Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” loses the natural balance of bee and birds) tends to shift the impact of the poets’ work to the composer: whether that’s good for this overall study of primary art (the notion of black vs. white, wild nights vs. soundless dots) remains for the ear of the beholder. Conductor Karla Lemon ensures virtually everything falls into place. Special mention from the seven totally competent performers goes to pianist Stephen Gosling who provides an incredible variety of touches (the anticipation of the sun in “Last Poem” being just one example) and contrabassist John Feeney whose unerring support and depth “into the string” bowing provides a wonderful foundation upon which his colleagues can build Wagner’s fascinating arrays of texture and tone.
The survey concludes with the earliest written piece. This Wick clearly burns hot at both ends. Jeffrey Milarsky leads a spirited—thoughtful and raucous when required—performance that overflows with Wagner’s desire to harness energy culled from sound. All of the players have their chances to shine, especially the opening of the cadenzas from violinist Linda Quan, Jayn Rosenfeld’s sultry low flute and Daniel Druckman’s delectable buffet of mallet interventions. The inclusion of “real” human “ahs” ideally serves its intended purpose, causing the deliberately caustic piano to finally run out of rumbling grumbles and slink away into the night. JWR