JWR Articles: CD - Transformations (Featured performer: Aaron Tindall) - August 5, 2018


3.5 3.5
72 min.

Oldest work fares worst

Here’s a wide-ranging collection of—mostly, David Lang’s Are You Experienced? (written in the late-1980s)—works that feature the solo tuba, requiring a truly virtuoso performer to bring them to vivid life. Aaron Tindall proves from the get-go that he is more than up to the challenges.

Gunther Schuller’s Concerto No. 2 employs a large palette of textures, tones and colours. “Adagio” is at once dark, eerie and dreary before cinematic strings add a further level of nervoso (much of the writing calls out for a visual treatment). A searchingly higher protagonist in the middle section also reveals that, except for the deliberately strident woodwinds, a tad more presence is needed from the orchestra before all concerned slip back into the depths.

The brief “Allegro moderato” (with a few dollops of ethereal harp to balance the soloist) features some untidy string ensemble as the pace moves forward in what is largely a question-and-answer style. Naturally, the tuba has the last word.

Readily the most successful movement of the four, “Adagio (Arioso)” begins with the orchestra walking on eggshells, ushering in the beautifully liquid legato from Tindall now in the hallowed realm of high baritone. A soaring flute provides still more contrast before this wonderfully conceived aria takes its last breath, disappearing oh so very close to the land of niente…

The finale (“Molto moderato; Allegro energico”) lifts off with a kind of desperate organized chaos, replete with—at times literal—“snap, crackle and pop.” A welcome unison calmo paves the way before Tindall deftly throws down the “catch me if you can” gauntlet. Conductor Jeffery Meyer and his charges very nearly do. A stringy slide back over the abyss soon morphs into the somewhat grouchy cadenza, where Tindall’s virtuosity makes everything seem so deceptively easy, including a few measures of duelling tubas which conjure up a wonderfully inventive musical mirror image. A highly agitated, percussion-fuelled, race to the double bar brings Schuller’s work to a resounding conclusion.

In the manner of J.S. Bach, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Harmonien has versions for flute, trumpet and bass clarinet. Tindall opts to perform the latter version and delivers a master class of tones, trills, breath control, extreme range and lip-defying legato—all tempered with a very discreet vibrato when warranted. The numerous repetitive fragments are largely rendered with somewhat new meanings with every utterance. Few musicians on the planet can approach this level of artistry.

If Schuller’s opus feels somewhat cinematic, then Dana Wilson’s Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble is decidedly made for TV with all of its opening questions/situations waiting to be solved before the episode fades to black. Once again, the accompanists seem distant (notably the early appearance of the snare drum in “Freely steady”). Conductor Stephen Peterson certainly has an ear for dramatic buildups but would benefit from employing a more horizontal rather than vertical approach—especially in “Plaintively singing” where Tindall delivers a most engaging, thoughtful realization of the haunting lines, leading one and all into a very special dreamland that is vigourously interrupted by “Strict Time” (here the ensemble ought to be tighter in order to keep the drive moving steadily forward and better balance Tindall’s spot-on contributions).

Maria Cristina Fava’s program note has this to say about composer David Lang: “…whose music is based on ironic deconstructive and minimalist processes which are at the verge between art and rock music”. In the CD’s concluding work, Are You Experienced? displays neither art nor rock in sufficient quantities. Narrator Steven Stucky does a superb job, but is saddled with such a barrage of clichés (most especially in “On Hearing the Siren’s Call”) that every bar seems to drag on rather than flow to a thoughtful conclusion. Sadly, the two appearances of “On Being Hit on the Head” couldn’t fail to conjure up Monty Python’s classic sketch: “Hitting on the Head Lessons”. The pair of extended movements (“Dance”, “Drop”) were far too predictable and soon grew tiresome, lacking the sort of inevitability and aura that fellow minimalist Phillip Glass handles so well. The one redeeming value is, yet again, Tindall’s wizardry, this time on electric tuba whose hues from primal to ethereal are worth taking this, otherwise, unremarkable journey. JWR

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Featured performer - Aaron Tindall
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