PLAYING THE EDGE - Music for Violin & Percussion.
DAUGHERTY: Lex. HARRISON: Suite for Violin & Percussion. WALSH: Pointing Out Your Ruse. PUTS: And Legions Will Rise.
Mark Rush (violin); Jerry Kirkbride (clarinet); Arizona Percussion Ensemble/Norman Weinberg (conductor & solo percussion), Gary Cook.
Albany TROY 1199 TT: 61:32.

Sing, bing, bang. Exactly what it says -- four American works for violin and percussion, some of it better than others. The Daugherty and the Harrison might very well become classics.

Michael Daugherty wrote Lex for the 50th anniversary of Superman. The celebration, appropriately enough, took place in Superman's home town (and mine) of Cleveland, Ohio. Don't be taken in by that Krypton story. They do the original version here. Daugherty later orchestrated the piece and put it into his Metropolis Symphony -- his super-homage to Superman. Daugherty has the rare ability to take inspiration from pop culture and to put it into imaginative "classical" work without losing the pop energy. A healthy sense of humor helps. I think the symphony a hoot, but the original Lex (after the evil scientist, Lex Luthor) is almost scary in its brilliance, as befits the world's greatest criminal mind. Daugherty uses an electric violin, 4 percussionists, a timpani, synthesizer, and a double bass, amplified to cut through the racket. The opening features bursts from four referee's whistles -- in the concert hall, placed quadraphonically -- which represent the police. A frenetic set of figurations from the solo violin, Daugherty's musical symbol for Luthor, appears where the police are not. Most of the musical material features the minor third and the augmented fourth (one minor third poised on top of another), the "devil in music." Essentially, this music is a chase, exciting and full of surprise. It ends with another burst from a police whistle. Lex Luthor is still at large.

Lou Harrison ignores the States altogether for Asian climes. He has long had avant-garde street cred, and indeed he collaborated with John Cage, early on. He has built his own instruments. The gamelan orchestra, as well as the music of China and Korea, fascinates him. He wrote his violin concerto in the Forties and waited almost 20 years for its premiere. I find him an extremely "musical" composer. Nothing from his pen is downright ugly or confused. Despite its unusual orchestration, Harrison has written a relatively traditional concerto in three movements: fast, slow, fast. The percussion ensemble includes both standard and, in Harrison's phrase, "junk" instruments. The piece sounds rhapsodic but isn't. For the violin part, Harrison uses only three intervals: minor second, major third, and major sixth. Even when the violin temporarily stops and the ensemble takes over, the violin restart note is one of those intervals away from its predecessor. But this is mere means. You don't really miss the other intervals, and, as I said, the violin sounds as if it sings freely. What may put some off, however, is Harrison's characteristic "cool." He doesn't enthuse or effuse. One notices a detached, "Chinese" or zen quality to the music, a penchant for ritual and contemplation. I find it an extraordinarily beautiful work.

The previous scores and composers are pretty much sui generis. Craig Walsh's Pointing Out Your Ruse, on the other hand, sounds like a lot of people could have written it. The title also annoys me, since it seems simply a cheap bid for attention, rather than anything insightful or, God forbid, connected to the piece. In his program note, Walsh informs us that "exobiological processes" inspired the work. Since no music I know of expresses exobiology -- other than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, maybe -- this means merely that Walsh wants us to know that he knows what exobiology is. Still, this is all by the way. We need to ask the serious question of the work's value. Much of the score is taken up by what I would call noodling around. Walsh writes professionally well. He has amassed prizes out into the backyard, but I wouldn't call this piece particularly imaginative. Despite what might turn up in a close examination of the score, it sounds for the most part unfocussed. I liked the faster, more rhythmically-defined sections better than the slower ones, but that's generally true of my likes anyway. At times, I thought the work might actually catch fire, but it fizzled. Walsh scores for violin and solo percussionist. He gives the percussionist such a virtuosic workout that I really wanted to see how he did it. Only that aspect of the piece interested me, unfortunately.

Kevin Puts (pronounced as in "he puts down a hardwood floor") also has a lot of prizes in his account. Again, I'm not wild about the title, And Legions Will Rise, which sounds very Dungeons-and-Dragons-y to me, but I should allow composers their bad non-musical choices. Let's just say the title adds nothing to the work. Puts scores for violin, clarinet, and solo marimba -- a gorgeous combination, for which the composer provides ecstatic music, a cross between Copland and the minimalist Adams. It takes a while for the piece to get going. At one point, I wondered whether any of it could be cut without harm and then decided that the long build-up was essential to its rapturous release. Melodically and thematically, there's not much to it, which means that Puts must spend a lot of effort shaping the rhetoric, sculpting the dynamic form of the piece. He takes a big chance and comes out a winner.

The performances are all I can expect from a percussion ensemble -- rhythmically sharp, dynamically flexible. Norman Weinberg as soloist can even summon up the percussion equivalent of bel canto when called upon. Jerry Kirkbride on clarinet plays with a creamy tone, without sacrificing any rhythmic precision. I liked Mark Rush best on the electric violin in Lex -- a fearless heavy-metal commitment to the extremes of the part, even if pushed past the point of intelligibility. The Walsh and the Puts don't really showcase the violin, and "personality" matters less in the Harrison than in, say, the Tchaikovsky. However, Rush strings together long lines without dropping the narrative thread. He plays a highly rhapsodic part without dissolving into incoherence.

I suppose percussion ensembles pose big problems of balance for the recording engineer -- particularly when the composer pits the ensemble against solo non-percussionists. If so, the engineering was so good, I didn't notice the problems.

S.G.S. (April 2011)