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Friday, May 22, 2009

Viola Sola

So yeah, Nadia Sirota's first album, first things first, came out this week! Last week I complained that the new New Amsterdam CD was not really up my alley, well let me tell you that the NEW new New Amsterdam CD goes alllllllll the way up my alley. Those of you who know me personally know that I am what is known as a "recovering violist," and as such I have an exceedingly high tolerance for the sound of sola viola. I could listen to Hindemith all day. It's a sickness. Also Nadia is kind of the coolest person ever, so I am 100% IN THE TANK on this one. Ahem. On her debut, Sirota shows off the music composed for her by three of her friends: Marcos Balter, Judd Greenstein, Nico Muhly. Balter gets the least time on the disc, and his work is the least familiar to me, but he comes off well. The combination of repeated figures and extended techniques still remind me of Walter Fähndrich's album Viola—which y'all should definitely investigate—rendered in miniature. That's an achievement, to build elegant little pieces out of these effects, and really pull it off. Greenstein is at his best writing for viola. Actually, I— Okay, DIGRESSION: I often think, not quite fairly, of the program note for his orchestral piece Chikasky as being more revealing than he means it to be—a piece about rock music and Romanticism, it examines both from a perspective that never totally gets inside rock, or escapes the Romantics. And then there's this—

Tchaikovsky, a composer with whom I've always had a love/hate relationship, enjoying so many of his melodies and his use of the orchestra, but hating his tendency towards long-windedness.
Oh NO YOU DIDN'T. Tchaikovsky is CONCISE. His dramatic sense is impeccable. It is Greenstein who operates on the minimalist's timetable of delayed gratification. E.g., Chikasky, which develops a single theme, lasts more than half as long as the entire 1812 Overture, which which has a giant huge load of themes and cannons going off everywhere. My point: Greenstein's at his best writing for the viola, which is naturally an introspective, singing sort of instrument, and so suited to this inner Romantic whose voice is, it seems to me, the voice of the True Judd. The Night Gatherers is a shimmering, passionate lament scored for viola and string quartet (the Chiara Quartet); Escape is a rockinger workout for viola alone, in which we hear Greenstein digesting his minimalist influences and Sirota going full virtuoso. Nico Muhly. Last time I compared his Etudes for Viola & Electronics to a "bag of aural jellybeans," but sweet as they may be to the ear, they ain't finger-candy. They aren't that sort of etude. They're actually pretty gnarly, considering how simple they have to sound, with the added difficulty of playing along with an intentionally hard-to-follow tape track: the rhythm has a slightly hinky swing, and in Etude 1A, there're also a bunch of Grand Pauses the soloist has to count in her head, with no conductor and (I'm told) no click. She makes it through the minefield unscathed. (Muhly's Duet: Chorale Pointing Downwards is gnarlier still; the violist and a cellist—on this disc, Clarice Jensen—must be playing Twister on their fingerboards to get those double-stops in tune.) Best part of the Etudes, though? The BOOTY BASS on those electronics. Hard not to giggle. Interesting-funny, as opposed to haha-funny, is the way these pieces from the three (or more) disparate aesthetics of the three composers add up to a coherent portrait of the star performer—maybe that's my imagination, from listening to this excellent podcast, where she talks about how well her composer friends write for her personality as a player; or maybe that's because they actually have each captured a facet of her with these pieces; or maybe that's because she succeeds in making them all her own. Anyway, a disc worth owning, and a happily authoritative debut. You can get it here.

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