BAZELON: Junctures. Sunday Silence. Spirits of the Night. Concatenations.
Nancy Allen Lundy, soprano; Scott Dunn, piano; Timur Rulbinshteyn, Aliseo Rael, Jeff Means, William Klymus, percussion; James Burnham, viola; Orchestra of Sofia/Harold Farberman; Percussion Quartet/Frank Epstein.
ALBANY TROY 602 (F) {DDD} TT: 57:23

Irwin Bazelon studied with Hindemith and Milhaud, among others, but his music sounds like neither. The outstanding thing to me about it is its power to evoke entire milieus as well as an affective landscape. Bazelon early in his career scored many documentaries, but whether that activity influenced his concert work or he always had that film-music power, I have no idea. The concert music does, however, differ from the film work, in that Bazelon does construct a tight symphonic argument. Nevertheless, the music often sounds almost rhapsodically free as well as rather flexible in mood.

Often, the idiom is what I would call "big-city" music, and that city is definitely New York. It views the metropolis with a paradoxical clear eye for the grit and with a Romantic yearning for the vast spaces of it all. One might trace the charting of the emotional neighborhood all the way back to the second movement of the Gershwin concerto or to Copland's Quiet City. Bazelon's Junctures is a case in point: a city nocturne. The blues, without ever a direct quote, seems to prowl around somewhere in the background. The piece is mostly quiet, with a lot of "space" around the musical lines -- often just one or two of them playing at a time. As I listened and considered the date of composition (1979), the thought came to me that Webern might have influenced the spareness of it, but Bazelon, unlike Webern, draws out long, singing lines, rather than short stutters. It puts me in mind of the city at something like four in the morning: car horns occasionally almost out of hearing, sometimes a loud pop of energy, all against a steady hum that may or may not be there. There's also the sense of something lying in wait around the corner, a tension, a suspense, which Bazelon stretches like Hitchcock. More than half-way in, the composer introduces a soprano vocalise (singing on the syllables "oh" and "ah"), supple and emotionally fluid, reminding me of a great saxophone solo on some intricate, winding tune like "Sophisticated Lady." At the remarkable ending, the instruments stop playing, but the musical impulse goes on.
Sunday Silence, for solo piano, comes from Bazelon's enthusiasm for racing (Sunday Silence won the 1989 Kentucky Derby). I'm not all that fond of it, mostly because it comes to me in fragments. The long, sinewy line I love in Bazelon I don't hear in this work at all. I find it monotonous, especially in its color. The liner notes by pianist Scott Dunn tell me that Bazelon did expand the work into his ninth symphony. Perhaps the orchestration would help me get inside the music.

According to conductor Harold Farberman's liner notes to the piece, Spirits of the Night shares musical ideas with the later Junctures, but I doubt most people could ferret that out without studying the two scores. Despite this sharing of ideas, the rhetorical strategies and the emotions of each piece differ. Bazelon hasn't simply re-written. Junctures is, essentially, a city pastoral. Spirits of the Night sings with far more darkness and intensity. One hears a menace in it.

Concatenations, simply from the perspective of the forces involved, comes across as a compositional "problem": the soft viola against a percussion quartet. Then you hear the music - vital and bop-jazzy. Vaughan Williams once wondered how Wagner got a certain high-strings effect in Lohengrin and then realized, "I could have gotten it, if only I had thought of the music." In Concatenations, the music seems to dictate the forces. There's no whiff of "stunt" about it. Bazelon exploits major contrasts: an introduction for solo viola; a bit for the percussion quartet by themselves; two trios for the solo viola with two different percussion layouts; a finale with the viola against the percussion quartet. The viola begins in the reflective mood that suits it so well. The percussion overturns that with an exuberant work-out. The two trios, both quiet, nevertheless show contrasting characters. The first, though quiet, is jumpy, something you don't normally associate with the viola. The second reminds me of a Bartók night-piece. The finale starts with a klang-fest for percussion and some startling vocal "shouts," perhaps inspired by Japanese or Okinawan music. The viola returns with the night-music mood of the second trio, but Bazelon has a surprise up his sleeve: the night-music over, the viola and the percussion play full out to the end, the section so well-written -- "gaps" so well-calculated -- that you hear everybody.

The performers are uniformly wonderful. If I don't get Sunday Silence, that's certainly not Scott Dunn's fault, who exploits as much color as seems to me possible and who snaps off the quick runs with electricity. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy does an amazing job with the vocalise in Junctures, bringing out her line with the virtuosity of a Sarah Vaughn. Burnham understands the jazz roots in Bazelon's Concatenations and actually manages to swing, as do the percussionists, who play through a wide range of expression and dynamics. Somehow they also manage to produce the illusion of Bazelon's long line. Farberman gets great things out of an orchestra previously unknown to me. Both Farberman and Epstein lead with total commitment and intensity. Folks, this is not a read-through.

One final comment: If I thought about Bazelon's ties to painting at all, it was probably to Franz Kline, but the CD cover shows an oil, Night Sky over Lexington, by the composer's widow, Cecile Gray Bazelon, that not only knocked me out all on its own but also seems the perfect visual analogue to the composer's music.

S.G.S. (May 2004)