David DeBoor Canfield Review: ART FOR TWO

Published: November 10, 2018

Arthur Gottschalk is one of those composers who make me feel a bit guilty—guilty, because his music and reputation is such that I feel that I somehow ought to have encountered it before now. Fanfare readers may be ahead of me on his music, as several of his works have been reviewed—mostly positively—in these pages. He is Professor of Composition at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and has won numerous awards, including a residency at the MacDowell Colony and the Charles Ives Prize at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The present recital opens with Benny, Zoot and Teddy, an up-tempo, jazz-infused discourse between the two winds and piano. I don’t know much about jazz, but one doesn’t have to know squat to guess that “Benny” refers to jazz (and occasionally, classical) clarinetist/band leader Benny Goodman, and “Zoot” to saxophonist Zoot Sims. My knowledge (or ability to guess) ends at that point, since I’m not sure to whom “Teddy” refers. Perhaps it was to Teddy Wilson, a noted jazz pianist of his day, described by one critic as “the definitive swing pianist.” Regardless of the significance of the title, I found the piece to be a delightful confection, a skillful blend of jazz and classical idioms, with the former and latter taking turns in predominating. The ebullient spirit continues in Gottschalk’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano which begins with a boisterous freely tonal “Allegro,” continues with a rather laid-back “Waltz Nocturne” and concludes with a “Bravura!” which is indeed brimming with—you guessed it—bravura (in the form of spiky rhythms and harmonies.) The work is rather much in the tradition of the sonatas by Robert Muczynski, Bernhard Heiden, and other coeval composers. Indeed, it’s a most attractive work.

Oh, More or Less is a duo for tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, a combination which is guaranteed to give a rather dark sound regardless of the flurry of activity that permeates the piece. With no annotations about any of the works on the disc, I no way to know the significance of the title. Along the way, Gottschalk achieves some interesting effects, including simultaneous trills on the two instruments. Occasional slow ascending tonal passages add variety to the often busy activity. The two performers achieve a remarkable blend of their instruments in this work, blurring the distinctive tonal characteristics of their respective instruments.

I must state that Gottschalk’s Sonata for Bass Clarinet and Piano is the best such sonata I’ve encountered, but that may seem faint praise, considering that I’ve likely not heard more than four or five works in this genre previously. I can aver that even if that number were ten times greater, this would likely be the case, as this work is nothing short of brilliant. In its rhythmic vitality, the exploration of the full range of both instruments, and its intricate interweaving of contrapuntal elements, the piece is ingeniously conceived. As much as I like all of the works on the disc, this one is my favorite. I could happily listen to it a dozen times in succession, and actually did listen to each of its three movements again immediately upon its completion. The energetic opening movement, “Overture, Salt Peanuts Memorial Barbeque,” is followed by a second movement entitled “Motet – Ancient Incantations,” features a lyrical line in the clarinet over which fluttering filigree in the upper register of the piano is heard. The effect is sui generis. The sonata concludes with “Finale – Green Dolphy Street Boogie,” an infectious romp through jazz-influenced styles. The composer makes effective use of percussive effects during this movement, although it is not always obvious as to which player is creating them. The ending swoops all the way up to a high concert E-flat above the treble staff, a note which I would not have thought possible on the bass clarinet. Yet, Berti whips it off with ease.

The final work, Shalom, reunites the two featured artists in a work for tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, and choir, perhaps the first work ever composed for these particular forces. The title is the Hebrew word for peace, and the piece strikes a more somber tone than that which generally pervades the earlier works. The two winds are used in largely coloristic fashion over the slow sustained lines in the chorus. The effect produced is other-worldly and extremely evocative, yielding a work that is profoundly moving. The chorus sings eloquently, but there is no text in either Hebrew or English provided. (The CD lists an address at which “additional album content” is available, but accessing that provided four short paragraphs which largely duplicate the information I’d gleaned from the short booklet accompanying the release.)

Ciaccio and Berti, as well as pianist Naomi Fujiya, play with verve and technical fluency, their artistry serving to bring off these demanding works exceedingly well. Additionally, the two wind players have very distinctive tonal production, each seemingly making an effort to have his instrument sound like the other, such that their blend when they’re playing together works exceedingly well. Gottschalk’s music is consistently a delight, and consequently, this CD receives a high recommendation from me, certainly transcending the boundaries of appeal to woodwind aficionados.

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