The U.S. is home to many rich musical traditions. From jazz to country, funk to rock ‘n’ roll, and hip hop to house music, our country has made a name for itself as an innovative and imaginative purveyor of popular music.
But America has also made great contributions to the contemporary classical music genre. Though our country is often overshadowed by Europe’s vibrant and influential musical history, over the past century American composers have played an important role in shaping the future of classical music.
As such, this week’s album celebrates contemporary classical music a little closer to home: the Seattle Chamber Music Society performing an array of works by American composers.
The album, titled “American Chamber Music,” features several musicians from the Seattle Chamber Music Society, including the group’s artistic director, renowned violinist James Ehnes. Recorded at the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2013 Summer Festival, the album is a compilation of works composed by Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, and Samuel Barber.
Ehnes and pianist Orion Weiss begin the album with Copland’s Sonata for violin and piano, a truly lyrical and theatrical work. Copland’s talent for composing balletic music is fully apparent in the piece’s gentle, glistening melodies and its poetic interplay between voices. Ehnes and Weiss play with the grace and elegance of dancers, transitioning flawlessly from the sweet and spirited Andante to the slow and somber Lento before closing with the sprightly, syncopated Allegretto.
Ives’s Largo for violin, clarinet, and piano is next on the program, catching the listener’s ear with its sweet, solemn piano introduction. The piece slowly builds in intensity with the addition of violin and clarinet, the music expanding into rich textures, striking harmonies, and unexpected syncopations before gradually retreating back to a soft, delicate ending.
The work is followed by Bernstein’s Trio for violin, cello, and piano, a theatrical piece with plenty of characters. The first movement features broad, beautiful violin and cello melodies soaring above sparkling piano harmonies. The second movement brings a change in texture, using pizzicato and stressed bowings to craft a busy, energetic soundscape. A lively, fast-paced, and purposeful third movement brings the piece to a dramatic close.
Carter’s “Elegy” for viola and piano is nothing short of enchanting. Violist Richard O’Neill and pianist Anna Polonsky perform the work with sincerity and tenderness, bringing to life melodies at once passionate and vulnerable. Their expressive and poignant performance makes it one of the album’s highlights.
The album finishes strong with Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11. The musicians move gracefully through the first movement’s three themes: the first a dramatic motif presented by all four instruments in unison, the second a softer, chorale-like theme, and the third a tender, lyrical melody. The famous second movement features a slow, extended melody which moves through all of the instruments and climaxes dramatically at the quartet’s highest possible pitch range. The short but compelling closing movement brings the piece to dynamic and powerful end.
The passion and urgency of the quartet’s final movement serves as a beautiful, memorable coda for an album full of works by American composers whose determination and imagination helped pave the way for what contemporary classical music is today.