Watras’s new album Firefly Songs is a collection of original compositions exploring themes of community and personal folklore, with performances from some of her closest friends and collaborators. Firefly Songs is out now on Planet M records. For more details, click here.
If you’ve ever witnessed a live solo or chamber music performance by Melia Watras, you are familiar with the sense of immediacy that her playing involves. It’s this immediacy of beautiful tone and hard-charging energy that seizes the listener in her live performances. I was hoping that her new album on Sono Luminus, titled 26 after the total number of strings on instruments played in the recording, would yield the same ear-grabbing experience. On the whole, it does not disappoint.
The album’s selections are all world-premiere recordings of new works of music, the majority of which are Watras’ compositions. The program of music here is smart for a couple reasons. First, let’s be honest: an album of contemporary viola solos and duets may not be everyone’s cup of tea, even fellow musicians. But for those in search of interesting discoveries of great new music and those eager to discover the far reaches of a viola’s solistic capabilities, this album presents a vibrant range of music that refreshingly eschews mainstream-appeal fluffiness. Watras’ personal connection to the composers and performers also strengthens the performances immeasurably: her former teacher Atar Arad performs his and Watras’ compositions, and she is also joined by her husband, violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and longtime collaborator Garth Knox on viola d’amore. For these reasons, it definitely deserves a listen.
Watras’ compositions on 26 present a style with foundations in improvisation, rounded out with high amounts of technical difficulty. Liquid Voices, with its shimmering harmonics, crunching dissonances and angular, Stravinsky-like melodies, was inspired by a Virginia Woolf short story. Prelude and Luminous Points are both intensely personal portrait-like works, the first inspired by Bach and Watras’ relationship with her former teacher and the second by Lim’s evocative high playing. Photo by Mikel is possibly the album’s most energetic work and sounds especially improv-driven, evoking all sorts of different characters from the instrument. The Sonata for Viola Solo seems like a real repertoire piece, just jam-packed with musical content that utilizes a huge range on the instrument and some interesting techniques. Though the speed at which ideas move by is occasionally jarring, this is great musical storytelling, and I am left feeling like I’ve been along with Watras on a real journey of some sort. Its message is slightly uplifting, with the theme of a “timeless positive force” from the second movement returning at the very end in offstage playing.
Bicinium, a composition by Watras’ UW colleague Richard Karpen, presents two long, winding lines that succeed in creating a lush, enjoyable texture from only two instruments. Lim’s violin and Watras’ viola are tightly wound together, never resting in this marathon 20-minute composition until the viola gets the last word at the end. The piece’s general idea is varied in expressive ways, evoking shifting pastel colors, but this work is straightforward overall, producing no sounds that seem particularly new or different.
The two works by Arad and the one by Garth Knox are more instantly accessible than the other pieces on this release, for better or for worse. In the album-opening Toccatina a la Turk, I could feel a bit of Brubeck even before I heard the direct Blue Rondo reference. The short, fiery variation at the end left me wishing that this brief composition was longer, and took that theme further into Turkish territory. Esther contains some of the most lyrical writing on the whole album, and is a wonderful showcase for the richness of Watras’ and Arad’s viola sounds. Knox’s Stranger is possibly the album’s most tonal work, but not one of simplicity, cycling through some arresting sonic elements that are easy to love and stay with the listener.
The crystal-clear Sono Luminus sound only serves to strengthen the impact of 26. This is an album that does more than just show off virtuosity: it showcases Melia Watras’ bravery as a performer and composer, and clearly translates the power of close personal relationships in great chamber music performances. The only thing better would be seeing these musicians perform this program live in person.
[editor’s note: you CAN see selections from this performed live! Melia’s 26 album release show will be on Friday, February 24 in Brechemin Auditorium (University of Washington School of Music) at 7:30pm. The program includes selections from 26, a video presentation, and commentary from the artist.]
Join us Wednesday, October 5 at 7:30pm (PST) for a live video stream from Town Hall featuring our Artistic Advisor, Joshua Roman and the “precociously talented” violinist Caroline Goulding performing duos by Kodály, Ravel, and Handel-Halvorsen. If you’re in Seattle, we’d love to see you there! Get your tickets here and be sure to hello at the broadcast table in the lobby.
If you are expecting something small and dainty from this slim chamber music configuration, think again—the works on this program showcase the full power of these two world-class soloists. Halvorsen’s Passacaglia converts old harpsichord music by Handel into an epic display of Romantic virtuosity, while Kodály’s Duo channels the rustic energy of Hungarian folk music. In Ravel’s Sonata, a bewitching tribute to Debussy, the violin and cello produce a staggering array of colors and textures.
It’s no secret that we’re big fans of husband and wife duo Michael Jinsoo Lim and Melia Watras. They’re one half of the Corigliano Quartet, whose recordings are often heard on our 24/7 stream, we’ve featured them on our weekly program The Takeover, reviewed Melia’s latest Sono Luminus album Ispirare, and most recently we hosted them in our studios to record a video of Melia’s composition, Berceuse. This piece showcases Melia’s composer-performer role and the beauty of a relationship between two people share a life in and outside of music.
“Berceuse for violin and viola is an adaptation of the original voice and viola version of the piece, which I wrote for the fantastic folk singer Galia Arad. The piece first took shape while I was practicing the exquisite fourth movement lullaby of Robert Schumann’s Märchenbilder. Galia’s folk style was very much in my mind as I composed.
Violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim and I have been performing together since we met in our freshman year at Indiana University, so it was a natural fit to adapt Berceuse for violin and viola. Mike also exchanged bow for pen, as the author of the text for the vocal version of the piece.” – Melia Watras
Michael and Melia are integral to the (new) music community in Seattle – Michael as Concertmaster of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Melia as Associate Professor of Viola and chair of Strings at the University of Washington. Both actively perform in other venues around the Northwest and are always pushing the boundaries of what music and art can be.
To see more videos produced by Second Inversion, check out our video page!
Second Inversion hosts Rachele, Geoffrey, and Seth each share a favorite selection from their Friday playlist! Tune in at the indicated times below to hear these pieces. In the meantime, you’ll hear other great new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre 24/7!
John Adams: Road Movies (on Nonesuch Records)
“It’s a unique experience to listen to music that is relentlessly interesting and also somewhat mundane at the same time, and we get a touch of this in John Adams’ Road Movies, a work for violin and piano. To call Adams a minimalist composer is a bit lazy in my opinion; much of his music, this piece included, is constructed with the scaffolding of minimalist textures, but has much more complexity to offer. One of the composer’s few works of chamber music, Road Movies rejects the big chordal textures of his orchestral pieces and instead focuses on creating a convivial relationship between violin and piano through music that seems to be accompanying us on a cross-country road trip. We even get a bit of scordatura and jazzy swing along the journey. It’s a piece as ordinary as a drive down a long straight stretch of asphalt, and as captivating as the landmarks we find along the way.”
– Geoffrey Larson
Tune in to Second Inversion around 12:10 p.m. today to hear this recording.
Andrew Skeet: “The Unforgiving Minute” from Finding Time (on Sony Classical)
“Sometimes musicians write music to make the heart pound, but here Andrew Skeet has delivered a thoughtful, absorbing piece heavy on the strings and layered with delicate electronica. There is a stillness and fragility in this song that, in a world of flashing neon signs, feels like discovering one quietly burning candle.”
– Rachele Hales
Tune in to Second Inversion around 11 a.m. today to hear this recording.
Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 3 from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,
Performed by the Modern Mandolin Quartet on Americana (On Sono Luminus)
“Glass-haters need not read any further. I am not one, however, so I find myself captivated by the Modern Mandolin Quartet’s rendition of his String Quartet No.3. This “quartet” is really four selections taken from Glass’s soundtrack to the 1985 Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Not having seen that film, or even having been aware of its existence before I encountered this quartet, I was free to hear the piece with clear ears.
I generally like Glass’s music, but the twist here (the quartet being performed on mandolins instead of the traditional bowed string instruments) gives this recording a special quality. Glass’s music performed on string quartet instruments is a sound with which many people are very familiar, but the mandolin quartet does not suffer from that handicap. Instead of the stuffy, all-black-clad (but still quite enjoyable) “indoor” feel of Glass’s music for bowed strings, the timbre of the mandolins imbues a more adventurous, airy, denim-wearing, “outdoor” sound to this music.
This change in instrumentation and its accompanying departure from a “classic Glass” sound might also allow listeners to forget this music is very much a product of the late 20th century; the “antique” sound of the mandolin might help people to hear this music without 20th century preconceptions, as they would the music of a composer from centuries ago.”
– Seth Tompkins
Tune in to Second Inversion around 6:25 p.m. today to hear this recording.