Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Rich, colourful music from a diverse musical ecology

Gernot Wolfgang's new recording Passing Through is as thoughtful and entertaining as any 21st century music I've heard this year. Wolfgang's experience as a film composer and arranger has given him a facility with open, emotional music, a variety of instrumental colours, and melodies - whether film-shorthand leitmotifs or longer folk- and pop-inspired tunes - that linger in the memory.

My first exposure to Wolfgang's music was his piece Low Agenda, on the 2011 Matthias Kronsteiner disc Modified: Music for Bassoon. I got that disc for its excellent version of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 6, but Wolfgang's jazzy piece for bassoon and string bass left a strong impression.

The new disc begins with a similar bassoon work, this time with piano:

I'm sure Wolfgang is well aware of the great film music of Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Alex North. You can hear influences of each, as well as some more classically oriented composers.  The three-movement Passing Through, for oboe and bassoon, for example, has the same kind of popular/classical mix and quirky effect as Villa-Lobos's wind chamber pieces: Choros no. 2 for flute & clarinet, Trio for oboe, clarinet & bassoon, and the aforementioned BB#6 for flute and bassoon. But Wolfgang definitely has his own sound, and he's hit upon the mix of musical techniques that together produce the Gernot Wolfgang style.

My favourite piece on the album is String Theory for string quartet, an appealingly diverse suite, with folkloric roots, landscape painting and allusions to Bartok and country music. As Wolfgang explains in his excellent liner notes, once the music was finished he thought of the almost jokey title, String Theory, and then went about learning more about its meaning in physics. When musical and particle physics theory entangled, "that's when I started to feel good about naming my piece String Theory."

Composition isn't the only positive expression of film music in this album. So many of the musicians on this disc are as familiar with film and television recording studios as more traditional concert and recording venues. Gifted musicians from LA's vital music scene come together to provide the highest possible performance standards on this disc; Wolfgang seems to know them all!

In his 1940 essay "Film Music" Aaron Copland expressed concerns about taking film music out of the studio and onto the concert stage:
... it is only natural that the composer often hopes to be able to extract a viable concert suite from film score.  There is a current tendency to believe that movie scores are not proper material for concert music.  The argument is that, separated from its visual justification, the music falls flat.
It turns out, of course, that Copland needn't have worried. Modern movie audiences are much more aware of film scores than they were in Copland's day, and high quality orchestral and chamber music is heard by a much larger and more diverse audience in the Cineplex than in a concert hall or classical album or streaming service. Meanwhile, today's classical music is invigorated and made more relevant by the scene-painting, emotional nudging and character-shading work done in the Hollywood studios. This gives us a much richer musical eco-system, enriched by so many streams, to engage so many more people. This new album is a grand example of this richness.

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