Whatever you think of the music on PREMIERES – violinist Conrad Chow’s CD of original musical compositions for violin with different groupings of accompanying instruments— the concept seems to be original.
My eyebrows went up when I heard that a young violinist was recording a series of new compositions. Honestly, I don’t know if this is really an original idea or simply something new to me; but it seems like a very fresh idea, to team up an unknown player with unknown music.
One of the saddest realities is the fate of the so-called “new music” commissioned for concerts. Few compositions survive their first presentation. That’s makes the title of Chow’s CD portentous if not ironic, when you consider how few compositions survive the premiere, to be revived, let alone entering the performing repertoire for that instrument.
Having a soloist commission composers is an ideal gig, because the goal is symbiotic, a win-win relationship. Soloists need the music going forward, and so inevitably will give the composition subsequent performances, thereby avoiding that dreaded fate of the premiere/farewell performance.
I don’t know whether Conrad Chow simply sought out a series of composers, or whether there was something more complex. (recording label facilitating the matchup? composers sharing the gig?)
I’ve been listening to PREMIERES for days now, the CD that’s in my car, in my laptop at home, or in my office downtown. It’s a kind of acid test, pressing a recording into this kind of extreme service, one that exposes the good and the bad. Having been through it completely at least seven times, plus a few extra visits to specific tracks, I’m very pleased with Chow’s project, with the compositions, and the resulting CD.
Different pieces have grabbed me at different times over the past few days. Each one has to be considered a success, given that I surrendered to each one, and have decided I adore some.
Bruce Broughton’s contribution was for me the most significant, representing the pieces that are holding on to me with a series of friendly ear-worms that refuse to let go.
Broughton opens the CD with Triptych, a piece that puzzled me for the longest time: until I noticed the subtitle “Three Incongruities for Violin and Chamber Orchestra”. Earlier this week, my back was up in response to the way these three pieces bump into one another like flavours that shouldn’t be on the same plate: that is, if one expects them to be unified. Once I noticed the sub-title (forgive me, I was listening to the music in my car over and over, not in a concert hall), the composition clicked into place for me.
The first movement sounded like a modernist take-off of the prelude from Bach’s Partita in E.
Take-off? Parody? I want to include all possibilities, such as tribute, playful imitation, stretching the boundaries a bit even while reinforcing the trope. I want to invoke a sense of fun even as the piece reminds us of something antique. We are again in the presence of many of the same disciplinary concerns as one finds in Bach’s writing, both for the composer (who at times feels as though he is paraphrasing or commenting, while at other times, inventing out of nothing) and then for Chow as the fiddler. Broughton mentions Prokofiev in the program notes, which isn’t surprising considering the neo-classical touches (e.g. using woodwinds in a concertante manner), the transparent textures & the unapologetic pacing. The second movement soars with the violin, including sections where Chow seems especially comfortable with the agile turns of melody.
By the third part of the triptych we’re in an entirely different place, a folky fiddle sound that took me by surprise. Yet –after being a bit perturbed initially –I see now that they work off of each other beautifully, like the apple following the cheese.
Broughton’s other contribution is a series of short pieces called Gold Rush Songs, that I’ve been humming –badly—all week. The glimpses of Broughton’s playfulness in the Triptych are consummated in these happy pieces, containing snatches of tunes that tempt you to sing along even as they refuse to do the obvious thing (and making them deceptively hard to emulate).
Speaking of happy, I find myself more and more impressed by the work of the most junior contributor, namely Kevin Lau’s Joy. I found myself perhaps a bit like that insomniac Princess of that fairy tale with the pea causing her to toss and turn in her bed. Joy opens with several strong gestures from the orchestra, phrases reminding me of some compositions I’ve heard before –that I love—before moving through a series of moods. After listening a few times, I’ve grown more and more impressed that Lau took the stage boldly, a self-assured voice with something to say. Joy is a troubling piece precisely because it questions happiness and joy, teasing us with lovely moments that refuse to promise us an easy happily-ever-after. Lau is to be commended for bravely undertaking the old romantic project of exploring philosophical truths in his creation. I love his ambition, and even more, I believe he did a fair job in his exploration of the idea.
Ronald Royer contributed two wonderful pieces, each in two movements. His Rhapsody begins with an eclectic sound reminding me at times of jazzy bits of Ravel, at other times of Hindemith. His In Memoriam, JS Bach is another neo-classical piece (recalling that the first piece on the CD from Broughton also incorporates older music in a new frame-work), although far more adventurous than Broughton’s piece. Where Broughton’s writing reminded me of a commission where the soloist might have said “please don’t let it be too dissonant”, Royer manages to wander away from the old, without the need to be dissonant or overly complex. His writing has wonderful clarity, several gestures coming directly from the violinist that connect it solidly to the tradition of a performer demonstrating their virtuosity.
Indeed, the entire album is a stunning showcase for Conrad Chow, who bursts onto the scene –or at least into the soundtrack in my car—authoritatively and decisively. Chow shows us a broad array of styles (ably accompanied by Sinfonia Toronto), so many ways of playing and being musical in diverse styles, that the recording will surely raise his profile.
DEBUT ALBUM RELEASE PARTY
Conrad Chow, violin & Angela Park, piano
Thursday, June 28, 2012 at 7:30PM
Gallery 345: 345 Sorauren Avenue, Toronto
Tickets: $30 regular; $25 Students/Seniors/Arts Workers
Reservations can be made by calling 416 822.9781 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org