Review: Chiaroscuro by Richard Lavenda

First, I should probably be up front about this: Richard Lavenda was my composition teacher, and has been my mentor and friend for about twenty years.

That said, I hope nobody will discount as intrinsic bias my view that Chiaroscuro: Chamber Music of Richard Lavenda is absolutely a first-rate, stunning recording.


The disc leads off with its title track, ably performed by Leone Buyse, alto flute; Benjamin Kamis, bassoon; Matthew Strauss, vibraphone; and Timothy Pitts, double bass.  You might suspect that a piece scored for bass, vibraphone and a pair of woodwinds might be jazz-inflected— and you’d be right.  The piece opens with a bebop like gesture whose harmonic and contrapuntal implications are fully explored one way; then this opening gesture is repeated again well into the piece and taken in an entirely different and unexpected direction.  The title refers to the visual arts technique that features sharp contrasts between light and dark.  Musically, this piece reflects its apt title by juxtaposing lighter jazzy excursions and more moody, introspective textures.  The unusual combination of timbres is also refreshing and suits well the content that is written for it.  The language for this piece (indeed, the entire album) uncompromisingly post-tonal and chromatic, but favors harmonies that maintain a healthy balance of traditional consonance and dissonance.  Technically the piece also creates local-event pitch hierarchies so that there is never a feeling of flatness.  I have long maintained the trouble with much post-tonal music is that composers and performers alike often assume that all twelve pitch classes must be treated in an egalitarian fashion at all times; this is an unfortunate myth.  Lavenda wisely never falls into this trap.

Rhapsody (at the center, stillness) is one of two rhapsodic pieces on the disc, which are placed sequentially one after the other.  Performed here by Misha Galaganov, viola and John Owings, piano, the piece opens with an extended unaccompanied viola solo that creates a great deal of tension and suspense: how and when will the piano enter?  The material is lyrical and, indeed, rhapsodic.  When the piano finally enters, at 2:41, a stark color shift occurs, and we realize that the Chiaroscuro title is perhaps an apt unifying theme for the disc.  After this point, engaging dialogue occurs between piano strings and viola strings which explore extremities of register for both: great highs and deep lows.  Lavenda once told me, and I never forgot, that music has essentially three dimensions, that are polarities: high-low, fast-slow, loud-soft.  This piece explores those poles expertly.

You might suspect a solo unaccompanied piece for solo saxophone named Rhapsody Tropes would be jazz-inflected— and again, you’d be right.  Richard Nunemaker, Lavenda’s long-time collaborator, delivers an impassioned performance of a piece that evokes the shades of film noir.  While intensely lyrical from the outset, the piece quickens its pace in short order, and the conflict between pulse and lyricism directly ensues.  There is no clear victor in this conflict; the tropes are delightfully ambiguous.  Is it a pulsic piece that entails lyricism, or a lyrical piece that entails pulse?  My reaction is that a true balance is achieved, which is noteworthy.  Nunemaker captures a great deal of nuance in his delivery, which is a blessing to the composer, as in my own experience I find the solo unaccompanied monodic instrumental piece the single most difficult idiom for which to write.  No simultaneous notes can be achieved (unless one resorts to extended techniques); there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.  It is often easier than one might think to hide behind vast amounts of color and activity when one has many forces at one’s disposal.  Here, Lavenda simply fills the room with some high-lows, fast-slows, and loud-softs.  One never feels shortchanged.

Heat of the Moment features the Trio con Brio (Gary Whitman, clarinet, Misha Galaganov, viola and John Owings, piano).  This piece has a sardonic, humorous quality, and a swing to it.  Interestingly, the moments of greatest rhythmic activity are also among the quietest, creating tremendous intensity which is then relieved by gentle interludes of angular melodic exploration.  Like Chiaroscuro, this piece also is selective in featuring local-level pitch centers and pitch hierarchies that suggest that the resultant harmonies are also hierarchic in nature; this yields a sense of forward direction that is a constant to the piece, leading logically and seamlessly from one moment to the next.

Lavenda, however, saves the best for last: String Quintet: thoughts fly is nothing short of a masterpiece.  It is reminiscent at times of Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet and Berg’s Lyric Suite in its alternating drives and lyrical breaks.  There is also an emphasis on internal counterpoint among the five instruments (two violins, viola and two cellos), including a brief passacaglia that diverges into an ambiguous exchange between the two cellos (as if to say, hey, who’s in charge here?).  The piece is precisely and exquisitely delivered by the Chiara String Quartet (Rebecca Fischer, violin; Hyeyung Yoon, violin; Jonah Sirota, viola; and Gregory Beaver, cello) along with their long-time mentor Norman Fischer.  The Chiara Quartet in my mind occupies the same space on the contemporary concert scene as did Norman Fischer’s old outfit, the Concord String Quartet, in the 1970s and 80s— they are tireless champions of important new American music, and always perform it with technical precision and artistic passion.  This recording is no exception.

It is a three-movement affair, with the first movement aptly titled Blaze.  It is quick-paced, driving, and well-timed in its sense of when to stop and pause, and what to emphasize when it does.  It is extremely gestural, with many instances of imitation and dialogue between the five.  Sections with a high degree of information to absorb are put into relief by sections built on inviting ostinati.

The second movement, from a farther room, is introspective and calm.  This follower of Lavenda’s music over several years had to smile when the opening gesture of his piano-cello piece Memory’s Motion was quoted directly, a piece that was also written for Norman Fischer (and his partner and wife Jeanne).  Theirs has been a warm and fruitful collaboration which has been a pleasure to see develop over these many years.  In this movement, parallel motion and homorhythm replaces frenetic exchange, thereby producing another stark chiaroscuro-like contrast.

Finally, Razzle-Dazzle does not fail to disappoint given the high bar set by its title.  The music and the performance are both equally impressive.  It is brisk, but always controlled.  The aforementioned all-too-brief passacaglia occurs in this movement, which morphs seamlessly into a swinging, snappy departure.  Then we return to exchanges, dialogue and imitation in roughly equal measure, along with sharp dynamic contrasts.  Loud-soft.  High-low.  Fast-slow.  The contrasts are sharp, but logical and never forced.  The movement ends with a push to a surprising harmony that has tremendous conclusive force, and whose tonal implications invite retrospective re-examination of all that came before.  It is a delightful twist.

All in all, this is a must-have disc for those appreciate serious, complex, nuanced, dynamic and varied post-tonal concert music.  It is uncompromising in its tonal language, but never fails to be engaging, and, even, perhaps, outright entertaining.  One comes away from the disc hoping for further future releases, perhaps next time with larger forces or with vocal music.

Legitimately released excerpts from the album can be heard here.

-Robert Gross

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