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October 3, 2000

Modern Composers[Music of] Steven R. Gerber. Symphony No. 1; Dirge and Awakening; Viola Concerto; Triple Overture. Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling, conductor, with Lars Anders Tomter, viola, and The Bekova Sisters. (Chandos, CD # 9831) 2000.

American composer Steven Gerber may have been P.I. Tchaikovsky in a previous life; he was certainly -- if the word "certainly" can be used in a statement about reincarnation -- a Russian. Though he was born (in 1948) in Washington D.C. and now lives in New York, Gerber's latest music shows a strong affinity for the dark colors and heart-on-the-sleeve emotion of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov. This is likely part cause and part effect of his being "perhaps the most often-played living American composer in the former Soviet Union." Gerber has toured the CSS nations ten times in as many years, giving dozens of performances not only in Russia but in several of the other former Soviet Republics. Like most composers, Gerber's music has evolved and changed over the last thirty years, and not even he knows how the time he spent in Russia has affected that evolution. Speaking of his first symphony, Gerber says, "I have often been asked why the symphony sounds so Russian, or so tragic and despairing. I have no idea; that is simply the way it came out."

Though he describes then as tragic and despairing, others have characterized Gerber's recent works with terms such as "emotional directness, textual clarity, meticulous craftsmanship, and avoidance of both flashiness and academicism." It has been said that "Gerber has revived the spirit of romanticism in [his] work, with a strong sense of tonal melody and of the dramatic effects and surprises still possible in traditional forms." After going through the obligatory phase of experimentation with serialism and atonality, Gerber's recent work, including the four pieces on this new Chandos CD, show only traces of chromaticism and atonality. The four works were written between 1988 and 1998, and complement earlier works for solo violin, solo cello, and string quartet. The earliest of the three is the Symphony No. 1, begun in 1988. It is in three movements, with each of the first two movements being in three distinct parts. The opening section, marked lento, initially takes a subdued and somber tone, then gradually builds in intensity and volume, then abruptly shifts into a much lighter mood in the middle section, marked allegretto, which gradually reverts to the "mood and material of the first" section. This break in mood, followed by reversion to the opening mood happens again in the last section of the movement. The second movement is in conventional A-B-A form, but is less conventional in tonality than the first, with stronger elements of chromaticism and atonality. The last movement "begins with the opening chord of the first movement, on which is superimposed more dissonant material.... The work concludes with the trombones playing a diatonic version of the tuba theme, sounding a note of resignation."

The most recent work in the collection is the Triple Overture for violin, cello, piano, and orchestra, written in 1998 for the Bekova Sisters string trio, and "specially for this CD." The Bekovas were born in the then-Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, and have performed extensively in western Europe, specializing in works of Russian composers. Maybe they all knew Tchaikovsky.

You can hear the Symphony No. 1 by Steven R. Gerber, performed by the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, October 5 at 7:00 p.m., as part of their series of music from after 1950.

-- J. Green


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