November 28, 2000
Modern American Classics -- Volume V. Robert Starer: Samson Agonistes; Concerto for Two Pianos. William Thomas McKinley: Lightning (an overture); Adagio For Strings. Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Valek and Carlos Piantini, conductors, with Joshua Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, piano. (MMC Recordings, CD # MMC 2070) 1999.
The present album is one of a long series of recent releases from MMC Recordings featuring work of contemporary American composers. (There is a bit of irony in this collection in that one of the featured composers was born in Vienna, and the performances are by a Czech orchestra.)
Robert Starer, two of whose works are featured, was born in Vienna in 1924, but became an American citizen in 1957. He studied both at the State Academy in Vienna and at the Julliard School of Music, as well as the Jerusalem Conservatoire. Though Starer's works include pieces for chamber groups, for solo piano, and string concerti, he is best known for his operas and ballets, including several ballets written for Martha Graham. The Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra featured here reflects his proclivity for dramatic music, even in a concert work.
The beginning of the Concerto is, according to the liner notes for the album, "somewhat atypical of Starer's style, which favors gentle and gradual development rather than explosive and energetic beginnings." Indeed, the entire first movement can fairly be called explosive and energetic. Though the orchestra is an important part of the texture of the first movement, the section is clearly dominated by the pianos. The orchestra "exchanges its short, declamatory phrases and pulsating eighth-note rhythms with the soloists' more frantic sixteenth-note flurries." The near-frantic pace of the movement is unrelenting, leading to a more nearly balanced call-and-response section and ending the movement in unison. The second movement marks an abrupt change in pace and mood, starting with a "gentle, fragmented piano line played by the soloists alone." The movement is built around a lyrical theme first stated by strings then shared by orchestra and piano in a series of tranquil exchanges. After a "lighthearted" third movement, the mood switches again in the final movement to "a more serious mood, with the two soloists exchanging portentous, dark chords and rapid passages" before the entrance of the orchestra, which restores a lighter mood and propels the entire piece toward "an intense, martial close" to the work
Also featured on the album are two works by American composer William Thomas McKinley (b.1938). One of the most prolific and one of the most respected composers of his generation, McKinley is one of the handful of American composers who write both classical and jazz works. He has performed as a jazz pianist with some of the top musicians in the world, including Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Gary Burton, and others. The two works on the present album are very different in style, but both bear the distinctive stamp of McKinley's work.
Starer and McKinley both represent the top rank of contemporary mainstream American composers, each with a distinct musical voice and, more important, something distinctive to say through his work. Theirs is music that may not be in fashion but never goes out of style.
You can hear the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Robert Starer on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, November 30 at 7:00 as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.
-- J. Green
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