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Positive Feedback ISSUE 20


Max's Record of the Month!
by Max Dudious


David Chesky - Area 31

David Chesky: Area 31; Area 31 Ensemble, Anthony Aibel, cond; Chesky Concerto For Violin and Orchestra, Tom Chiu, violin; Chesky The Girl From Guatemala, Wonjung Kim, Soprano; & Chesky Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Jeffrey Khaner, flute. Chesky Records, Hybrid CD SACD-288, time 56:31.

As anyone who knows David Chesky will aver, David is a complex man, a strong personality. When you run into him he may be playful, cynical, witty, stern, laconic, and deliberate in turn, or (seemingly) all at once. He is a good guy, into finding new music, helping new musicians, and very much into developing his own music. Up to now I found his works a bit too autobiographical, like many first novels. This time he's offered us a triptych of "pure music for its own sake," played by a modern chamber orchestra made up of New York musicians from 13 nations called the "Area 31 Ensemble," plus three accomplished soloists, and a conductor well-versed in the modern idiom. By the way, in an atypical production gaffe, the album notes fail to inform us just how many, and which instruments the un-named instrumentalists are playing. Talk about toiling in the garden of anonymity.

I thought I'd acknowledge my opinion of David right from the start, because he is so strong a personality that it is hard to separate the man from his works. He is a gifted musician who could easily be making a handsome Hollywood living writing screen scores if he didn't have a record label to run. David is the tasteful Artists and Repertoire man for Chesky Records, while brother Norman is corporate comptroller in charge of cash-flow. Somehow David finds time to write music, and for that my hat's off to him. It seems in order to write serious music these days you have to have a "day-gig" and be willing to exist on four or five hours sleep a night, or you have to have bagged a grant from a major foundation.

David's gifts are apparent. He is a good professional musician. He can jam on piano with Jazz musicians, or sit in with Blues groups, then turn around and write serious classical works, such as Area 31. The book may not be closed on the stature of David's music until most of us are gone. He might yet be judged a "great" composer, like the insurance executive Charles Ives. I think David has to work out his musical identity, his personal musical syntax, and develop a body of work using it before such judgments can be made. At the moment his music tips its hat to many of the composers of the 20th Century cannon: Stravinsky, Bartok, Ives, Berg. And all this hat-tipping might get a little in the way of his establishing his own David Chesky voice.

It is my opinion that Chesky hasn't yet chosen his musical ancestors nor subsequently separated himself from them not that every creative musician has to go through "by the numbers" Yale Professor Harold Bloom's schema for individuation (as put forth in his The Anxiety of Influence), but it is surprising how many musical biographies suggest they do. Think of Beethoven's relationship with his mentor, Haydn. Or Brahms, who felt so under the thumb of Beethoven he couldn't get to his first Symphony until age forty. I guess Brahms had to wrestle with Beethoven's legacy before he could become his own man. There is nothing in Chesky's work that shows me any of that sort of wrestling in action. Maybe it would help David if there were.

When I started to write this essay, soon after the HE 05 Show in N.Y. this spring, I was sorta-kinda of the opinion that David had not yet found how to take the music of earlier masters and (in the phrase of Ezra Pound) "make it new." I listened to Hilary Hahn's great recording of Igor Stravinsky's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Sony (SC 90649-2), and Kyung Wha Chung's equally arresting recording of Bela Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 1 and No. 2, London (425 015-2). I could hear how Chesky uses each of these musicians. There is a phrase in the slow 2nd movement of Chesky's Violin Concerto that I'm almost certain is a quote from Stravinsky, but I've not been able to find it, and Chesky builds much of a movement around it showing what he can do with only a phrase of one of his ancestors. In Chesky's first movement the hand clapping that appears desultorily throughout the piece seems to owe more to Bartok's use of Hungarian gypsy music than Villa-Lobos's use of Latin American music, as my colleague Robert Baird writes in honoring this album as Stereophile's "Recording of the Month." Chesky's languorous slow movement, reminds me strongly of Stravinsky's Tango section in his The Soldier's Tale, Pentatone (5186 046), both in the rhythm and in the spare selection of instrumentation. There is also a reminder of Astor Piazzolla's distinctive work with the Tango as a form, and we know the Chesky label recorded Piazzolla's Concert In Central Park, Chesky (JD 107).

The second piece on this album is the song-like The Girl from Guatemala, featuring soprano Wonjung Kim in a wonderful display of her beautiful voice and precise technical control. She is special, even if the title led to expectations of Austrud Gilberto. Listening to this piece I was struck by the percussive use of chords that reminded me of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, RCA (5604-2-RC), and his introduction of the celesta seemed a public tip of the hat to Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, also RCA (5604-2-RC). Not to say that he is slavishly imitating Bartok, or Stravinsky: rather, Chesky is tipping his hat to them by demonstrating what he can do with their chops. And how he does, is rather well.

 In Chesky's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, in the second movement, he writes a beautiful and sensually slow miniature. (Chesky has a real feeling for his slower movements.) He may have written in this movement a smaller and updated version of Manuel de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain. The music is not so similar as is the ambiance. If you've ever been to Madrid in high summer, you'll understand: The whole city is subtly undulating day and night. "In Espana, mille et tre." The two very quick outer movements of this concerto are quite other. I have had the pleasure of hearing the flautist, Jeffrey Khaner, in person at a chamber music festival in Rockport, Maine (with Corno de Bassetto and our wives). Khaner played a piece that convinced me he is one of the planet's great flute virtuosi, Assobio a Jato (The Jet Whistle) by Heitor Villa-Lobos. He proves it again with the Chesky Concerto, which is quite different from "The Jet Whistle" (Hyperion CDA 666 38, 1992/3), but equally difficult. And Chesky knows how to use such virtuosity, with two part inventions, in this instance the flute playing "call and response" with the bassoon, at machine gun speed.

This Father's Day, I heard the world premier of a violin concerto by the American composer, Daniel Brewbaker, performed by the Russian violin phenom, Vadim Repin, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I tried to get in touch with David, to have him come hear it with me. Lisa Schoenepunim, Chesky's girl-Friday, said he was either out of the country, or sleeping off a recent trip. I think he would have enjoyed the concert. The performances were quite something; the hall is one of the better newer halls; the guest conductor, Englishman James Judd, is a very attentive accompanist; soloist Vadim Repin is totally amazing; and together they showed what the competition is up to, which is setting the bar very high. I think David Chesky's violin concerto, though differing in size and style, is on a par with Brewbaker's Concerto. I think that Chesky deserves to be thought of as among the serious composers of his generation, and his pedigreed soloists agree, or they wouldn't record his work. Of course, time will tell.

At first listen to this album, I thought that David had not yet created his own uniquely individual voice. Having studied this work, and listened to most of the works mentioned in this essay, I listened again to his very dark earlier works (The Agnostic, The Psalms), and with his recently dark but now sunny medical history in mind, I have to take that back. (David mentions his medical team in the album notes, so I'm not telling tales out of school.) David has shown me that he has internalized much of the characteristic tropes of Stravinsky and Bartok, Piazzolla and even Marta Gomez (he's an omnivore), transformed them into his own new music, demonstrating that he can "make it new." The most striking thing about this album is it shows David's witty, playful, musically humorous side. The recording engineers, led by Barry Wolifson, do their usual excellent job. And so I'd concur with Robert Baird that Chesky's latest album, Area 31, deserves to be honored (though for different reasons) as a trio of compositions, and as a truly excellent Hybrid recording. I hereby proclaim David Chesky's Area 31 the Max Dudious "Recording of the Month" for June.

My view of David's compositional skill (as much as possible independent of my view of his being a pioneer in recording technique, an early pioneer in championing surround sound, and a leader in new talent development), is this: David Chesky is among our nation's best contemporary composers and his work demands our attention. This is his latest and best album so far. More than anyone I know, David eats, drinks, and sleeps serious music. Check it out. Just slurry on down to the stone soul CD shoppe, doing the walking samba, and when the Dude asks you, "Whassup?" Tell him, "David Chesky!!"

And make sure you tell him Max Dudious sent you.

Ciao bambini.

This review is also published in the current issue of Audiophile Audition at