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David Chesky's Urban Concertos
David Chesky: Urban Concertos: The Symphony Orchestra of the Norrlands Opera, Rossen Gergov, cond; Chesky, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Love Derwinger, piano; Chesky, Concerto for Orchestra; & Chesky, Concerto for Bassoon, Martin Kuuskmann, bassoon. Chesky Records, Hybrid CD, #SACD 326, time [69:00]
David as Good Guy
David Chesky has released a new album, titled Urban Concertos, that is very good music, well-played, and well-recorded. I know David from the N.Y. shows where (every few years) we hold friendly debates over healthy sandwiches and green tea concerning the relative merit of recent compositions in the contemporary classical music scene, and share information on audio gear. He's a good guy, a pioneer in recording technique, a champion of new music and new musicians, and a fine musician, himself. I'd like to think my opinions carry some weight with him, but they probably don't. For example, I've been nagging at him for years to assemble an album of Christmas music. With his list of artists it could be one of the best ever. Does he listen? Does Santa wear a blue suit? But if you sent email to him, requesting, he might lighten up. Go to www.chesky.com and surf around.
During the last year and a half (maybe two years) David's written a Concerto for Flute, a Violin Concerto, a concert piece for soprano and orchestra that lasts seven and a half minutes, a Bassoon Concerto, a Piano Concerto, and a Concerto for Orchestra, all the while simultaneously running the Chesky record label with his brother Norman, and tending to some other business ventures for radio broadcasting. If the term hadn't been used before, I'd say this period has been Chesky's annus mirabilis, or "year of miracles." Many composers would have been happy to have written one or two strong pieces in the time he's written six. My Borsalino "newsboy's cap" is off to him. Good job, David.
Chesky's Concerto for Orchestra begins with a giant chord. I asked David some standard questions about this piece. He answered with this email:
"The quote from 'Jingle Bells' is a mockery of minimalism. The concerto starts out with the 'death of 12 tone music' with the big chord, and then the 'death of minimalism' with the phrase from 'Jingle Bells,' and the kazoo comment. Why??? Because I think this is a moronic type of music to MY sensibility. Maybe for others it is genius, but not to my aesthetics. Then starts the real concerto, introducing a new school of composition called 'Urban.' David"
A Little Bartok?
The piece tips its hat to Bartok, nearly (but not quite) quoting a passage in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (1943), and then taking it to places in the Chesky orchestral landscape. In one set of variations, the Concerto's first Movement swivels between Bartok-like and Stravinsky-like figures, and how Chesky can use them in a way that goes farther than either Bartok or Stravinsky did on their own; and then swivels back to "in a one-horse open sleigh" in the horns and takes it through some changes that few musical folks could have foreseen. And on and on, sometimes playfully, other times with a kind of fury David can sometimes muster, and still other times with a quiet quality that we might call "hushed." Chesky is anything but slavishly quoting his teachers in a blindly servile manner: rather, he is taking some of their most famous licks and turning them to his own use, as if saying, "Look what I can do with these guys' stuff."
A Little Stravinsky?
In Chesky's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra he takes the well known bassoon cry, from Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, and develops his whole first movement around it. (I can't help it if I see dinosaurs from Disney's film Make Mine Music all over the inside of my eyelids when I hear it. But I do.) The second slow movement has another very 'hushed' opening. Then the bassoon re-enters, less frenetic and more melancholy than in the first, jazz-like, movement. Here is what another Chesky email says about this one:
"Take one concerto ...give it a few spins ...take two aspirins and get back to me. Let's start with the Bassoon concerto. First movement: think of [far] out bebop. Second [movement] is very romantic. Third is funky with Flamenco. My stuff is not that [far] out. It is really grounded in NYC and jazz. You have to listen to it a few times and it will make perfect sense. I was born who I was, and that's it! I wish I could write a rap song or a Broadway show tune ...but that's not me. You guys will just have to catch up." DC
A Little Put-On?
Sometimes the composer and the critic don't think of the music in the same language. I mean we are both writing in English, but we use the language differently. It might turn out that after long discussion and analysis, we would agree that given the apparent differences (owing to only a few terms) we are closer than it appears. David is nothing if not a hipster, with all that entails, including "putting on" the squares. Putting someone on is beyond being ironic. This is aimed at making the other person feel foolish. I never know when David is being ironic (doesn't mean exactly what he says), or isn't (he means more or less what he says), or he is putting me on (means for me to feel foolish). I have only the words on the cathode ray tube to guide me. As do you.
For example, does David think because he claims to have killed twelve-tone and minimalism that they will stay dead? I think twelve tone and minimalism are pretty hearty and it would take more than one shot of Chesky weed killer to do it. Would that it were enough. The twelve-tone system is over 80 years old, now, if you mark its birth with Carl Schoenberg's 5 Piano Pieces (1925). And minimalism could be over 40, depending on where you mark its birth, say, Terry Reiley in C (1964)? So when he says he has written "the death of twelve tone" and "the death of minimalism," is David serious? or is he having a joke at the expense of twelve-tone? minimalism? and anyone uncritical enough to accept David's explanation? that cheeky trickster. If he means it as a joke, that's one thing; if we are to take him seriously and he means it as a manifesto, that's another. You decide.
I guess I'm a coward, because I haven't got the courage to try to sort out all that. I think it would take a long time, and in the end it wouldn't matter much. We have his music. Some of the riffs in his Bassoon Concerto are a bit like John Coltrane's riffs on soprano saxophone. Are we to infer that David's music is grounded in jazz? Maybe having points in identity is not enough. We would have to have a great many points in identity to make it jazz. Is it based on a jazz standard? No. It is based on Bartok and Stravinsky. Does it use a lot of jazz phrases? No. It uses more of the language of classical music. Does it feature rhythmic variations? No. It uses more Flamenco rhythms, but not moving in and out of different rhythms, and not using the standard 4/4 of jazz. So, if David says he is grounded in jazz, does that make his bassoon concerto a jazz composition? No, especially if there is no "space" reserved for improvisation by the soloist, at least one cadenza. Even if David believes what he says, isn't putting us on, does that make it so? Not necessarily. Especially as we don't use the language in the same way. When I listen to John Coltrane's quartet play a standard show tune, and never quote it directly, but play it so suggestively that I "hear the lyric in my head," well that's one kind of jazz I like a lot. Does Chesky employ this technique? A bit, I must concede. But only a bit.
Leaving the jazz element out of this discussion, I guess I can say that Chesky's Concerto for Orchestra and his Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra are grounded in Bartok and Stravinsky, they use the symphony orchestra much in the way other contemporary classical music does, they owe some small part of their technique to jazz, and Chesky's way with this music is original and interesting. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is for some reason less successful for me. It may be the piano's percussive nature that I find too staccato and jarring, too much clashing and banging for my taste. Maybe he needs to show us that he can take on Bartok as an enfant terrible and beat him at his own game. Even in the hushed "slow movement" there is little besides busy work, at a slower tempo, and at a lower volume. In his flute and violin concerti, Chesky was able to create a really nice ambiance in each of the slow movements. In the piano concerto he chooses not to show us what he can do with pianistic delicacy. I wish he hadn't made that choice. Still, two out of three ...as they say.
To sum up, David Chesky has written and recorded a new album of three concerti, one each for piano, bassoon, and orchestra. The piano concerto is difficult for me to wax enthusiastic about. The idea of using the whole orchestra as an instrument for which to write a concerto dates back to Arcangelo Corelli's 12 Concerti Grossi of the late 17th and early 18th centuries (if you'll allow me the stretch), but after a long hiatus, was most successfully executed by Bartok (1943) in the 20th century. Chesky's concerto is very nicely written with much nodding to Bartok, who wrote the definitive modern Concerto for Orchestra. If you like Bartok, you'll find the Chesky concerto very interesting. The Concerto for Bassoon is something you might like if you like Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913). Here Chesky does a handful of variations on the bassoon call in the Rite, and you can hear the point of disembarkation (which develops into a set of variations in Chesky's idiom) that he builds into a complete concerto. This is sometimes aggressive, sometimes yearning, other times humorous and clever, and sometimes furious.
Both the work for bassoon and the work for orchestra are very much "music about music." That is their strength and weakness. When they succeed, they shine a bright light into the murky corners of the forms, and (don't get me wrong) they succeed more than they miss out. All in all in my spreadsheet, with his Area 31 album and his Urban Concertos album taken together, Chesky bats 5 for 6, that's five hits in six at-bats. Hey, David, if two out of three ain't bad, five out of six (.830) is faahr fuckin'ouout. In a year and a half. Great job.
This music is not for everyone. It is pretty high-brow. What if you don't know Bartok and Stravinsky? What if you like "Jingle Bells?" Well, then you might enjoy this album because it is a nearly perfect recording. The balance is great, while the clarity, detail, and low level resolution are peerless. It is a showcase CD, in stereo CD, SACD, or SACD Surround Sound. It captures the highest highs and lowest lows of the frequency band, and the loudest louds and softest softs of the dynamic band. All without dropping out any information, or muddying the waters of good definition. If you have it around the house, and play it, and pay some attention, you will learn by osmosis what Chesky is all about.
My hat's off to Nicholas Prout, who honchoed this recording along as chief recording engineer. "Good job!" to all those who arranged the dates at the Concert Hall of the Norrlands Opera in UmeŚ, Sweden. Another "Good job!" to all the musicians in The Symphony Orchestra of the Norrlands Opera, and to Rossen Gergov who provided very tasteful and intelligent accompaniment to tricky music. "Good thinking!" to those producers who chose the hall. It is in their judgment (and mine) an outstanding acoustical venue. I hope to hear more music recorded there.
This is really a CD for the connoisseur, filled with music about music, which is (some say) the highest music. No hip, with-it household should be without it. And when you do a Flamenco heel-toe over to the phone, clapping your hands to the rhythms, to tell the guy at the record vendor to order you one, be sure to tell him, Maximilian "El Dudlinesso" Dudioso sent ya.