Nominees have ties to Boston and the past

Boston Globe, MA
Feb 13 2005

Nominees have ties to Boston and the past
Up for Grammys: local artists and music with roots
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff

The nominations for classical Grammys used to be predictable — big
stars performing standard repertoire for the megalabels. For several
years, however, they have reflected changes in the industry: Now you
are as likely to see nominees that feature little-known repertoire
on independent or budget labels, played by exemplary musicians who
aren’t necessarily celebrities.

The current nominations draw attention to releases the general
music-loving public might not have encountered. That is certainly
true of two discs with strong Boston connections that appear
alongside Andre Previn’s Violin Concerto “Anne-Sophie” with the Boston
Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer and featuring his wife,
Anne-Sophie Mutter, as superstar soloist.

A Naxos disc in the Milken Archive series of American Jewish music,
“The Mirror,” which contains music by Boston composer Yehudi Wyner,
was nominated in two categories, producer of the year (David Frost)
and best small ensemble. In the producer category, Frost is up against
Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM records, and one of the records that won
him his nomination was a two-CD set, “Monodia,” music by the Armenian
composer Tigran Mansurian. “Monodia” was also nominated in the best
instrumental soloist category, where New England Conservatory faculty
violist Kim Kashkashian finds herself competing against Mutter. The
recording also chalked up a third nomination, in best classical
composition, where it is up against Previn’s concerto. Small world.

Wyner, 75, whose piano concerto receives its world premiere at the
Boston Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 17, is the son of Lazar Weiner,
the preeminent composer of Yiddish art song. The Naxos disc collects
three of his works on specifically Jewish subjects.

The title piece, “The Mirror,” comes from incidental music that
Wyner wrote in 1973 for a Yale Repertory Theatre production of a
play by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The play is about village life in
one of the small Jewish communities in Eastern Europe more than a
century ago. It is not an exercise in nostalgia for a vanished world,
though; it concerns institutionalized sexual repression, fantasy, and
demonology. The 13 short movements, arranged for concert performance,
are scored for a traditional Yiddish theater ensemble of four players;
there are also some songs, one of them charmingly sung by the composer,
as well as a bit of spoken narration.

This is appealing “roots” music, surveying idioms of the play’s
time and place, but not reproducing them. Singer’s play comes
from a deliberately skewed point of view, from a different time
and place. In his music, Wyner achieves a complementary tone and
texture: affectionate, critical, mystified, funny, and a little
terrifying. The klezmer clarinet part is played with virtuoso
abandon by Richard Stoltzman, and the prominent violin part is in
the capable and idiomatic hands of Daniel Stepner; Robert Schulz is
the percussionist. They are all prominent Boston-based players.

The disc is completed by “Passover Offering” (1959) and, from 1981,
“Tants un Maysele” (“Dance and Little Story”), both of them works
without irony or commentary, using traditional gestures but stretched
into a more contemporary harmonic language. The excellent performers
come from all over; the locals include cellist Ronald Thomas,
clarinetist Bruce Creditor, and, at the piano, the composer himself.

Mansurian, 66, is a leading Armenian composer. Like Wyner’s, his
is roots music, and Mansurian writes, “I’ve always tried to compose
works I myself can love.”

Mansurian has enjoyed a long association with Kashkashian, which
resulted in an earlier ECM CD (“Hayren”), and in the three works
composed for her on this disc: the concerto for viola and strings “.
. . and then I was in time again” (1995), “Lachrymae” (1999), and
“Confessing With Faith” (1998).

The work specifically nominated for the Grammy is the concerto;
the title comes from a phrase in William Faulkner’s novel “The
Sound and the Fury.” The 20-minute piece flowers out of an opening
gesture of five repeated notes. The music is melancholy, meditative,
and haunting; the style suggests the timelessness of Arvo Paert,
but with more density, intensity, and depth. There is dialogue of
several kinds between soloist and ensemble, but the viola dominates,
because to the soloist Mansurian entrusts highly personal questioning,
exploration, and reflection. Kashkashian plays with total instrumental
mastery and a harrowing emotional involvement. Christoph Poppen leads
the Munich Chamber Orchestra.

“Lachrymae” (“Tears”) is an eloquent duet for viola and saxophone,
instruments that share range with complementary timbres (Jan
Garbarek is the sophisticated saxophonist). “Confessing With Faith”
is a setting of seven prayers by a 12th-century Armenian saint,
Nerses. The Hilliard Ensemble intones them with simplicity and
sophistication; the viola part is both an extra, wide-ranging voice in
the ensemble, and a narrator/commentator like the Evangelist in a Bach
Passion. Filling out the disc is an earlier concerto for violin (1981)
that is more traditional; Leonidas Kavakosis the assured soloist.

Whether either of these recordings wins a Grammy or whether they
knock each other out of contention doesn’t really matter. Those who
discover them will find a bit of themselves there, for in exploring
the roots of others we gain new perspectives on our own.