Michael Colgrass – Side by Side: 1: Letter from Mozart; 2:Side by Side; 3: Schubert Birds
Boston Modern Orchestra Project – Gil Rose: cond; Andrew Lamb: additional cond. (1); Joanne Kong: hpd and pf (2)
If you choose “to live life” in the proverbial sense of opening yourself to it with a sense of wonder then you, in all probability, experience the myriad worlds that swirl around you. The legendary Canadian composer Michael Colgrass certainly chose to live life that way and, before he passed away this year (2019) he left us a treasure of music to listen to and experience and hopefully point the way forward for those who care to listen to “the voice” inside us all. As it turns out – at least in the classical and jazz worlds, both of which Mr Colgrass inhabited with gusto – many a musician did likewise. But only a few – Mr Colgrass being one of them – came up for air, proffering the sound and vision of what “living life to its fullest is really like.
These large works by Mr Colgrass, arranged on the recording entitled Side by Side give us a glimpse of the composer’s importance. Mr Colgrass’ masterstroke throughout his composing life was to take – in all its glory – the romance of life, as well as its ironies and foibles and turn it into something beguilingly modern, with one eye on the past and the other decidedly on the future. As a result, this repertoire – indeed all of Mr Colgrass’ oeuvre takes to heart the principle that artists must aim for a coolly elegant modernity, braced with a classical sense of proportion. And so, as in works such as his Pulitzer-winning one, Déjà vu which imbued that artifice aplenty, there is also much ingenuity in the way he achieved those fresh sounds, this time with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
One of Mr Colgrass’ great strengths was as a lyrical melodist. As a writer he was also dedicated to extending his palette into the multi-disciplinary realm of the arts. His work, while highly experiential is also extraordinarily imaginative, redolent of exquisite delicacy and revealing of every nuanced sound and texture of the instruments he wrote for and worked with. Moreover, few can also match his gift for things bordering on surreal, yet tempered with a decidedly emotional and sensual strain. And these three works offer a wondrous display of every glittering facet of the composer’s abilities. Beginning with “Letter from Mozart”, where the great classicist throws down the gauntlet to Mr Colgrass to write a contemporary – 20th century work – based on one of his Austrian ones from the period when it was written.
The result is “Letter from Mozart”, an appropriately lightweight (in the best sense of the word) work, which is Mr Colgrass’ most idiomatic and witty pieces. It contains some of the most radiant and refined orchestral performances. The brilliantly complex piece resolves its dichotomous elements that follow one another, in its magnificent dénouement. The two conductors, who magically bring the contrasting musical elements together, treat – and therefore are able to bring – the players of the Boston Modern Orchestral Project together as one force to maximise the dramatic impact of piece.
“Side by Side” is a work for orchestra, with a soloist – Jeanne Kong – performing on prepared piano and harpsichord. This work features the flighty delicacy of the harpsichord works its delicate magic evoking almost ghostly versions of Satie and Ravel, with a generous helping of pure Colgrass, is magnificently contrasted by the more lugubrious-sounding (as it were) sound of the prepared piano. As it turns out the soloist-and- doppelgänger provides the rhythmic drive that, together with the orchestra, develops the work’s insinuating charm ensconced in colours and feelings that are quite breathtaking.
All of this is capped off by “The Schubert Birds”, another work of great imagination and that personifies the Romantic as a bird. Here is a work in which Mr Colgrass seems to pull out all the stops, revealing every aspect of his virtually quixotic temperament. At his most classical and yet forthrightly avant-garde, Mr Colgrass conveys complex ideas melded in with poetic Schubertian language with a strong mixture of melancholy in a most emotive manner. Such hedonistic music needs delicacy and sensuality in equal measure and it certainly gets all of this from the BMOP who pull out the stops while doing full justice to the kaleidoscopic nature of this work.
Released – 2019
Label – BMOP/sound (1064)
Runtime – 58:24