Gary William Friedman impresses as a composer who has mastered his craft. His strong lyrical impulse is discernable even when he adopts an atonal approach, and his disciplined technique prohibits extraneous note spinning. My feeling is that he conceives an artistic premise and won’t rest until he’s achieved it. There are some traces of jazz and Broadway proficiency in this selection of his serious works—he’s had a successful career in both fields— but they don’t intrude in an obvious way. Instead, they’re heard in a certain suavity in song, an intimate knowledge of how to dramatize a text, and a way with extended chords and subtly shifting harmonies. For example, in Song of Moses his harmonic finesse colors what in other, more conservative hands would be a conventional liturgical setting with ear-opening combinations. Yet the overall effect is stimulating rather than aggressively iconoclastic. Combined with smooth voice leading the harmonic daring imparts a lustrous sheen that precludes formulaic blandness and theatrically highlights the text.
Passages is beautifully played by Ed Matthew, who poignantly characterizes each mood of this involving clarinet concerto, yet artfully blends the numerous episodes into a well-knit whole. He’s smoothly accompanied by the attentive orchestra, which is scored with precise sensitivity. Initially surrounded by atmospheric strings, harp and delicate piano accents, the vaguely “modernist” clarinet part builds toward a tender Romance (my term, not the composer’s) that has a lovely, lyrical waltz at its heart. This floats through the central section, varied skillfully with each recurrence. Reminding us that passages are not always smooth, an energetic hint of Klezmer music—ironically?—interrupts the flow: later, another “big” moment elaborates on the third of three linking cadenzas. Actually, only one of these is even slightly florid in the manner of a traditional cadenza: the others are gentle and not prolonged. Perhaps symbolically, Passages ends as it began, with a return of the opening material.
Although I prefer instrumental to vocal music, I found listening to the first of My Heart’s Friend’s four settings— the famous “Yes” soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses—a moving experience. The twining voices mirror Joyce’s innovative fusion of language and amorous feeling, and Sylvie Jensen deftly balances joyous anticipation and recollected bliss. The remaining three songs are equally well performed, but for whatever reason it was the first that made the strongest impression.
Colloquy, for piano and viola, may qualify as an atonal composition, but it avoids the disjunct melodic agonies that often disfigure music of this type. While you probably won’t whistle Colloquy’s themes in the shower, there is a moment in the second movement where one could say “the sun comes out and the clouds disperse.” I was tempted to write ‘gloom” instead of “clouds,” but that might be imposing too heavy a burden on the music. Turbulent climaxes erupt, but the mood is primarily reflective, with the instruments—excepting a prominent viola solo— closely bound throughout the conversation’s peaks and valleys.
Gary William Friedman’s music successfully combines accessibility with artistic integrity, lyricism with abstraction, and abundant heart with refined design. While I will revisit Passages most often, that doesn’t diminish my respect for the other works.
- Robert Schulslaper
- Kraig Lamper
The composer’s background in film and theatre is quite evident in the disc’s opening selection Passages, an 18-minute clarinet concerto originally set in 1993 and revised for this recording, here conducted by Gary Sheldon with the central instrument expressively wielded by Ed Matthew. There is a definite narrative quality to this dissonantly tuneful piece (the opening measures rather recall Humphrey Searle's evocative score for The Haunting, in fact), and an impressive palette of emotional coloring. The title’s etiology is left ambiguous in the liner notes, but what with the utilization of bits of klezmer one might glean that the piece affectively traces a Jewish life trajectory, incorporating as it does all the delightful humor those musical influences suggest into an overall fabric that is by turn vaguely unsettling or somewhat melancholy - and in the work’s concluding passages (pun intended) quite heartrending. It is a fascinating composition, possibly the most enjoyable of the lot here, and brings increased satisfaction with repeated listening.
Song of Moses, an a cappella choral work in two parts (their composition separated by some two decades) shows a similar affective awareness, fielding a developmental arc that progresses from the somber declamation of the initial writing, to an exultant titular song, and the creative use of jazz influences boasted by the Amen with which the work resolves. Friedman's writing here is quite beautiful, and is dispatched with great musicality by conductor Joshua Rosenblum and the vocal forces involved; one hopes this work finds the continued life in the contemporary choral repertoire it richly deserves.
The liner notes inform us that Colloquy, the sonata for viola and piano for which the CD takes its name is “unabashedly atonal” - an entirely accurate characterization, though one that perhaps minimizes the impact of some real lyricism glimmering throughout the piece. The sonata is deftly rendered by the New York Philharmonic’s Judith Nelson and pianist Judith Lynn Stillman.
The disc concludes with My Heart’s Friend, a setting of four poems for soprano (Silvie Jensen) and baritone (Dominic Inferrera). Originally scored for four-handed piano, the work has been re-imagined for a string orchestra, and is here led by Friedman himself. The singers skillfully achieve a notably mellifluous timbral blend in what is some quite challenging vocal writing and render the text, which traces the poetry of James Joyce, William Blake, Harrison Smith Morris and a concluding setting of a Shoshone love song, quite expressively...
...Any lover of serious contemporary music should be pleased with Friedman's disc; there is much here to delight the ear, and quite a bit to challenge the mind as well.”
- Mark Thomas Ketterson