Chihara Viola Music Cover

Chihara Viola Music on Bridge Records

bridge records logoBorn in Seattle in 1938, Paul Chihara’s first musical experiences were in popular music forms. He has also worked extensively in film and theatre. But in the late 1960s and on to the 1970s, Chihara looked to be the heir or even rival to Toru Takemitsu and his style of Messiaen inspired Asian/Western fusion. A series of colorful and innovative works under the collective title of “Tree Music” were recorded for CRI circa 1974, an album which introduced Chihara to many listeners, myself included. Thus this new Bridge Records recording of his works for viola was of great interest, raising curiosity as to what the composer had done since the “Tree Music” days.

Paul Chihara

Paul Chihara, 1973

The major work on the CD is the Viola Concerto (1990 rev 2010); it was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for principal violist Robert Vernon and premiered in 2009 after a protracted gestation period due the composer’s ill health. A conservative, tuneful work in one movement, the Viola Concerto skillfully explores the viola’s rich alto voice. Beginning in a Debussy-like cloud, the work progresses to an energetic waltz soon to collapse back to the impressionistic fog of the opening. While many viola works are mostly dark and ruminative, Chihara’s Concerto uses bright and contrasting orchestral colors (prominent use of bells, harp and vibraphone) to express the autobiographical nature of the work. Even with a plethora of melodies, motifs and quotes from Debussy, Scriabin, and Berg, the work is tightly organic and compact, coming in at just under 20 minutes, Coletti’s firm but warm tone keeps the active solo part in the forefront of the large orchestra.

Redwood, for viola and percussion, a part of the “Tree Music” series, is the oldest (1969), most adventurous in scoring and structure as well as the most Asian-influenced work on the CD. The solo viola and single percussionist on wood percussion and drums, explores not only the grandeur of the magnificent trees but their dense, linear, and deep red texture. The percussion captures the creaking, bending and rustling sounds of the wood but also echoes and provides some melodic motifs. The sustained viola line is composed of motifs that grow together organically to form a greater whole; the whole viola part coalesces into a grand soaring melody that eventually fragments as we reach the thin branches of the mighty tree. A mini tone poem that says more in 7 short minutes than many works three times in length.

As with the Viola Concerto, Chihara’s Viola Sonata (1991-2009, rev.2011) had a similarly difficult birth. The composer’s failing health led him to abandon work on the Concerto and begin the more intimate Sonata; a “love letter” to his violist wife Carol.

Chihara Viola Music CoverThe liner notes describe the opening movement’s themes as “Mahlerian.” In reality, the more easy-going style of Dvořák or even Mendelssohn come to mind more than Mahler. The singing second theme of the movement is a quote from the composer’s flop Broadway show “Shogun”; it reappears in the Tempo di Minuetto second movement as well. The finale was added in 2009 and brings the work to a virtuoso close. Nothing really ground breaking in this backward-looking, lyrical piece that might be performed now and then by artists looking for something a little different.

The Concerto Piccolo for 4 Violas (2007-2011) is an amalgamation of 4 short pieces written for various viola competitions and festivals. Another backward looking work, the Concerto is nonetheless an interesting exploration of the viola’s range and capabilities. Certainly well played.

Violist Paul Coletti, who performs the lion’s share of viola work on the album (Ben Ullery, Gina Coletti and Zach Dellinger assist on the Concerto Piccolo), is consistently excellent with a burnished tone that never gets broad or out of tune. The Colburn Orchestra from the Colburn Music School in Los Angeles under its director Yehuda Gilad provided well rehearsed and sympathetic accompaniment to the Viola. Concerto.

Although well recorded and likely definitively performed, the CD is ultimately a bit disappointing due to the music. At 54 minutes, it is a bit skimpy, too. The spareness, subtlety, adventure, and color exhibited in his earliest works are gone. Other than the early “Redwood,” the remainder of the works have regressed to conservative background music with little to really engage the listener besides some hummable tunes and the music’s organic flow. Since this CD is titled “Chihara Vol. II” perhaps Bridge and its fine stable of forces will re-record the “Tree Music” series, the composer’s best work.

Chihara Concerto for Viola and Viola Music (Chihara Vol. II), Paul Coletti, Ben Ullery, Gina Coletti, Zach Dellinger Violas, The Colburn Orchestra Yehuda Gilad (Bridge 9365, 2013) | Buy on Amazon US, Buy on Amazon UK

Don Clark is a classical music enthusiast, free lance concert reviewer and blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @Donaldopato.