Anne Akiko Meyers: The American Masters

In this imaginatively programmed disc from eOne Productions, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers and conductor Leonard Slatkin leading the London Symphony Orchestra explore works for violin and orchestra from three American composers whose style is generally representative of their time. Beginning with the Samuel Barber “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra” (1939) the program proceeds to the John Corigliano “Lullaby for Natalie” (first recording, orchestra/violin version, 2010) and concludes with the CD premiere of Mason Bates‘ 2012 “Violin Concerto.” Barber was a mentor and influence for Corigliano as he was and continues to be for many American composers. Corigliano, now an elder statesman at 76, was Bates’ mentor and teacher, giving the music deeper connections than one might suppose.

The story of the composition and premiere of Barber’s concerto is material for a whole book. In 1939, soap magnate Samuel Fels commissioned the work for his protege Iso Briselli. Briselli and Fels were pleased with the first two movements, but commented on the lack of virtuosity. Barber then added the short, breathless finale. Briselli and Fels didn’t think the movement was “substantial enough” and asked Barber to expand it. Barber refused, the whole project fell through. Albert Spalding and Eugene Ormandy finally premiered the work in 1941. Despite the awkward gestation, the concerto has become one of the most celebrated and performed 20th century violin concertos.

Anne Akiko Meyers made her recording debut in the Barber Concerto in 1988, a performance that is still available. This new recording features better sound and more assured virtuosity from both solo and orchestra. Overall appropriately paced and romantic, it stands with the many big names that have recorded the work. The dramatic orchestral climax in the first movement is climactic and thrilling but not overdone, flowing from the melody and the violin’s sparkling high register cadenza. Myers’ tone and intonation is uniformly tight even on high, while rich viola-like sounds abound in the moody, elegiac second movement. Slatkin and Meyers take the moto perpetuo third movement at a snappy but never ridiculous tempo, a release of the pent up energy from the concerto’s intense opening movements. Meyers’ virtuosic and propulsive violin spins like a high revving motor. The orchestra, especially the pounding (but never overbearing) tympani and piano, drive the work home in a furious blaze of notes and sound.

Slatkin and the LSO contribute not only as accompaniment but full partners to the solo. Both he and Meyers know and respect this music well, and it shows.

Anne Akiko Meyers - Photo by Ainsley Joseph

Anne Akiko Meyers – Photo by Ainsley Joseph

John Corigliano’s elegant and brief “Lullaby for Natalie” was commissioned by Meyers’ husband to celebrate the birth of their daughter. Originally for violin and piano, the composer later arranged it for violin and orchestra. The work serves as a charming, pleasant interlude between the two substantial violin concertos. A superbly crafted piece definitively performed.

Mason Bates represents the latest of the three generations of composers, born in 1977, just four years before Barber’s death. Currently composer in residence with the Chicago Symphony, his music is championed by not only Slatkin and Meyers but also Riccardo Muti and Michael Tilson Thomas. As with many of his generation, Bates acknowledges rock, jazz and techno as influences and often fuses electronics with colorful orchestration. A typical example is “Mothership” (2010), a showpiece including electronics, coordinated lighting and improvised “jams.”

The Violin Concerto was a co-commission from Meyers and the Pittsburgh Symphony and has since been performed by orchestras in Detroit, Chicago, Nashville and Richmond, VA. In his program notes, Bates writes that while his sonic palette has been growing, a large orchestra augmented with a rack of electronics would overwhelm a solo violin. Thus the concerto is thus scored for a fairly conventional orchestra augmented with harp, piano and percussion. Immediately one notices that the concerto is more straightforward than the gimmicky “Mothership” but sharing the same episodic structure.

Despite the generic title, “Violin Concerto” has a programmatic element that is key to appreciating the work. Bates writes: “The search for novel sounds pushed me, surprisingly, into primeval territory, resulting in a concerto filled with ancient animals. First and foremost is the solo violinist, who inhabits two identities: one primal and rhythmic, the other elegant and lyrical. This hybrid musical creature is, in fact, based on a real one. The Archeopteryx.”

Mason Bates by Todd Rosenberg

Mason Bates by Todd Rosenberg

The first movement “Archaeopteryx” is indeed influenced by the prehistoric bird with the solo expressing its primal rhythmic and soaring qualities. Actually the most “primal” section is the introduction with percussion with a hint of Latin/tropical rhythm all buzzing and busy. The idée fixe of the work, formed around a three note, syncopated figure soon appears evolving and expanding throughout the work. The idea reappears repeatedly, frequently reducing it to cliche rather than a cohesive element. The violin writing is busy and challenging, often soaring into the thinnest registers with sensuous grace, lazer tight intonation and all the required rhythmic grit.

The slow second movement, “Lakebed memories,” depicts the Archaeopteryx’s fossil graveyard. After a muddy, eerie intro, long lined melodies tinged with hints of bluesy jazz emerge. Again the idée fixe motive predominates but the movement soon flounders in a morass of weepy melody over clunking, chugging accompaniment, going nowhere. The last movement, “Rise of the Birds”, is a fleeting, relentless finale, much like Barber’s. Bates’ use of the idée fixe connects the movement to the other two better than in the Barber, but again there seems to be a dearth of musical argument and over reliance on the recurring theme. Accessible and melodic, but far from ear stretching, the concerto is all catchy melody than substantial document.

Liner notes are by Corigliano and are more chatty than musically informative. Good, clean sound benefits the committed performances. The curious will be drawn to the Bates Concerto, but a careful listener will more likely leave with a renewed appreciation of Barber’s masterpiece and Myers’ effortless virtuosity.

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