Grief and Reconciliation: Patrick Castillo’s The Quality of Mercy (Innova)

One of the many benefits of reviewing discs for I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is the opportunity to explore the works of the newest, freshest voices in classical music. The Quality of Mercy— an expertly recorded, artistically packaged recording of three major compositions by Patrick Castillo on the enterprising Innova records– showcases a composer deserving of wider exposure. Composer, performer, writer, and educator, Castillo’s music has been performed throughout the United States, Europe, and most recently at the Havana, Cuba Contemporary Music Festival.

Setting him apart from the mainstream of contemporary music, Castillo gets a lot of mileage from very economical material through the use subtle shifts in scoring, harmonization, and volume. Performers often speak about a work or composer that is special to them because they see and appreciate the inner-workings and how subtle manipulation of keys, melodic patterns, and intervals makes the music work. Non-musicians simply appreciate the outcome, how it moved them or expanded their listening experience. The compositions featured on this disc are much like that; on the surface communicative, imaginative, and accessible, yet also a delight for the technical-minded to dissect.

Composer Patrick Castillo (photo: Lauren Farmer)

Composer Patrick Castillo (photo: Lauren Farmer)

This is the Hour of Lead (2007 rev. 2014) for mezzo-soprano, flute, string quartet, piano, and percussion is an abstract meditation on the stages of grief, moving from loss to acceptance. The 20-minute work sets two poems, “This is the hour of lead” by Emily Dickinson and “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats. Gently rocking mallets and warm lyrical strings begin the work, but there is immediately a sense of unease and vulnerability. As the texture fills, the piece takes on a darker, dissonant mood. A sweet, melismatic flute melody emerges over the hypnotic rocking motive but soon succumbs to the major 3rd interval from the violin’s first entrance. Castillo effectively harmonizes this simple D-Bb interval to sound menacing instead of warm and lyrical. The voice enters and straightforwardly presents the Dickinson text over a more  complex and heavy texture of percussion and strings. We journey from the gentle opening to the heavy, burdened concluding lines, “This is the hour of lead, Remembered, if outlived..” boldly proclaimed by the voice introducing the tragic tone of the remainder of the work.

As much as the voice and text are important, Castillo interestingly lets the instruments alone convey the fragile, shifting emotions of grief, anger, and denial in two short “Interludes.” The pivotal emotional and temporal center movement is a keening “Vocalise,” an elementally-human expression of overwhelming grief; words now fail completely. By the last movement, acceptance is inevitable– but not easy– and is fragile. The poet, being poor, can only offer dreams to his beloved. “Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams–” the mezzo sings the last line of Yeats’ poem quietly and unaccompanied, bringing this dramatic scena to a wistful close.

The Quality of Mercy (2009) is somewhat similar in scope and mood; an abstract portrayal of reconciliation following This is the Hour of Lead‘s cycle of grief. The Quality of Mercy also uses instruments and wordless vocals more than explicit text to express the feeling of reconciliation and peace. The opening “Introit” and “Kyrie” movements set a spiritual tone; mercy is the call, the opening bell resembling a call to worship or to meditation. As the work progresses through its eight short movements, various sounds and textures begin to co-operate, merge, and compliment. Use of recorded sounds– birds, conversation, rain– provide a unifying, elemental base to the work that is also organically well-integrated into the musical texture. The third movement, “What,” sets the only text of the piece, a short questioning phrase “what shall I call you, O my resemblance?” To close, gentle rain, refreshing and merciful, returns the listener to the spiritual world of the “Kyrie.”

The Quality of Mercy is a tougher nut to crack than This is the Hour of Lead due to the very abstract setting, but worth the effort. The music is restrained and reflective but brimming with a variety of texture and sound that draws you into its world. Although not conceived as such, This is the Hour of Lead and The Quality of Mercy compliment each other nicely, telling a moving and emotional dramatic tale.

Short, terse, and described as “Webern-esque” in the CD notes, Cirque (2006) for solo violin serves as an expressive interlude, keeping the same fragile, unsettling mood of the two major works. Quick spurts of sound and short figures predominate, each motif or phrase a miniature tone poem in itself. Karen Kim tackles the thorny score with grace and aplomb, closely miked so as to hear every subtle nuance of sound. Through out the CD, the ensemble (Jill Heinke, flutes; Moran Katz, clarinets; Karen Kim, violin/viola; Hiro Matsuo, Cello; Ian Rosenbaum, percussion) is uniformly excellent. Mezzo Abigail Fischer’s voice is clear but also warm and expressive– her vocalise in This is the Hour of Lead is dramatic and chilling, not harsh and screechy. The strings are warm and friendly or menacingly angry, as needed. The winds are fleet and precise, complimenting Rosenbaum’s deftly colorful percussion. The sonics are clear and natural, and the cover art fits the restrained, abstract quality of the music. The program notes do not say much about the works, but more information can be found on the Innova website.

Bottom line? Patrick Castillo is a composer that has something to say and knows how to communicate his message. Look forward to more from this important voice.

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