On Debut Album, Decoda Shows That Expressions of Revelry Come in All Manifestations

On their self-titled debut album, Decoda brings attractive style and artistry to an eclectic mix of compositions. The star-studded chamber music collective, which includes GRAMMY winning and nominated musicians, has spent the last decade performing as Carnegie Hall’s affiliate ensemble. Marking their 10th anniversary, the album explores the concept of revelry as “humanity’s universal need to connect through celebration,” but not always in the ways you might expect.

Valerie Coleman’s Revelry is foundational to the ensemble and the album: the piece was commissioned for and premiered by Decoda in 2018, and the world premiere recording presented here is the only piece that features all of the musicians on the album. The two-movement work blends Coleman’s full, cohesive, and impeccable orchestration with the intimacy of chamber music — a feat that flutist Catherine Gregory, clarinetist Moran Katz, bassoonist Brad Balliett, violinist Clara Lyon, violist Nathan Schram, cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, and pianist David Kaplan execute effortlessly.

Valerie Coleman--Photo by Matthew Murphy

Valerie Coleman–Photo by Matthew Murphy

Revelry immediately subverts expectations of bombastic celebration with crunchy chords and percussive strings that offer an alternate way of thinking about revelry: when people come together, it’s not always a happy occasion. The cryptic first movement, “Mysterio,” begins under a veil of spookiness, but eventually reveals tender woodwind melodies and lines that sweep through the ensemble. The dense cloud of the opening dissipates in the second movement, “War,” which is full of jittery chromatic runs and punchy interjections. As melodies connect within instrument sections and across the ensemble, Decoda collaborates with a sense of familiarity that only comes from years of working together.

While Coleman challenges our ideas of revelry and celebration, Decoda’s arrangement of William Bolcom’s Three Rags offers a more literal interpretation of the album’s guiding concept. All three rags are cinematic in their own way, with the colorful expressiveness of the instruments bringing film analogies to mind. The cheery, at times schmaltzy, opening movement is reminiscent of a silent movie soundtrack — the character on screen basking in the contentment of daily life while out for a stroll on a sunny day, with upper string harmonics zipping by and mimicking the unexpected but unobtrusive appearance of a bird or gust of wind.

This delicate touch is a mainstay in all three movements, even “Poltergeist.” Stemming from German folklore, the word describes a ghost or spirit that creates loud noises and inexplicable disturbances. In Bolcom’s work, this manifests as a dissonant unison squawk amidst what otherwise resembles an exploration of a Disney villain’s lair — reassured that all the scariness and suspense will turn out okay. “Graceful Ghost” is mellow, romantic, and deliberate, with the upper strings and clarinet working together beautifully to create the airiness implied by the movement title. The phrasing borrows its elegance from 19th century Romanticism and settles into cadences so purposefully, it feels like it should be paired with choreography.

Reza Vali -- Courtesy of artist

Reza Vali — Courtesy of artist

Situated in the middle is Reza Vali’s Folk Songs (Set No. 9) for Flute and Cello, the album’s most instrumentally pared down work. Flutist Catherine Gregory and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir are tasked with filling in all the gaps by singing, whistling, and playing drums and crystal glasses. Gregory also performs on piccolo, alto flute, and bass flute, but her most impressive feat comes in the first song as she sings and plays at the same time, a technique intended to subtly evoke the resonance of the ney, a vertical Persian flute. Each of the eight songs present an incredible diversity of sounds and textures, with highlights including the second song’s quick, breathy flute articulations complemented by col legno and ricochet bowing, and the raucous final song, where a pleading cello solo intertwines with the flute for a synergistic duet that accelerates into an electric conclusion.

On Decoda, the interrogation of what revelry can mean is incorporated as a true throughline in each selected composition. Folk music often stems from the celebration of shared cultural or national identity, so the prominent inclusion of Vali’s work is an effective programming choice. Meanwhile, Bolcom’s bright and celebratory rags and Coleman’s dark and brooding work demonstrate tonal extremes that embody and challenge our ideas of festivity and togetherness. In covering this vast spectrum, the musicians of Decoda prove themselves to be an expressive and seasoned ensemble.



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