CD Review: Scott Pender, Chamber Music for Strings and Piano (Navona Records 5968, 65 minutes)

First, some reminiscence, to drive home my admission that I have more than a few personal connections with this release: I first met Scott Pender at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University (better known, probably, as Peabody Conservatory of Music), in 1983. He studied composition with Jean Eichelberger Ivey and, like all composers I met at Peabody, was very smart, funny, and familiar with a wide variety of music. We shared some formative experiences (among them Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach and the Gothic daytime television series Dark Shadows). He loved Berg (I was at the time ambivalent about him—still am), and we went to see Wozzeck together at the Met; he also introduced me to Indian food. I believe I introduced him to Steve Reich’s music, and I can remember both of us (along with our friend Thom Robinson) positioning ourselves strategically outside on Charles Street so that we could ambush Philip Glass, who’d come to speak at Peabody. (We also attended a Glass concert at the Meyerhoff Hall together in the same week.)

Scott had already written a lot of intelligent and compelling music; I remember a rather Bergian string quartet (which might have been his master’s thesis at Peabody) and a set of five chorale preludes, the first of which (on “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich”) revealed a glimmering of minimalism but, more important, a heartfelt lyricism. Scott had recently been accepted to study with Alexander Goehr on a Fulbright, and I was, against all odds, about to win a scholarship to study harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (I say “against all odds” because I never expected to study abroad). Scott and I were performing some of his music together.

Just then he made an important request to the Fulbright people: he wanted to switch teachers from Goehr to Gavin Bryars, and all because of a growing interest in tonal music and, as he puts it on his website, repetition as a structural device. The request, though unorthodox, was granted. Scott and I socialized together while we were abroad, watched many movies at London’s Scala Cinema, ate lots of Indian meals; I visited him when he would travel to Leicester Polytechnic (now DeMontfort University) and also became somewhat friendly with Gavin and the experimental composer John White. (Gavin always bought me a gin and tonic when he saw me at concerts.) We did a couple performances at Leicester, following up on the concerts we’d done at Peabody; it felt good to perform with him.

After we both returned to the United States (in 1987), we founded a synthesizer ensemble, Industrial Arts, along with Thom (that’s another story, which I’ll write about one of these days), and Scott soon distinguished himself as a composer of choral and vocal music (a Requiem as well as other shorter works); he also wrote skillfully and prodigiously for Industrial Arts, and we included newer works as well as his early and severely minimalist piece, Music for 4, to which we added a narration drawn from comics, Wittgenstein, and other unlikely sources. All the while Scott was working for ABC, on the staff of Nightline.

At a certain point Industrial Arts ceased to be, I went on to study musicology and harpsichord at the Eastman School of Music, and Thom Robinson died far too young from HIV-related illness. Meanwhile, Scott began a long hiatus from composing (Fragments, from 1992, appears to be the last piece he completed until 2009); I believe I remember him saying once that he was busy with his work for ABC but also that he simply had no ideas for new works. (I believe Gavin went through something similar before writing the music for which he’s best known today.) As I began teaching music history classes, I regularly included Scott’s music, especially a fine piece he wrote for Yvar Mikhashoff, Tango: Ms. Jackson Dances for the People (still available on the New Albion label).

The 2009 work that ushered in his return to composition was a sonata for cello and piano, revised in 2013; a number of other chamber works followed in its wake. That Scott has titled so many of these pieces with the traditional names for chamber music (sonata, variations, piano quartet, and so on) invites audiences to take these works in as one might, say, the sonatas of Brahms or the string quartets of Beethoven—counterparts or even heirs to that great tradition. That’s certainly my impression as I listen to his new release from Navona, which comprises four of these chamber works.

Transformation is an important watchword of all minimalist music, but much of the music on this release unfolds in melodious phrases and longer formal paragraphs and, so to speak, gives the somewhat serious word “transformation” a human face. The opening piece, a string trio called Veil of Ignorance (2010; rev. 2011 and 2013), takes its title from John Rawls’s Theory of Justice; just as Rawls proposes consideration of others’ perspectives to ensure a just outcome, Pender creates his three-movement work by recasting and reconsidering musical ideas presented in the first movement. These various perspectives take on a variety of expressive forms: his relatively neutral presentation of the material in the first movement blossoms into a sublime set of double variations in the second movement and a brusque, earthy scherzo in the third. The New England String Trio dig into the finale with gusto, but also manage the poetry in the second just as well; the sound is excellent.

The second and third works date from 2009, a Rhapsody, Elegy, and Finale for Violin and Piano and Sonata for Viola and Piano (“From Old Notebooks”). I love the viola sonata because the old notebooks of the title contain material Scott wrote while in England; in those days he wanted to do some sort of project involving Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (he also loved Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which he introduced to me). I think at least some of the viola sonata derives from the Joan material. The first movement employs repetition on several levels and reminds me a bit of a cortege; it follows a design where two sections alternate, rather like the verse-chorus form of rock songs (another important inspirational source for Pender’s work). A chorale-like idea dominates the second movement, which again alternates with a more wistful, animated music that suggests British or Irish folk song. The third movement is a rather rigorous moto perpetuo that exploits the metric ambiguity between duple and triple groupings. Violist Peter Sulski and pianist Geoffrey Burleson deliver an ideal performance.

In some ways, describing the formal or stylistic components of Pender’s music does it a disservice because of its expressive immediacy. A particularly strong example of this expression appears in the Rhapsody, another set of double variations that burgeons with lyricism, mystery, and sometimes even humor. Sulski and Burleson are again the fine performers, though I find the violin playing a bit out of tune sometimes.

The spirit of Brahms is particularly strong in the masterly cello sonata. In fact, the first movement is a straightforward sonata form with a particularly inventive development. It also has a certain autumnal sensibility that I associate with Brahms. The second movement, a scherzo, makes still other allusions: Bruckner in the scherzo proper and, in the trio, very subtle stylistic nods to Ravel and Barber—but all the allusions are very, very subtle and folded seamlessly into Pender’s own manner. The finale, titled “Chaconne,” really more resembles a late Beethoven variation set, though many of the harmonies come directly from the chains of fourth-related chords that show up in much rock and popular music; in the breathtaking coda, Pender shortens the cycle of chords along with powerful intensification of the repetition and rhythmic verve: it is one of the most satisfying endings to a composition I’ve heard in a long time. The performance, by cellist David Russell and Burleson, is electrifying.

As is the case for most of Navona’s offerings, the CD includes additional content at its website: the complete scores, photos and video from the recording sessions, and a sturdy essay on the music by Elam Sprenkle.

The sound’s a little disappointing for all three of the string and piano works, which were recorded in a different location from the trio; the mix favors the solo string instrument slightly (along with a bit of concert-hall-like reverberance) and muffles the piano a bit, possibly from emphasizing too much of the instrument’s midrange frequencies through microphone placement or editing; the disparity is most noticeable in the final movements of the viola and cello sonatas. Still and all, this is a CD with some very impressive music. Scott Pender is inventive, expressively rich, and gimmick-free: his music is what I imagine when I dream of a future for classical music.

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