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Amanda HARBERG (b.1973)
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (2011/12) [19:50]
Elegy for Viola and String Orchestra (2007) [8:59]
Max WOLPERT (b.1993)
Viola Concerto No.1 ‘Giants’ [21:18]
Brett Deubner (viola)
Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra /Linus Lerner
rec. 2016, The Catalina Foothills High School Auditorium, Tucson, USA
Premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.559840 [50:07]

Naxos’ series of ‘American Classics’ never fails to come up with music new and interesting for the listener. I’ve particular benefited, with this innovative label introducing me to many exciting and invigorating works by lesser-known American composers. Amanda Harberg and Max Wolpert are two such, and these premiere recordings are both appealing and engaging. Both concertos have been written for the American viola player Brett Heubner, who has made great strides in extending the repertoire of his instrument. I’'s amazing to think that over eighty works for the instrument, including thirty concertos and much solo and chamber music have been dedicated to and premiered by him.

Amanda Harberg’s Viola concerto, dating from 2011-12, is cast in three movements. The first depicts flight. A pair of eagles are perched high in the trees. The music graphically portrays them soaring and hovering over the landscape. The music is evocative of wide-open spaces and undulating terrain. The cadenza, fleet and mercurial, has faint echoes of Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Harberg’s vivid, colourful orchestration adds attractive allure to this tonally lush canvas. The Aria which follows ponders the fragility of life. It is a soulful lament, devotional and contemplative. The viola’s yearning thread of melody is supported by some effective diaphanous scoring. The third movement is all about celebration. Rhythmically animated, the composer blends syncopation and jazzy elements into the potent mix. One cannot fail to be won over by the melodic richness of this captivating score.

The Elegy is very personal to the composer. It’s dedicated to the memory of her late piano teacher Marina Grin. Originally written for violin and piano, the composer has arranged it on this occasion for viola and string orchestra. As its title implies the mood is one of wistfulness and regret. Deubner’s ardent eloquence has an almost hypnotic effect.

Max Wolpert wrote his Viola Concerto No. 1 Giants in 2015. The composer describes himself as a fiddler, and his intimate knowledge of the scope and possibilities of the violin are translated into this work for the larger and mellower viola. Having worked in musical theatre, monsters, myths and legends inform many of his compositions. The Concerto is structured in three movements titled ‘Father Time’, ‘The Golden Harp’ and ‘Dance of the Cloud Women’.

‘Father Time’ takes its inspiration from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. The viola depicts the giant’s dreams of the world above. The work opens with a calm and tranquil air, until the horns herald a more spirited section as the giant awakes. The viola part is technically demanding, with Deubner stepping up to the mark admirably. A tolling bell ushers in a more sombre section, with the viola becoming more impassioned. At the end Wolpert ups the rhetoric, ending the movement with forceful intensity. The second movement follows without a break. As its title suggests, the harp shares centre stage with the viola. The gentle ostinatos provide a soothing accompaniment to the viola’s expressive discourse. The finale, inspired by thunderstorms, is suffused with exoticism. Oriental dances, buoyant rhythms and even klezmer add spice and piquant flavour to this intoxicating music.

Linus Lerner directs sure-footed accounts of these imaginative and resourceful scores. The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra’s stylish, enthusiastic and invigorating playing has been well-recorded. Heubner’s stunning virtuosity, intelligent and committed musicianship never fails to convince. The engineers have gone to great pains to capture the detail and nuances of the colourful orchestration. Both composers have provided their own illuminating annotations. Enthusiastically recommended.
Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Jim Westhead



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