Composer David Rakowski’s jocularity is well known. His many piano etudes (88 at last count) feature a number of sly allusions to other styles and works, as well as more overt zaniness; one even requires the performer to play pitches with their nose! His previous concerti have featured various subterfuges in which the soloist is upstaged by the orchestra. And, famously, goofiness abounds on his website. But alongside Rakowski’s penchant for light-hearted expression are consummate craftsmanship and music of considerable poignancy. BMOP’s recording features three ensemble works that highlight both Rakowski’s eloquence as an orchestrator and his ability to evoke a wide spectrum of emotions in music.
Persistent Memory was written while the composer was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome: a period in which the composer experienced adversity and loss on several fronts. Cast in two-movements, it features an elegy suffused with considerable melancholy and long arching melodies reminiscent, without overt homage, of the Copland “Americana school.” This is juxtaposed with rejoinders: tart brass punctuations and, in the second movement, a defiant scherzo – featuring tour de force writing for the winds – and a series of variations that refract the elegy’s material through a multi-colored prism.
The CD’s title work was composed as a sixtieth birthday tribute to Martin Boykan. The pre-compositional conceit for the piece is that it is exactly sixty pages long – again a glimmer of Rakowskian witticism. But composer imparts considerable gravitas here as well. The texture features angst-laden horn-writing and Bergian dissonant string verticals that belie any notions of Winged Contraption as an occasional bouquet. Amid these serious signatures lie percussive adornments and a propulsive clock: an ostinato that manifests variously as repeated note figures (a frequent Rakowski device) and burbling arpeggiations.
Marilyn Nonken has been one of several tireless champions of Rakowski’s solo piano works. It seems particularly fitting that he has fashioned a concerto for Nonken that references several of the etudes composer for her – resulting in a work of ambitious scope and a near-frenetic events structure. Easily one of Rakowski’s finest pieces to date, it features a host of playing techniques – thereby allowing Nonken to exercise both her conventional chops and explore some avant paths along the way.
The first movement’s opening is a master class in the “one-note” introduction. A-natural is treated to dampening, plucking inside the piano, various chordal harmonizations, and gradual haloing by the instruments of the orchestra until it is revealed in relentless repetition as an ostinato – a self-contained first theme group! Repeated single pitches once again provide a motoric canvas upon which a host of coloristic devices and harmonic divergences are imposed. The plucked A-natural returns at the beginning of each movement of the concerto as a centering and invocational device.
While the piano writing is tailor-made to Nonken’s abundant capabilities, she’s also given a chance to exercise a bit of whimsy in several asides for toy piano. The concerto also features a few other unconventional touches, such as the inclusion of a novelty percussion item called chatter-stones. And although one is glad for Rakowski’s occasional digressions into humor and his imaginative textural additions to the proceedings, the most striking moments in the concerto feature elegant writing for the conventional instruments in the band. Wind solos and keening string sostenuto passages accompany piquant, colorful verticals in the piano – and that irrepressible plucked A! – in a gorgeous slow movement.
The scherzo, on the other hand, focuses on short rhythmic cells and terse orchestral interjections. It also revels in adroitly jazzy piano-writing. The orchestra answers these swinging signatures with sassy horn blats and suavely articulate strings: hallmarks of a bygone era of cinematic music warmly recreated here.
The repeated note device reappears in the last movement, leading to a quote from Rakowski’s first piano etude, “E-Machines.” The quote references still another quote (a quote within quote!) of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nonken records Rakowski’s cadenza for the CD, but it’s worth mentioning that the composer let her create her own for the premiere – such is the trust and close working relationship of creator and interpreter here.
The other interpreters on the scene, Gil Rose and the BMOP, are sterling in their preparation and superlatively musical. The disc is one of the orchestra’s best thus far, and the weightiest and most satisfying in Rakowski’s discography to date. Serious fun indeed!