You might say that Derek Bermel (b. 1967) is the quintessential 21st-century musician. A composition student of Henri Dutilleux, Louis Andriessen, and William Bolcom (among others), Bermel is also an accomplished jazz clarinetist, has traveled the world exploring folk traditions, and performs (singing and playing keyboards and percussion) in a rock band. This staggering eclecticism is apparent in all four works recorded here.
Dust Dances (1994) developed out of the composer’s study of the gyil, a xylophone-like instrument from Ghana. Powered by a series of syncopated ostinatos, the music has a distinctive African flavor that’s enhanced by vibrantly colorful orchestration.
Thracian Echoes (2002) was inspired by an extended visit to Bulgaria. In the score’s opening section, closely overlapping melodic lines create dark sonic pools that gradually swirl and deepen. Then, from what seems like the depths of despair, the mood seems to brighten, bringing the promise of a joyful conclusion. At the moment of truth, however, the music’s resolve filters, sinking into quiet waves of uncertainty.
Elixir (2006) is a lush, pastoral tone-painting that seamlessly mixes orchestral and electronic sounds. Serene at first, its lulling atmosphere is soon disturbed by cries from a gathering chorus of instrumental birds and beasts.
In Voices (1997), both Bermel’s solo clarinet and the orchestra make sounds that mimic human speech and song. It’s a delightfully clever, often amusing concerto, yet a quite serious one, too. The slow movement, based on an Irish folk tune, is gorgeous.
Given the very wide range of inspiration at work in these four pieces, the consistency and coherence of Bermel’s musical language is particularly impressive. He’s definitely a composer I’m eager to hear more from. I just hope that future performances are as authoritative as these by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The SACD recording is thrillingly vivid.