Classical Voice of New England
Marvin J. Ward
November 1, 2009

These works were composed over a span of 30 years from 1976 to 2007; 3 of them (Nos. III, V, and VI) were revised (with one, No. III, now with the subtitle “Another View,” having been essentially completely reconstructed) for the performances and subsequent recording by BMOP over the past 2 years. The result is a set of very compelling eclectic pieces that make for enjoyable repeated listening. The concertos are a cross between the Baroque concerto grosso and the 19th and 20th-century concerto for orchestra with virtuoso soloist, what Schwartz describes as “six variations not on a theme, but on a genre.”

Nos. I to V are single-movement works. No. VI, entitled “Mr. Jefferson,” and inspired by the Gilbert Stuart portrait (reproduced in the booklet) of the titular personage that hangs in the Art Museum of Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME), where the composer taught for over 40 years, has 5 movements, each having as its title something representative of the subject’s life: “The Inventor,” “The violin,” “The Garden,” “The Letter,” “The Portrait.” No. V also has a sub-title: “Water Music,” because it was composed for and premièred by bassoonist William Waterhouse. In addition to the different solo instruments, there are also differences in orchestral forces: Nos. I, III, and VI are for chamber orchestra, but No. II is for 9 and No. III for 10 players; No. V is for solo bassoon, flute, percussion, piano, and strings (The original version was for soloist, string quartet, and piano.).

Schwartz’s music is modern, but not dissonant. It is melodic without memorable hummable melodies, because it is constructed as a sort of sequential collage, and often includes bits and pieces of pre-existing melodic material by earlier composers. These sound familiar and evoke memories that the listener is often unable to pinpoint precisely, and sometimes doesn’t recognize beyond a vaguely familiar sound world. For example: the theme for No. V comes from that of a BBC murder-mystery series, and the work sounds like an evocation of the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. These serve “as compositional springboards,” and are expanded, explored, and developed by chords and figurations. He writes: “My […] music attempts a […] synthesis of languages, very often an overlay of non-functional triadic harmony, Romantic chromaticism, and the angular modernist language of the 20th Century. The resultant fabric might be perceived as a kind of time warp.”

The source of the theme for No. V reveals another characteristic of Schwartz’s music, at least for these pieces: it bears a certain resemblance to film scores, although it is up to the listener to supply the images. Portions of No. I conjured up an image of an orchestra tuning in my mind, for example. The music progresses in a sort of development that seems to be accompanying a story line or a series of events that the listener must imagine. Three of them actually have a theatrical component, lost here, in that the soloist or orchestral players move(s) about the stage, playing different sections from different positions.

The booklet is an excellent complement to the music. After the cast and play lists (with track timings), it opens with a 3-page “Comment” by the composer in which he talks about his music and the writing of each of the concertos. This is followed by “Notes” by Stephen Guy Soderberg, Senior Specialist for Contemporary Music in the Library of Congress. They begin with a capsule description of Schwartz’s “collage” compositional style and his “frame notation,” a method not unlike the Baroque and Classical eras custom of providing a few notes for the performer to improvise and expand upon. In those periods, soloists were expected to play some continuo with the orchestra when they were not executing the solo sections that allowed them to stand out and shine. Then there are highly informative sections describing the distinctive features of each concerto. The balance of the pages is devoted to the bios of the composer and the musicians: soloists, conductor, and orchestra, all accompanied by photos.

BMOP/sound CDs do not come in “jewel cases,” but rather in tri-fold heavy paper “wallets” with pockets for the booklet and disk respectively in the outer folds and a text in the centerfold. For my money, these are far preferable, taking up less space on the shelf and not cracking or breaking at the earliest opportunity. This CD is well worth its price. Very highly recommended.

© 2009 Marvin J. Ward