This album contains three twentieth century works for string quartet and orchestra in the baroque concerto grosso tradition: where a smaller ensemble (here the string quartet) is contrasted with a larger ensemble – the orchestra. Abels has included gospel music and African drumming in his compositions, and, as a recipient of two Meet the Composer residencies, worked with community groups in creating musical and theatrical productions and mentoring disadvantaged students. Delights and Dances lives up to its title, but the solo cello seven-note motive that begins it doesn’t predict the upbeat, swinging finale. The first half of this thirteen-minute work is a jazzy cool exploration of solo riffs from the Harlem String Quartet’s musicians played against syncopated orchestral pizzicato patterns. The tempo picks up in the “Bluegrassy” second half as the quartet and orchestra race to a finger-snapping conclusion. It’s not complex or profound, just fun.
Benjamin Lees (1924-2010) Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1964) is a more serious and modern work. Lees was of Russian-Jewish descent, raised in San Francisco, and studied with Halsey Stevens and George Antheil in the University of Southern California. A mainstream modernist, Lees uses classical techniques (canon, fugue, augmentation and diminution) to create abstract compositions that create tension by employing persistently changing intervals and meters over a stable pulse. The first movement of his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is nervous, and propulsive, achieved by semitonal chords and changing rhythms. A slower middle movement gives the string quartet a chance sing lyrically, echoed and contrasted by quiet timpani and full orchestral strings. The closing movement is an exciting race to the finish, punctuated by interplay of percussion, brass, string quartet, swirling strings, and piquant woodwinds. This is an exhilarating and significant American concerto, and the Harlem Quartet and Chicago Sinfonietta play it for all it’s worth.
Chinese composer An-Lun Huang’s Sabei Dance is a crowd-pleasing four-minute work whose oriental lyricism clears the palate and prepares the listener for conductor, composer and arranger Randall Craig Fleischer’s West Side Story Concerto. It’s a tribute to the greatness of Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece that, in addition to his own full orchestral arrangement, Symphonic Dances, other composers of many genres (e.g. jazz pianist Marian McPartland, Andre Previn, Stan Kenton and others) have created their own versions.
In June of 2013, I heard Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony gave the first concert performance of the complete Broadway score of West Side Story. The combination of a small, (about 35 musicians) first-rate symphony performing Bernstein’s score, as orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irving Kostal, and superb Broadway/operatic voices revealed the work to be a modern masterpiece. In his arrangement, Fleischer often uses the string quartet as a substitute for the voices, whether a solo cello in “Maria” or “Tonight” as an ensemble piece in the “Quintet.” There’s no lack of excitement in “Prologue;” the jazzy “Quintet” benefits from an amusing portamento; and the tempi are consistent with this energetic album. It’s an interesting arrangement that might appeal to lovers of the string quartet, but it’s a curiosity compared to Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances and MTT’s concert version of the complete Broadway score. That was recorded and will be available in the spring of 2014. Having said this, the performance and recording of Fleischer’s arrangement is superb and Bernstein’s score can stand many arrangements.
The most significant work on this album is Benjamin Lees’ Concerto, but the whole album is easy to enjoy.