Uwe Krusch reviews James Matheson in “Pizzicato”

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The original review in German

5 start review -- 5 notes from PizzicatoJames Matheson: String Quartet, Konzert für Violine und Orchester, Times Alone; Color Field Quartet, Baird Dodge, Violine, Laura Strickling, Sopran, Thomas Sauer, Klavier, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen; 1 CD Yarlung 25670; Aufnahmen 12/2011 und 11/2015 (77’59) – Rezension von Uwe Krusch

When European orchestras perform in Asia, the audience generally looks forward to hearing European compositions.  When American or Asian orchestras travel to Europe, however, European audiences normally hear only a smattering of American or Asian music on those programs, perhaps an overture or so.  For these reasons, it is rare to hear a concert in Europe made up of music written elsewhere.  Even classics like those written by Leonard Bernstein rarely show up on serious programs, except perhaps for dances from West Side Story.  One feels very fortunate to hear the occasional work by Copland or Adams.  If we Europeans want to follow developments in American music, we must generally rely on travel and on recordings.

 Especially in this context, I find the American composer James Matheson a rewarding discovery indeed.  Matheson was born in 1970 in Des Moines, Iowa, and now lives in New York City. He has been honored with awards such as the Charles Ives Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Many of his works have been commissioned, including his String Quartet, Violin Concerto and his five songs for soprano and piano called Times Alone.

The Quartet is an impressive work of about half an hour. Matheson’s ideas keep building and pouring out.  His style in all three works, while thoroughly contemporary, is appealing and accessible, without ever coming across as overly ingratiating or dumbed down.  As his Violin Concerto aptly demonstrates as well, Matheson has a knack for writing for strings.  Matheson combines instruments in a way that gives rise to wonderful colors.  Other episodes in the Quartet are motoric and marked by repeating patterns. The results sometimes suggest “Minimalism,” but never obsessively developed or carried to tiring extremes.

The same is true of the 25-minute long Violin Concerto, already performed by the both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.  This album includes the concerto’s premiere performance in Chicago.  It is clearly a mature, well-crafted work that invites the listener to respond both physically and intellectually.  Matheson’s lively shimmering colors in the orchestra force his violin soloist to stand his ground, continuously asserting himself throughout the hyperkinetic solo part.  The composer takes a neo-classical approach in this concerto without ever descending into banality.

The album includes five songs set to texts by Antonio Machado from his collection of poems Soledades, galerias y otros poemas written in 1907.  The poet muses on the nature of solitude (Soledad), but rather than resigning himself to despair, the poems chart a way out. Machado tells us “Wanderer, there is no road; the road is made by walking.” The performance of these songs by Laura Stickling and Thomas Sauer is a success, including singing with a little steel in the voice.

Chief among the contributors on this recording is violinist Baird Dodge, who serves as first chair of the second violins for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  On this recording, Dodge is both first violinist in the quartet and soloist in the concerto. “Color Field” is a flexible ensemble that expands or contacts from duos right up to chamber orchestra size, depending upon context.  Appearing this time as a quartet, Color Field offers a committed performance glowing with excitement.  Baird Dodge, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give this concerto its due.  Together they meet all the technical challenges in the concerto without a whimper and use their skills to celebrate the composition’s colors and place the listener under their spell.

The works united on this monographic CD show the talent, the versatility and the imagination of composer James Matheson. All works are performed by considerable or even prestigious musicians who make this recording unquestionably worthwhile.

–Uwe Krusch, writing for Pizzicato, Luxembourg


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