Classical CD Reviews

“Cross Connection” = HENRY WOLKING: Gone Playin’; The Old Gypsy; JAMES SCOTT BALENTINE: Dùn Èideann Blogh – Moravian Philharmonic Orch./Robert Walzel, clarinet/Eric Stomberg, bassoon/Moravian Phil. String Q.– Navona Records

Some wonderful discoveries and “cross cultural connections.”

Published on May 29, 2013

“Cross Connection” = HENRY WOLKING: Gone Playin’; The Old Gypsy; JAMES SCOTT BALENTINE: Dùn Èideann Blogh – Moravian Philharmonic Orch./Robert Walzel, clarinet/Eric Stomberg, bassoon/Moravian Phil. String Q.– Navona Records NV5903 (Distr. by Naxos), 49:18 ****:

Navona has done it again: two composers I have never heard of and I sure am glad I now know them!

Henry Wolking taught jazz theory and composition at the University of Utah for many years. The Florida native is a trombonist, composer and arranger whose stylistic roots lie clearly in the jazz world and this music provides a very attention getting introduction! Gone Playin’ is an absolutely scintillating little jazz-inspired concerto for clarinet and strings. The three movements are as follows, described in the composer’s own terms. Gone Fishin’ has the imagery of whirling trout; think “I’m gonna go fishin’ and find me a trout”. Beginning with a lovely and poignant slow introduction, it shifts to a jazzy rhythmic approach that requires virtuosic solo melodies that sound as if they are being improvised (they are not) by the clarinet solo. Gone Sleepin’ is a jazz lullaby. It is delicate, dreamy, lyrical, and emotional, and not at all influenced by Brahms. (Completely tongue-in-cheek reference; this is a very pretty and sultry little melody).

Gone Dancin’ is exactly what the title implies, a series of final frantic dances based upon American and Latino (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban) popular dances. The orchestra at one point taps and claps authentic salsa and clave rhythms; everyone in the orchestra becomes a drummer. This work reminded me of some of the better jazz-inflected clarinet works out there (aside from the iconic Copland one). The Elie Siegmeister Concerto and even the recent gem by Robert Aldridge come to mind. Robert Walzel plays really well and was the premiere soloist with the Utah Symphony in 2006.

Wolking’s The Old Gypsy is quite a different deal but illustrates the composer’s appreciable versatility. This string quartet (performed here with verve by the Moravian Philharmonic Quartet) is directly inspired by the composer’s exposure to some traditional Hungarian melodies from members of the Hungarian Symphony. Wolking very cleverly accurately depicts the sounds of strolling musicians as one might hear on a street corner or in a cafe. This quartet has some slightly jazzy components, some Bartok-like touches and, ultimately is a wonderful and hard-to-describe melange of sounds. This work too makes a wonderful contemporary addition to the string quartet repertoire.

The second great discovery here is James Scott Balentine, professor of jazz studies and composition at the University of Texas, San Antonio. Jim Balentine is also a gifted performer on all woodwinds and continues to play big band, theatre music and in backup bands of all sorts. The fascinating Dùn Eideann Blogh (Gaelic for ‘fragments {like a blog} from Edinburgh’) is basically a double concerto for clarinet, bassoon and orchestra and is characterized by three quite picturesque short movements. Auld Reekie (“Old Smokey” in Gaelic) is a reference to the coal-fired past of Edinburgh and its sooty and grimy conditions. There are sounds that echo Scottish military bands as well as pub music. Portobello Beach is a calm and quaint suburb of Edinburgh, situated on the Firth of Forth, where Balentine stayed while writing this piece. The composer acknowledges the feeling of sand, gulls, surf and nearby pubs. (Sounds quite nice actually!) Lothian No. 26 is actually the name of the bus line which ran through Portobello to Waverley Station and beyond. The composer was inspired by the meandering scenery and the skill of the driver negotiating the curvy roads while driving the center of gravity-challenged double-decker! This work was premiered at the Utah Arts Festival in the summer of 2007. Soloists Robert Walzel and Eric Stomberg, bassoon, do a great job and this is a wonderful addition to what is a fairly sparse area of the wind repertory.

So, here is another wonderful new release by Navona; well-played and filled with music that begs to be played live and heard more often. I have often been impressed by this label’s commitment to bringing forth composers of quality who should be better known. Well done!

—Daniel Coombs

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