ELLIOTT MILES McKINLEY: Infinite Landscapes = Three Portraits; String Quartet No. 7 – SOLI Chamber Ens./Martinů Q. – Navona

Very compelling works with a bit of jazz feel.

ELLIOTT MILES McKINLEY: Infinite Landscapes = Three Portraits; String Quartet No. 7 – SOLI Chamber Ens./Martinů Quartet – Navona NV6040, 72: 57 (5/13/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The more I hear of Rhode Island based composer Elliott Miles McKinley the more I like his work. I had previously heard some of his other string quartets on a prior Navona release and I like the unique nature of his music. The opening work here, Three Portraits, was commissioned by the San Antonio Texas-based SOLI Chamber Ensemble and is scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. This is a very strong and attractive piece that portrays the feel of midsummer through the eyes and ears of the composer in a very interesting way; one that seems to constantly skirt about between moods of the mysterious and the playful. For example, in “A July Watercolor” there are two themes, one ascending and one descending, as other instruments play trills and cluster chords. “August Watercolor” uses quite the blend of harmonies and thematic distributions reminiscent of Ives with elements that echo reggae styles. (I thought this movement, especially, was amazingly unusual and captivating with its ‘send ups’ of early jazz and pastoral clichés) In “September Watercolor” an electronic “groove” is played as the acoustic instruments seek to move away from the rhythmic lock-step, before eventually going off quite on their own. In truth, I could have done without the pseudo-‘beat box’ line but I did find this piece really interesting and, I think, very audience friendly.

McKinley’s six-movement String Quartet No. 7 was commissioned by the Martinu Quartet of the Czech Republic and written in memory of the quartet’s founding violist, Jan Jisa. This exciting and unusual work features a wide variety of ideas, including a fugue in “Scherzo and Fugue” and a propulsive jazzy section in “Riding into the Sky.” The work is structured, however, around chords of stacked perfect fifths, heard first as a motive in the opening “Cathedrals of Light and Shadow”. In “Three Vistas”, the cello takes up these towers of stacked fifths as the motive returns in the final movement. The closing “Coda: Toward An Endless Golden Sunset” contains a passage intriguingly marked “enveloping twilight of golden-purple” as the Quartet fades into a quietude.

As mentioned, I had heard some of McKinley’s music before and I like it. There is a genuine and unforced unique quality to it, born of the inherent cross-pollination of jazz and the broad classical modern basket I think. While Three Portraits is my new favorite of his works, I strongly recommend any of Elliott’s string quartets to string players out there. This is good stuff!

—Daniel Coombs

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