DANIEL ASIA: Symphony No. 5 “Of Songs and Psalms”; Nonet – Chris Pedro, bar./ Robert Swensen, tenor/ New Czech Song/ Pilsen Philharmonic/ Koji Kawamoto/ Czech Nonet – Summit DCD579, 54:11 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Daniel Asia is a prolific composer who seems to set high stock in the written word in much of his music, and has recently begun turning his talents to his native Jewish faith. Symphony No. 5 is most definitely not a symphony in the traditional form, any more that Mahler’s Das Lied or the Shostakovich Fourteenth. Asia has taken two poets, in a questioning dialog with God—or at least posed to God—not unlike the premise of Bernstein’s Kaddish, American Paul Pines and Israeli Yehuda Amichai, as well as the Psalms. The ground covered is anywhere from man’s place in the universe to the nature of the middle east and Israel’s place in it—seemingly a lot of ground to cover, yet Asia makes it work. In general the piece is almost too personal a viewpoint to even criticize—one feels intrusive in doing so, even though in many ways the words invite challenge. But the music fills many of the spaces that one might normally consider a place for conflict, and wraps the whole in a swirl of ultimate optimism and warmth.

The Nonet proved a chance for the composer to write for a more “standardized” form—typical woodwind quintet plus violin, viola, cello, and bass—and absent the textual element shows us more of what Asia is made of in terms of “pure” music. The odd-numbered movements serve as a sort of interlocking leitmotiv in that each comment on the same material in energetic and then melancholic ways, each lasting about a minute. Movements 2, 4, and 6 offers more expanded structures, variations in 2, and an adagio in 4, and a rowdy presto in 6. If I was tied up and forced to choose, I think the adagio of 4 is the real emotional heart of the piece, and the one I will listen for when I tune this in. I can even see myself playing only it once in a while, making for good cell phone material—I hope the composer won’t mind!

The performances are all excellent, even the rather smallish Pilsen Philharmonic playing like champs. An interesting release that proves quite rewarding.

—Steven Ritter