DAVID CHESKY: “Area 31” Area 31 Ensemble, Anthony Aibel, cond; Concerto For Violin and Orchestra, Tom Chiu, violin; The Girl From Guatemala, Wonjung Kim, Soprano; & Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Jeffrey Khaner, flute – Chesky Records

by | Jun 24, 2005 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

DAVID CHESKY:  “Area 31” Area 31 Ensemble/Anthony Aibel,
cond; Concerto For Violin and Orchestra – Tom Chiu, violin;  The
Girl From Guatemala – Wonjung Kim, Soprano; &  Concerto for
Flute and Orchestra – Jeffrey Khaner, flute –  Chesky Records
multichannel SACD-288, 56:31 *****:

As anyone who knows David Chesky will aver, David is a complex man, a
strong personality..  When you run into him he may be playful,
cynical, witty, stern, laconic, and deliberate in turn, or (seemingly)
all at once.  He is a good guy, into finding new music, helping
new musicians, and very into developing his own music. Up to now I
found his works a bit too autobiographical, like many first
novels.  This time he’s offered us a triptych of “pure music for
its own sake” played by a modern chamber orchestra made up of New York
musicians from 13 nations called the “Area 31 Ensemble,” plus three
accomplished soloists, and a conductor well-versed in the modern
idiom.  By the way, in an atypical production gaffe, the album
notes fail to inform us just how many, and which instruments the
unnamed instrumentalists are playing.  Talk about toiling in the
garden of anonymity…

I thought I’d acknowledge my opinion of David right from the start,
because he is so strong a personality that it is hard to separate the
man from his works.  He is a gifted musician who could easily be
making a handsome Hollywood living writing film scores if he didn’t
have a record label to run.  David is the tasteful Artists and
Repertoire man for Chesky Records, while brother Norman is corporate
comptroller in charge of cash flow.  Somehow David finds time to
write music, and for that my hat’s off to him.  It seems in order
to write serious music these days you have to have a “day-gig” and be
willing to exist on four or five hours sleep a night, or you have to
have bagged a grant from a major foundation.

David’s gifts are apparent.  He is a good professional musician.
He can jam on piano with jazz musicians, or sit in with blues groups,
then turn around and write serious classical works such as Area
31.  The book may not be closed on the stature of David’s music
until most of us are gone.  He might yet be judged a “great”
composer, like the insurance executive Charles Ives.  I think
David has to work out his musical identity, his personal musical
syntax, and develop a body of work using it before such judgments can
be made.  At the moment his music tips its hat to many of the
composers of the 20th Century cannon: Stravinsky, Bartok, Ives,
Berg.  And all this hat-tipping might get a little in the way of
his establishing his own David Chesky voice.

It is my opinion that Chesky hasn’t yet chosen his musical ancestors
nor subsequently separated himself from them —  not that every
creative musician has to go through “by the numbers” Yale Professor
Harold Bloom’s schema for individuation (as put forth in his The
Anxiety of Influence), but it is surprising how many musical
biographies suggest they do.  Think of Beethoven’s relationship
with his mentor Haydn.  Or Brahms, who felt so under the thumb of
Beethoven he couldn’t get to his first Symphony until age forty. 
I guess Brahms had to wrestle with Beethoven’s legacy before he could
become his own man.  There is nothing in Chesky’s work that shows
me any of that sort of wrestling in action.  Maybe it would help
if there were.

When I started to write this essay, soon after the HE ‘05 Show in N.Y.
this spring, I was sorta-kinda of the opinion that David had not yet
found how to take the music of earlier masters and (in the phrase of
Ezra Pound) “make it new.”  I listened to Hilary Hahn’s great
recording of Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Sony
(SC 90649-2), and Kyung Wha Chung’s equally arresting recording of Bela
Bartok’s Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, London (425 015-2).  I
could hear how Chesky uses each of these musicians.  There is a
phrase in the slow 2nd movement of Chesky’s Violin Concerto that I’m
almost certain is a quote from Stravinsky, but I’ve not been able to
find it, and Chesky builds much of a movement around it showing what he
can do with only a phrase of one of his ancestors.  In Chesky’s
first movement the hand clapping that appears desultorily throughout
the piece seems to owe more to Bartok’s use of Hungarian gypsy music
than Villa-Lobos’s use of Latin American music, as my colleague Robert
Baird writes in honoring this album as Stereophile’s “Recording of the
Month.”  Chesky’s languorous slow movement reminds me strongly of
Stravinsky’s Tango in his The Soldier’s Tale – Pentatone (5186 046),
both in the rhythm and in the spare selection of instrumentation. 
There is also a reminder of Astor Piazzolla’s distinctive work with the
tango as a form, and we know the Chesky label recorded Piazzolla’s
Concert in Central Park (JD 107).

The second piece on this album is the song-like The Girl from
Guatamala, featuring soprano Wonjung Kim in a wonderful display of her
beautiful voice and precise technical control.  She is special,
even if the title led to expectations of Austrud Gilberto. 
Listening to this piece I was struck by the percussive use of chords
that reminded me of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra RCA (5604-2-RC),
and his introduction of the celesta seemed a public tip of the hat to
Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, also RCA
(5604-2-RC).  Not to say that he is slavishly imitating Bartok, or
Stravinsky: rather, Chesky is tipping his hat to them by demonstrating
what he can do with their chops.  And how he does, is rather well.

In Chesky’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, in the second movement,
he writes a beautiful and sensually slow miniature. (Chesky has a real
feeling for his slower movements.)  He may have written in this
movement a smaller and updated version of Manuel de Falla’s Nights in
the Gardens of Spain.  The music is not so similar as is the
ambiance.  If you’ve ever been to Madrid in high summer, you’ll
understand: The whole city is subtly undulating day and night. 
“In Espana, mille et tre.”  The two very quick outer movements of
this concerto are quite other.  I have had the pleasure of hearing
the flautist Jeffrey Khaner in person at a chamber music festival in
Rockport, Maine (with Corno de Bassetto and our wives). Khaner played a
piece that convinced me he is one of the planet’s great flute virtuosi,
Assobio a Jato (The Jet Whistle) by Heitor Villa-Lobos.  He proves
it again with the Chesky Concerto, which is quite different from “The
Jet Whistle” (Hyperion CDA 666 38, 1992/3), but equally
difficult.  And Chesky knows how to use such virtuosity, with two
part inventions, in this instance the flute playing “call and response”
with the bassoon at machine gun speed.

This Father’s Day, I heard the world premier of a violin concerto by
the American composer, Daniel Brewbaker, performed by the Russian
violin phenom, Vadim Repin, with the Baltimore Symphony
Orchestra.  I tried to get in touch with David, to have him come
hear it with me. Lisa Schoenepunim, Chesky’s girl-Friday, said he was
either out of the country, or sleeping off a recent trip.  I think
he would have enjoyed the concert. The performances were quite
something; the hall is one of the better newer halls; the guest
conductor, Englishman James Judd, is a very attentive accompanist;
soloist Vadim Repin is totally amazing; and together they showed what
the competition is up to, which is setting the bar very high.  I
think David Chesky’s violin concerto, though differing in size and
style, is on a par with Brewbaker’s Concerto.  I think that Chesky
deserves to be thought of as among the serious composers of his
generation, and his pedigreed soloists agree, or they wouldn’t record
his work.  Of course, time will tell.

At first listen to this album, I thought that David had not yet created
his own uniquely individual voice.  Having studied this work, and
listened to most of the works mentioned in this essay, I listened again
to his very dark earlier works (The Agnostic, The Psalms), and with his
recently dark but now sunny medical history in mind, I have to take
that back. (David mentions his medical team in the album notes, so I’m
not telling tales out of school.)  David has shown me that he has
internalized much of the characteristic tropes of Stravinsky and
Bartok, Piazzolla and even Marta Gomez (he’s an omnivore), transforming
them into his own new music, demonstrating that he can “make it new.”
The most striking thing about this album is it shows David’s witty,
playful, musically humorous side.  The recording engineers, led by
Barry Wolifson, do their usual excellent job. And so I’d concur with
Robert Baird that Chesky’s latest album, Area 31, deserves to be
honored (though for different reasons) as a trio of compositions, and
as a truly excellent hybrid recording.  I hereby proclaim David
Chesky’s Area 31 the Max Dudious “Recording of the Month” for June.

My view of David’s compositional skill (as much as possible independent
of my view of his being a pioneer in recording technique, an early
pioneer in championing surround sound, and a leader in new talent
development), is this: David Chesky is among our nation’s best
contemporary composers and his work demands our attention. This is his
latest and best album so far.  More than anyone I know, David
eats, drinks, and sleeps serious music.  Check it out.  Just
slurry on down to the stone soul CD shoppe, doing the walking samba,
and when the Dude asks you, “Whassup?” tell him, David Chesky!! 
Ciao bambini.

— Max Dudious




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