Gloria Justen – Sonaquifer: Music for Solo Viola

by | Apr 16, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Gloria Justen – Sonaquifer: Music for Solo Viola

A certain confidence is called for one to release an album of contemporary music for solo string instrument, all the more so if they are the composers of the music  Such is the case for Gloria Justen, in her release of her new album “Sonaquifer”, and the results show the confidence is well deserved!

Gloria Justen has synthesized a word for this recording, Sonaquifer (from Latin sonus and aquifer)the carrying of sounds, the carrying of musical ideas.  Justen draws from a deep reservoir of music—music spanning  years and crossing many cultures—in the underlying material for her compositions.  At times we hear refrains of Bach, at times strains from Andalusia, and more than passing allusions to Zoltan Kodaly and his studies of music from the Balkans.

The opening four movement piece, Sonaquifer Suite for Solo Viola, brings to mind the structure of Baroque dance suites, by Bach and others—an opening prelude, followed by some “dance” movements of contrasting character, and concluding with a resolute finalé.  The  movement Reverie stands in for the prelude, and aptly named—at times a song, with floating melodies exploring the range of the instrument, with harmonic support as needed through arpeggiation and double stops.  The ear hears a flowing mixture of ideas—somewhat classical in sound, then juxtaposed with folk idioms, with hints of Arabesque shadings.  With this, we indeed get a prelude of that which is to follow:  First, how it unfolds so smoothly—sounding almost effortless—bespeaks of  Justen’s mastery of the instrument, and her compositional awareness—able to synthesize the influences of varied traditions into a cohesive piece.  Of particular note for both composition and performance, Sonaquifer Suite uses a non-standard tuning, with the lower two strings each dropped down a half step, to B and F#.  This affords a different resonance for the instrument, as well as a re-casting of certain traditional string instrument paradigms, to quite positive effect in this piece.

Sonaquifer then introduces an engaging Zhique, a clear counterpart to gigue from a baroque suite—its rhythmic engagement, its lively melodic material quite catching to the ear.  A bit more complex, Zhigue floats between D major, a friendly key on viola of this and traditional tunings, and through B, which is now equally comfortable in with this tuning.  Justen deftly supports the melody as it shifts between registers, through judicious usage of drone strings.  The dance pauses a few times, as the instrument explores somewhat reflective melodic passages, a treat for the ears as well as an opportunity for Justen to showcase her virtuosic talents.

This is followed by a more introspective movement, Memory’s Release.  Here we are exposed to rich chordal progressions as an underlying motif through the movement.  Of particular note is that resonance provided by the deep throated sound of the lower strings of the viola, supporting the melodic excursions.  Also, there are sections where the chordal multi-stop passages are set against background pizzicati. all the more impressive when Justen renders that material in tremolo later in the piece.  Sonaquifer Suite concludes with another dance movement, Flower-Turning Dance—again with a broad outline based upon dance-centric rhythms and melodies, yet with ample room for the soloist to shine with this and contrasting material.

Gloria Justen makes note of her musical influences—with special recognition to Johann Sebastian—and the compositional context for the Suite.  It is based on a work originally commissioned for cello by Hannah Addario-Berry, who was taken by Zoltan Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello. which has the equivalent tuning of the lowered bass strings.  For this piece, Addario-Berry requested that Justen compose with the same tuning, the beginnings of Justen’s own exploration of that tuning and its other compositional possibilities.

The concluding piece on this album is Reflections the Waves of a Brook, written for baritone viola, pitched one fourth lower than a regular viola.  Without a doubt we hear two distinct elements—yes, of course, the melodic impressions of water passing over stones in a stream, but also that of the great German Brook, aka Bach.  Easily reminiscent of Bach’s sonatas for solo violin (and cello and viola), with its juxtaposition of melody and arpeggiation, certain distinctive techniques for harmonic progression.  Midway through, though, the piece shifts timbre—the bow of the viola is put aside, with an extensive section played pizzicato.  As it unfolds, the deep low strings are used to good avail as Justen explores defining Andalusian progressions, idioms.  The piece continues played with pizzicato through to the end, even after it leaves Andalusia, to return to the initial material, the melodic brook finding repose in its destination.

This album gives us a rewarding exposition of Gloria Justen’s mastery of the instrument along with her compositional skills—a greatly enjoyable presentation of string music for the 21st century.  Highly recommended.

—Casey Flannagan

More Information Available at Gloria Justen’s Website:

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