JAMES M. STEPHENSON: Liquid Melancholy—Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra; Colors; Last Chants; Fantasie; Étude Caprice; Sonata for Clarinet and Piano – John Bruce Yeh, clarinet/ Lake Forest Symphony/ Vladimir KulenoviKlein, oboe/ Chicago Pro Musica/ Patrick Godon, piano – Cedille CDR 90000 176, 77:25 *****:

This is a whopping stunner of an album. If you don’t know the music of James Stephenson—and if you are into contemporary classical music at all, this is hard to believe—this is as good a place to start as any. The composer, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, went on to seventeen stellar years as trumpet player in the Naples Philharmonic. In that time, he perfected his skills, being for the most part self-taught, and now has a large and pulsating catalog for virtually every instrumental and vocal genre you can think of.

His is an unabashed tonal idiom, sort of a throwback, but in the very best sense of the word—not all great composers are innovators, after all—yet one detects a huge influence of Stravinsky in his music, with a generous peppering of Les Six, American blues, and Debussy. What keeps all of this from sounding “old hat” is his melodic gift, simply radiant in its memorable and moving melodies, while never shying away from a liberal infusion of technical difficulties that at no time sound gratuitous, and always warmly idiomatic.

Liquid Melancholy takes its name from a phrase in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, though its name in no way attempts to describe the rather bloody infusion that main character Mildred Montag receives. Stephenson vowed to find a place to use the title, and its catchy appeal serves as a perfect pseudonym for this Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, a four-movement wonder that was written for a panel of clarinetists—Liza Grossman, David Shifrin, and John Bruce Yeh. This marvelous work explores the abilities of the clarinet to the nth degree, with an exquisite adagio second movement the highlight.

Colors, written in 1997, is simply a journey of impressions from four colors, red, blue, green, and white. Michael Torke, in his Color Music, made an equally memorable and effective essay with five color selections from 1985-88 and Stephenson’s is no less enthralling. Written for clarinet, oboe, and orchestra, this beauty has the added enticement of hearing the great Alex Klein, former Chicago Symphony oboist from 1995 to 2004, succumbing to Musician’s Focal Dystonia, returning in 2016.

Last Chants is an invigorating romp based on “older” styles of chant melodies and harmonies, though by no means a parody of any sort (in the old stylistic, Renaissance sense). Fantasie was originally a work for trumpet, a throwback to the time of Carnival, with “concert waltzes, scherzos, and dances” so redolent of the old age of the cornet soloist. It works as well here, Stephenson providing us with a score so attuned to the days of old that we can scarcely believe it wasn’t written by a days-of-old composer. Etude Caprice is a two-minute technical blitz that leaves the performer little time to breathe.

Finally, the Clarinet Sonata (2015) shows us the composer at the heights of his power. Written for John Bruce Yeh, and signed onto by 25 other clarinetists, the piece was given at the Interlochen Arts Festival (a former major haunt of the composer) in 2015. There is a third movement interlude that is optional for the E-flat clarinet, the instrument that Yeh specializes in as being the solo player in the Chicago Symphony, as well as Assistant Principal. I must say that this extraordinary piece is one of the finest clarinet sonatas I have heard that was composed in the last 120 years, fluidly bi-tonal, heavily “jazzed”, and motivated by some wonderful counterpoint.

John Bruce Yeh proves the marvel here, surely as talented as any clarinet player in the world today, and an enthusiastic proponent of new music, and Stephenson in particular. This is one of the finest discs I have heard all year, and there is no way you won’t enjoy it as much as I did, especially recorded in such wonderful sound as Cedille provides.

—Steven Ritter

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