Mark Abel: The Dream Gallery (CD review)
Musicians, composers and players, have been trying to merge classical and pop music, however one might define either genre, for years. Early composers like Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and their kin wrote music for the court, music for the Church, music for the upper classes, music the masses, and music for the family, each kind of music appropriate to the audience. Louis Gottschalk, George Gershwin, and Leonard Bernstein fused American folk, pop, and jazz forms with classical structures; the Jacques Loussier Trio has successfully played classical pieces in jazz arrangements for ages; people like Wendy Carlos and Tomita have transcribed classical music for synthesizer; Paul McCartney has tried his hand at writing popular classical works; Mannheim Steamroller and The Great Kat have applied the principals of pop to the classics; and even Queen did A Night at the Opera.
Accordingly, American composer Mark Abel (b. 1948), who describes his work as "a post-modern synthesis of classical and rock," is in good company when he gives classical-pop fusion a try in The Dream Gallery: Seven California Portraits, attempting to describe in seven short vocal-orchestral art songs the lives of seven representative Californians. As a lifelong Californian myself, I can only guess at what Abel was trying to achieve here, California being such a varied and well-integrated state that to try to sum up its citizenry in a mere seven musical portraits seems futile, especially when most of his material is so critical; but I applaud the effort.
Each of the songs depicts a different Californian from a different city, some of the songs straightforward, some of them ironic, some satirically biting. Are they fair to the state? No, and I doubt that Abel meant them to be fair; they're as much personal, intellectual reactions as those of any novelist or poet. Abel is making a few perceptive insights here and doesn't try to pass them off as absolute examples of everybody in the state. Yet, when you listen to the texts of the songs, you recognize the types of people involved, and, yes, you probably know at least a few of them, they're so universal.
The "gallery" begins with "Helen" from Los Angeles, sung by Mary Jaeb. It's a grim note of despair, disillusion, and loneliness about a woman caught in the upward spiral of the American dream until it all comes tumbling down--the years of marriage, the child, the husband who finds a younger companion. Still, thinks Helen, there is always a new day. Shades of Gone with the Wind, yet, sadly, without Scarlett's firm resolve actually to do something to improve her situation.
"Todd" from Taft, sung by David Marshman, continues the reproachful trend as he describes a town built on hope, a town now derelict, a ghost of its former self, ravaged by exploiters. Then there's "Naomi" from Berkeley, sung by Janelle DeStefano. Naomi is a smug Berkeleyite who looks down on those without her knowing understanding of the world, those who just don't get it, yet she is a woman who clearly feels something may be just as wrong with her as with the people she faults. Abel writes of people who either lack confidence or have it stripped from them.
And so it goes, the singing uniformly informed, soaring, penetrating, affecting as the situation demands. The orchestral support tries to remain unobtrusive, although it does occasionally seem to overpower the narrative. Most of the sentiments are easy enough to identify with, especially "Carol" of San Diego (Delaney Gibson), a go-getter with an empty life filled to the brim with the nothingness she so cherishes. Empty people, empty lives, empty dreams. The series ends with one person, "Adam" of Arcata (Tom Zohar), who chooses probably to leave the state for lands unknown. Anywhere but what he sees as a wasteland.
Let's agree these are not flattering pictures of Californians, and the easy knock against them is to say that anybody can condemn, criticize, and denounce. Yet inherent in all the bitter sarcasm are pointers to happiness. Recognizing a problem, after all, is the first step toward solving it.
Anyway, as I was saying, the singing and ensemble work are spot on, and the content is readily accessible. It's the actual music that may trouble some listeners; at least it did me because after a few songs I began to find it repetitious. True, the Berkeley segment shows promise in its street noises, and "Carol," "Lonnie" (Carver Cossey), and "Luz" (Martha Jane Weaver) evoke notes of menace, despondency, and heart. Nevertheless, there's a sameness about the melodies and rhythms that can grate after a while, perhaps part of Abel's intent. Using different singers for each song helps to create and communicate different moods, though, and the songs do have a certain magnetic appeal despite their apparent uniformity of approach. Then, too, if everyone found these tunes winning or engaging, maybe they wouldn't be classical anymore, would they? Maybe they would be pure pop. It's kind of a vicious circle, blurring the lines further between what is classical and what is popular music.
Delos recorded the album in Studio A, Citrus College, Glendora, California, at some recent date; the disc doesn't say, carrying only a copyright of 2012. The sound is close-up and fairly one-dimensional, with little or no resonant bloom or air. While the sonics appear reasonably well defined, dynamic, and wide ranging, they don't carry with them much of a stamp of reality. It sounds, in fact, like a typical pop album, which is probably appropriate to the tone the music is trying to convey.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.