Mark Abel: The Dream Gallery (CD review)

Seven California Portraits. Various soloists; Sharon Lavery, La Brea Sinfonietta. Delos DE 3418.

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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa