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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa