Works for string quartet and orchestra by Abels, Lees, Huang, and Bernstein. Harlem Quartet; Mei-Ann Chen, Chicago Sinfonietta. Cedille CDR 90000 141.
The album concept behind Delights & Dances is to return to the origins of the concerto form but do so in modern terms. Let me explain: Originally, the concerto grosso, popular in the Baroque era, used contrasting sections of music played by a full, though usually small, orchestra and by an even smaller group of soloists. As time went on, the concerto grosso died out, replaced by the soloist and orchestra common in concertos today. Here, the Harlem Quartet present works by four twentieth-century composers, each work harkening back to the concerto grosso genre, where the Harlem players interact, playfully in most cases, with a chamber orchestra, the Chicago Sinfonietta under the direction of Mei-Ann Chen.
But first a word about the performers. The Harlem Quartet comprises Ilmar Gavilan, violin; Melissa White, violin; Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola; and Paul Wiancko, cello. They made their debut as a quartet in 2006 at Carnegie Hall and have been wowing audiences ever since with their several albums and worldwide public appearances. Participation in major jazz festivals helped, too. The Chicago Sinfonietta, on the other hand, has been around for a quarter of century, although it was in 2010 that Mei-Ann Chen became the ensemble’s Music Director Designate.
The first thing these folks play is the title number, Delights & Dances for String Quartet and String Orchestra, a single-movement piece by American composer Michael Abels (b. 1962). Abels wrote it specifically for the Harlem Quartet so you know they’re going to be as authoritative as anyone playing it. The pace emerges rhythmically varied, the tone mostly mischievous. It’s part blues, part bluegrass, and entirely fun.
Next up, we find the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, written in a conventional three-movement arrangement by American composer Benjamin Lees (1924-2010). Still, there’s not a lot that’s “conventional” about the music. Here, we again find a flamboyantly rhythmic texture, although compared to the Abels piece, the Concerto depends far more on the orchestra’s percussion section.
The Harlem Quartet zips in and out, about and around the orchestral accompaniment, creating a delicious swirl of colors in the opening movement. After that, we find a wistfully lyrical slow movement and then an energetic finale that returns us to the spirit of the first movement. We hear throughout a kaleidoscope of tonal colorations, which all of the performers seem to be enjoying.
Next is the “Saibei Dance” movement from the Saibei Suite No. 2 by Chinese-born composer An-Lun Huang (b. 1949). It’s bright and lively if rather brief, filled with yet more percussion on a light, Oriental motif. Once more the Harlem players have a good time with the music and easily communicate their joyous feelings.
Finally, we hear the longest piece on the disc, the West Side Story Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra by American composer, conductor, and pianist Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), the concerto arranged by conductor, composer, and arranger Randall Craig Fleischer, who studied with Bernstein as a conducting fellow at Tanglewood in 1989. In a world-premiere recording, the idea of the piece is to transfer Bernstein’s vocal parts to the strings, which Fleischer did fairly successfully and which the Harlem players carry out nicely. Everyone performs the work with great gusto while retaining the melodic romance and pulsating edge of the music. “Maria” and “America” are especially moving.
Not that I think anything on the disc but the Bernstein is particularly classic material; only time will tell what becomes of the Abels, Lees, Huang works. And even the Bernstein music is becoming a bit shopworn from repetition, no matter how good the arrangement. Nevertheless, there is a little over an hour of music on the disc, and it goes by quickly. That’s probably the best tribute I can pay the album.
As so often in the past, it’s producer James Ginsberg and engineer Bill Maylone who did Cedille’s recording, this time at Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College, Naperville, Illinois, in 2012. The sound emphasizes the quartet but not at the expense of the orchestra and vice versa. It’s a well-integrated sound, without anything being too close up or too distant. The sound is also natural and well balanced, if a tad warm and soft at times. Highs seem nicely extended, and bass can appear light but comes through when needed. Orchestral depth and dynamics are modest but effective. While this album doesn’t sound quite so overtly “audiophile” as some of Cedille’s recordings, it’s quite realistic and easy to listen to.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: