Delights & Dances (CD review)

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:


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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 ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine 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 simple-minded, 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 Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.

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