I'll bet when a lot of folks hear the words "new music" in the classical field, they think about something avant-garde, experimental, maybe atonal, devoid of melody, harmony, or any other signs of popular entertainment. Not so with the new music on the present disc, Manhattan Intermezzo. The program runs the gamut from relatively new, somewhat sentimental, and probably unfamiliar tunes to an old and well-loved warhorse. More important, it's all highly enjoyable.
The album brings together the works of four twentieth and twenty-first century musician/composers who describe various aspects of downtown New York City. It seems the program concept was the brainchild of American pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who had wanted for some time to bring the music together. Certainly, it could not have fallen into more capable hands. Biegel is a smart, sophisticated musician, and conductor Paul Phillips and the Brown University Orchestra ably accompany his vision.
The opening work on the disc, the title tune Manhattan Intermezzo, comes to us via the first of two perhaps surprising sources: Neil Sedaka. Yes, that Neil Sedaka, the one whose pop music we all grew up with. He wrote the Intermezzo in 2008 (with orchestration by Lee Holdridge) as "a journey through the musical diversity of Manhattan." I mentioned above the "sentimental" part of the program. This is it: very melodic, lush, and rhapsodic. It reminded me of a score for a possible Nicholas Sparks movie. Biegel plays the music with a careful abandon, a measured but enthusiastic approach that keeps Sedaka's tunes from becoming too romanticized. While it's undoubtedly lightweight, perhaps sounding fluffy to some ears, it is undeniably relaxing and enjoyable, too.
The next piece is from another surprising source: the late Keith Emerson. Yes, that Keith Emerson, cofounder of the British rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer. His contribution is the Piano Concerto No. 1, a three-movement work he wrote in 1976 (co-orchestrated by John Mayer). Emerson recorded it with the London Philharmonic a year later, and Jeffrey Biegel took it under his wing in 2001, playing it as often as possible since then. Even though I'm not entirely sure what the music has to do specifically with Manhattan, it's fascinating and entertaining, nonetheless.
After that is New World a-Coming' by Duke Ellington, written in 1943 and based on journalist Roi Ottley's book of the same name about his vision of "improved conditions for blacks in postwar America." Ellington said he "visualized this new world as a place in the distant future, where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God." Here, Biegel and company show their skills as interpreters of something jazzier than the previous selections, and the work becomes a perfect lead-in for the Gershwin piece that follows.
The final item on the agenda is George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which needs no introduction. The special thing here, besides the virtuosic piano playing and the orchestra's youthful zeal, is that Biegel plays the piano part as closely as possible to the way Gershwin intended it, without all the cuts made to it later. The result is a tad longer than most recordings of the piece but sparkling and fresh.
Producers Paul Phillips, Jeffrey Biegel, and Joseph Patrych and engineer and editor James LeGrand made the recording at Sayles Hall, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island in October and November 2014. The piano appears particularly well integrated with the orchestra, out in front, certainly, but not too far in front, with the rest of the instruments realistically distributed behind it. The piano sound is also realistic, clear and clean yet with a hint of room resonance. The orchestra itself sounds nicely balanced, with perhaps a slight emphasis on the upper midrange and with a wide stereo expanse and reasonable stage depth.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow: