American Melting Pot (CD review)

Music of Alter, Barilari, Gould, Levinson, and Vazquez. David Yonan, violin; Christopher Ferrer, cello; Susan Merdinger, piano. Sheridan Music Studio.

By John J. Puccio

Concert pianist and Steinway Artist Susan Merdinger explains her rationale for the current album, “American Melting Pot,” in this way: “My goal performing, recording and compiling this ‘American Melting Pot’ CD of my live concert performances of music by American composers is to demonstrate not only my deep commitment to supporting the work of living composers of my own time, but also to demonstrate the rich and varied legacies of musical traditions that are embodied in composers who were both born in the USA as well as those who were immigrated to the USA and now call America ‘home.’ It is my hope that the true American spirit of welcoming immigrants and their assimilation into a large society which embraces diversity, inclusivity and the dissemination of ideas, both musical and otherwise, will be celebrated and exemplified in the works I have chosen for this compendium of American music.

“In these works we can hear the influences of musical styles emanating from or originating in China, Eastern and Western Europe, South America, and the USA. Indeed, American music is a fusion and integration of musical styles as our American society is indeed a ‘melting pot’ of which I am very proud to be a part. It has been my great privilege and honor to work with each of these talented and distinguished composers.”

What Ms. Merdinger doesn’t mention is that she also premiered each of the pieces presented here, and that most of the live selections on the album are those very première performances.

First up on the program is a six-movement work called Pieces of China (1985) by Pulitzer prizewinning composer Morton Gould (1913-1996). Ms. Merdinger premiered it in 1990 with the composer present, so we have to regard it as authoritative. My wife thought it sounded “like a Picasso painting,” which seems apt given the slightly askew musical portraits of Asia that Gould paints. Ms. Merdinger approaches them with her usual poise and grace, allowing her natural virtuosic talents to serve the music rather than vice versa.

Susan Merdinger
Next is the Ballade in F-sharp minor (2012) by Argentinean-born composer Fernando Vazquez (b. 1962). Although the Ballade may be a short piece (a little over six minutes), it includes a pleasing variety of textures and tunes, which Ms. Merdinger captures with her equally pleasing, sensitive, and affecting style.

After that, we have the Piano Sonata “My New Beginning” Part 1 (2018) by Aaron Alter (b. 1955), a piece the composer dedicated to Ms. Merdinger. Alter says that his inspiration for the piece was the first movement of Beethoven’s “Walstein” Sonata, Op. 53. You may recognize bits of the Beethoven, and you may also enjoy the jazz and even rock variations that Alter places on them. Ms. Merdinger easily keeps pace with the music, providing it with a poise that other interpretations may miss.

Then, there is the two-part Toccata Gaucha (2008) by Uruguayan-born composer Elbio Barilari (b. 1952). Barilari is both a classical composer and a jazz musician, and one can hear elements of both idioms in the work. It is certainly the jazziest music Ms. Merdinger plays on the program, and if she’d like to pursue a parallel career I’m sure the jazz world would welcome her.

The final piece on the agenda is Shtetl Scenes by Russian-born composer Ilya Levinson (b. 1958). It recounts scenes in a small Jewish village in pre-World War II Eastern Europe. Here, Ms. Merdinger performs the trio version of the work, accompanied by David Yonan, violin, and Christopher Ferrer, cello. The music is melancholic, dramatic, joyful, introspective, energetic, and haunting by turns. The piece itself and the trio’s realization of it afforded some of my favorite moments in the album.

Various sound engineers worked with producer Susan Merdinger at various different venues. For the Morton Gould recording it was Tim Martyn at Merkin Concert Hall, New York City in 1990. For the Fernando Vasquez piece it was Hudson Fair at the Chicago Latin Music Festival, 2013. For the Aaron Alter work it was David Hill and Svetlana Belsky at Harrison Oaks Studio, Fair Oaks, CA in 2018. For the Elbio Barilari music it was Hudson Fair again at the Pianoforte Salon in Chicago, 2013. And for the Ilya Levinson recording, it was Edward Ingold at the Northbrook Public Library, Illinois, in 2016. Various degrees of applause follow each selection.

There is a remarkable similarity of sound on the album, considering that the selections were recorded over a twenty-six year timespan. There is some evidence of possible noise reduction in the sound, resulting in a slight dimming of the highest frequencies. Nevertheless, the engineers miked things closely enough to reveal good detail yet not so close as to overpower one’s listening room. More important, the sound appears rich and mildly resonant, much as a live piano might sound.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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