Choose artist...

Top 10 for Mar

'Spectrum' functions as a fine exemplar of Mark Abel's work on the whole / textura

Bookmark and Share

While appreciation for Mark Abel's music is undeniably enhanced by familiarity with releases such as The Cave of Wondrous Voice (2020), Time and Distance (2018), and Home is a Harbor (2016), it's not required when the double-CD set Spectrum, the sixth album on Delos by the American composer, offers a compact, stand-alone account of his artistry. Comprised of three vocal works and three chamber pieces, the recording is distinguished by Abel's writing but also the performers: sopranos Hila Plitmann, Isabel Bayrakdarian, and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich; pianists Carol Rosenberger, Dominic Cheli, Sean Kennard, and Jeffrey LaDeur; violinists Dennis Kim, Adam Millstein, violist David Samuel, and cellist Jonah Kim; and hornist Jeff Garza, flutist Christy Kim, and clarinetist Max Opferkuch. The vocal settings are the song cycles Trois Femmes du Cinema and 1966, along with Two Scenes from “The Book of Esther,” excerpts from an opera in development. All involved do much to maximize the allure of Abel's already appealing music.

Though his discography might suggest his professional career had a classical focus from the start, the path that brought Abel to his present roles as classical composer and Delos co-director was circuitous. Like many a teen, he early gravitated to rock and jazz, interests that led, first, to a stint as a NYC-based guitarist, bassist, songwriter, and record producer in the ‘70s and ‘80s and, second, as a journalist. Over time, his childhood affection for classical music re-emerged and became a full-time vocation, bringing him to where he is today.

As these latest works reveal, Abel's beholden to no school in the writing department, and neither are there discernible influences, even if his music sits comfortably within the classical tradition as part of an ongoing continuum. He is, as it were, his own man, a composer who brings his sensibility and highly developed command of craft to a particular idea and illuminates it in strikingly imaginative manner. Indicative of the personal kernel from which his work grows is Trois Femmes du Cinema, its creation sparked by his love for art films of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s and its three parts celebrations of Anne Wiazemsky, Pina Pellicer, and Larisa Shepitko. In the booklet included with the release, Abel provides mini-bios for each one, a canny move when their names will be unknown to most of today's moviegoers. Smart also was his decision to introduce Spectrum with a work that augments the illustrious vocal artistry of Bayrakdarian with the sensitive accompaniment of Rosenberger. Abel's lyrical writing and the duo's performance accentuate the pathos of lives that ascended to glorious peaks but also endured personal and professional disappointment. Wiazemsky, for example, appeared in films by Bresson, Pasolini, and Godard, and even married the latter, despite a pronounced age difference; when that union ended, however, her career likewise deflated, though she eventually re-established herself in France as a novelist, film director, and screenplay author before dying of cancer in 2017. While Pellicer enjoyed success as an actress in Brando's One-Eyed Jacks and Hitchcock's Torn Curtain, she also suffered from depression and ultimately took her life in 1964. Now regarded as an unjustly overlooked figure, Shepitko wasn't an actress but rather a Soviet-era director tragically killed in a 1979 car crash. In true art song fashion, Abel's music replicates the emotional trajectory of the words in each setting, in this case the texts penned by the composer himself.

The release's first disc closes with two ten-minute instrumental works, Reconciliation Day, an expressive and suitably enigmatic viola-and-piano duet essayed magnificently by Samuel and Cheli, and Out the Other Side, a wide-ranging showcase written for and dynamically performed by Trio Barclay members Kim, Kim, and Kennard. Speaking of showcases, the vocal gifts of Plitmann and Scharich are displayed in the second disc's opening work, Two Scenes from “The Book of Esther,” their singing beautifully supported by Cheli, Millstein, and Opferkuch and the text about the biblical heroine written by LA poet Kate Gale. Whereas the first scene, “The Maiden Esther,” features Plitmann alone, “Two Queens” pairs the soprano as Esther with Scharich in the role of Vashti, the queen who's been cast from her throne by the Persian king Ahasuerus. The combination of singer and trio amplifies the intimacy of Esther's soliloquy in the nine-minute first scene and the drama of the spoken-sung encounter between the two women in the fourteen-minute second. Despite the modest instrumental forces in play, the music exudes a compelling neo-orchestral character that suggests how effective it would be performed by a large ensemble.

After The Long March, a thirteen-minute trio excursion unusual for blending flute (Kim), horn (Garza), and piano (Cheli), comes the final vocal work, 1966, Abel again credited with text for the three-part song cycle. Written for and performed by Scharich and LaDeur, the piece reflects on the time the composer turned eighteen and the life-changing events that happened during that period—a romance, a hike, and San Francisco visit. Wistful, nostalgic, and, yes, lyrical, the songs are rendered gracefully by the pair, the outpouring of “First Love” particularly affecting. As stated, one's appreciation for Abel's work is enhanced by familiarity with all of his Delos releases, but Spectrum functions as a fine exemplar of the whole, especially when it features vocal and instrumental works. Best of all, his oft-lyrical, melody-rich material exemplifies exceptional craft and emotional resonance, and at ninety-two minutes, the package manages to be both comprehensive and tidy in its single-volume presentation.

SEE THE textura PAGE