Thursday, December 24, 2015

Eric Nathan proves his mettle as a composer of unique skills in music for one player and more

Eric Nathan has a master's from Indiana University
Finding musical means for rendering the apprehensiveness of modern life, Eric Nathan — on the evidence of "Multitude Solitude" (Albany Records) — is among the new American voices worth hearing in solo and chamber compositions.

The title piece, "Multitude, Solitude," is a one-movement string quartet that explores the tension of being in crowds vs. being alone. In the course of a quarter-hour, this deeply urban score balances stasis and forward motion. Social buzz and solitude jostle in  assertive ensemble gestures and tiny lyrical phrases. It's all very controlled, and that's a good thing, since a piece of such a wide expressive range could easily seem scattered and directionless.

The Momenta Quartet plays the work's premiere recording with elan, a quality it also brings to two other of the disc's seven compositions. "Four to One" has a more generalized restlessness, but is also attractively scored, pointing toward the effect of "a sunset as the colors begin to fade." Nathan clearly exhibits an openness to conveying emotion, which he manages while reveling in the abstractness and palette of instrumental sound.

It's no surprise that when Nathan draws on the distant past, something like "Omaggio a Gesualdo" results. The Renaissance composer, famous for being one of classical music's few murderers, wove anguish into his harmonically adventurous vocal works. Nathan has the Momenta Quartet, plus violist Samuel Rhodes, evoking Gesualdo with close harmonies, small, shifting gestures, brief flourishes, and madrigal-like lines (especially near the end).

Expressiveness of almost opera buffa proportions shines through Quartet for Oboe & Strings. Oboist Peggy Pearson joins three Momenta members in the 12-minute piece. Complexity in the strings always serves the oboe, whose long phrases reflect an amusing self-importance. As full-bodied as the string instruments are, they seem in thrall to the vigor of the oboe, which manipulates the "plot" with subtly comical mastery.

Three solo pieces complete the disc. New York Philharmonic first trombonist Joseph Alessi plays "As Above, So Below," a piece that incorporates some alteration of the instrument (removal of a tuning slide) to bring a "shadow" trombone into play. The virtuosity is stunning, and the work stays free of the tediousness of many a modernist display piece.

"Three by Three," performed by pianist Mei Rui, is a compact suite with a relentless first movement, a fragile, questioning second, and a finale somewhat resembling Aaron Copland's Americana phase, but blithely underivative.

"Toying" brings trumpeter Hugo Moreno to the fore. This delightful piece for the instrument Nathan mastered in his youth is another three-part suite, rising through its offhand brilliance to "Ventriloquizing," a masterpiece of muted one-instrument interplay. That sounds like a contradiction in terms; you have to hear it to understand how well it works.

All the pieces receive their debut on disc with this release. The expert performances reveal a young composer with his own style and certainty, forthright, never overbearing, but at the same time not burdened by excessive reserve.