Aspects of love and the cosmos: Mischa Zupko chamber music for strings and piano

Mischa Zupko teaches at two Chicago music schools.
Mischa Zupko is a composer who, in a new release, manages to address the starry skies and the adventures of love without falling into neo-romantic gestures that seem pat or overrehearsed.  In "Eclipse: Chamber Music by Mischa Zupko" (Cedille Records), he performs at the piano several of his pieces with Sang Mee Lee, violin, and Wendy Warner, cello.

The title piece is the only composition for Lee and Warner together, without piano. It is representative of the cosmic inspiration Zupko draws upon for music that is lyrical in an exploratory way, seeming to project wishes forward and fulfill them in short order. The pieces are compact without being terse, yearning without schmaltz.

"We now understand an eclipse to be not an absence, but an alignment," the composer writes in a program note included with the CD booklet. It's a useful understanding for the listener to apply to the experience of listening to the enchanting violin-cello duo. 

The two instruments approach each other warily, making their eventual overlapping tentative — as if to cast in human terms the gradual alignment of two heavenly bodies. The phenomenon, when seen from Earth, creates the eclipse, which has long been subject to mythological interpretations, some of them worrisome.

It is clear that alignment is a rational feature of Zupko's music, and the negative connotations of absence are usually far from his mind. "From Twilight," for solo violin, is poised on the common observation of daylight fading and stars and planets gradually appearing (in environments not washed out by artificial-light pollution). Little outbursts of violin sound, separated by rests, imitate blinking. The small focus points expand and become gradually linked over the piece's five-minute span.

"Shades of Grey" is a 22-minute suite of four pieces, each with a title that suggests the music's implicit meaning. It presents Lee and Zupko in dialogue that the composer explicitly links to some of the variety in two-way human relationships — a sort of soft-focus version of the independent characterizations in Elliott Carter's chamber music. I found the finale, "Trigger," the most engaging of the set. With its rhythmic patterns underlined by the pianist's rapping on wood, it had an edginess that blossomed like deadly nightshade in the more aggressive piece that concludes the disc.

"Love Obsession," for cello, piano, and six prerecorded electronic cello tracks, challenges the listener's mental stability. This is music that should perhaps be kept away from anyone who has been victimized by a love obsession. On the other hand, it could be therapeutic, a catharsis on the order of what Aristotle prescribed for tragic drama. 

For over 10 minutes, with a cunningly placed partial respite, cellist, pianist and their tightly fused electronic partner worry to death a striding arpeggio and its aggrandizing power of erotic cathexis. The work's sturdy profile remains clear despite being heavily freighted with the prerecorded material.

"Love Obsession" amounts to a bracing contrast with the subtler, even somewhat passive, sides of Zupko cultivated in the disc's other works. And it's hard to imagine performances more fully capable of realizing this music.


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