There is so much to love about Anne Akiko Meyer‘s new album, The American Masters (not to be confused with The American Album). Not only does it begin with one of the most lyrical, rich violin concertos of the 20th century (and one of the most played), Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, it also contains two commissioned works. Sandwiched in the middle is a lush lullaby by John Corigliano commissioned as a gift from Ms. Meyers husband celebrating their daughter Natalie. It ends with Mason Bates Violin Concerto which contains Mr. Bates signature contemporary music that stretches the listener while remaining accessible and often melodic. If nothing else, this album dissuades you from the idea that Classical music is all about old, dead Germans. Don’t get me wrong, I love old dead German music as evidenced by Ms. Meyers’s Air: The Bach Album. However, the more I listen to modern orchestral music, the more important I think it is to be stretched musically (as I outlined here). The album shows the fresh vibrancy of contemporary orchestral music highlighted with Ms. Meyers precise yet expressive playing.
The album has a brilliant progression starting with Barber’s Concerto. After 9/11, many people probably associate his name with his Adagio for Strings, op.11 since it so well captured the mood of the country and was played so frequently. His Concerto for Violin and Orchestra takes a similar, lyrical approach resulting in sheer beauty. Ms. Meyers has that rare ability to be precise and disciplined in her playing whilst evoking all of the emotion and expression contained in the piece. She does that throughout the album. This approach is brought out further in her collaboration on the album with Leonard Slatkin, in conjunction with the London Symphony Orchestra; they exude disciplined passionate music making.
While you might be tempted to think that Lullaby for Natalie is a fluff piece with no real musical conflict needing resolution, listen carefully to the story. The nestling in, the settling in and the drifting off to sleep. The very simplicity and progression could so easily come off sloppy and dull. Instead, each part of the progression is beautifully portrayed. Sometimes I think we’ve come to associate anything that is pleasant to listen as lacking depth. At least for me, sonic beauty is OK.
Mason Bate’s Violin Concerto presents more of that obvious depth and challenge but it doesn’t leave its audience behind. Take the opening movement, Archaeopteryx. It may have a little of the frenetic energy and jumpiness of an almost-bird-partly-dinosaur but half-way through the movement you sense this sheer gracefulness of gliding. It’s this kind of combination that seems to set Mr. Bates apart from some of his contemporaries – lyrical sections set against quick transitions all with a melodic thread tying it together. This is also where that disciplined expressive nature of Ms. Meyers really shines. Precise, fast-paced transitions with melodic interludes embedded within each movement requires top technical competence while maintaining the expressive nature of the work. Lakebed memories portray that same type of juxtaposition for this mixed bird – it comes to rest but hops around as noise or movement make it uneasy. The Rise of the birds, the final movement, is just flat-out gorgeous. Nature documentarians ought to fall over themselves to use this as soundtrack to birds in flight. It also does a nice job of bringing together the albums overall lush, rich tone with a beginning of quick movement of take-off to the long, sweet sounds of full flight.
John Clare, from KMFA radio, has an nice interview with Ms Meyers: Bach, Dinosaurs, Lullabies, & Perpetual Motion (KMFA)
Of course, all of these words are all inadequate to express the lovely music making contained in the album, go visit here to try it out a bit for yourself.