Classical Album Review: “Dependent Arising” — Lots of Sound and Fury

By Jonathan Blumhofer

A three-movement concerto for violin and orchestra, Dependent Arising fuses the worlds of heavy metal, punk rock, and 20th-century classical composition into a furious, frenetic, sometimes tortured thirty-minute whole.

“I love when people say ‘like crack’ who’ve obviously never done crack,” B.J. Novack’s character, Ryan Howard, quips in a 2011 episode of The Office. A similar sentiment often seems to apply when classical musicians invoke rock, pop, funk, hip-hop, or heavy metal.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine, though, has more qualifications to do so than most: born in 1974, she discovered the latter genre as a ten-year-old and hasn’t looked back. In fact, she’s devoted a good bit of her career to championing violin arrangements and collaborations with bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Metallica.

So it’s not exactly a surprise to find her helming the premiere recording of Earl Maneein’s Dependent Arising. A three-movement concerto for violin and orchestra, it fuses the worlds of heavy metal, punk rock, and 20th-century classical composition into a furious, frenetic, sometimes tortured thirty-minute whole.

The first thing to say about Dependent Arising, whose title reflects the composer’s practice of Buddhism, is that the violin writing sounds wholly, almost breathtakingly, idiomatic. Granted, Maneein is a classically-trained violinist. Even so, everything speaks with remarkable clarity and projects, despite occasionally very thick instrumental textures.

The score’s drawback is that the music is too often of a certain kind – tense, driving, violent, fiercely dissonant, unrelentingly intense and angry – and it almost demands more moments of respite than it gets. True, the middle movement is, to start, more reflective and lyrical than not. And the finale has its moments of repose.

But the score’s extra-musical fixation on death seems to mean that there’s nary an extended episode for consolation or peace. Rather, it’s mostly sound and fury: the percussion writing (especially for snare drum) is too prevalent; thematically, little stands out; whole stretches are monodynamic (and monotextural).

That said, Pine, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), and conductor Tito Muñoz do all that’s asked of them. Pine’s performance, in particular, is totally locked-in, nowhere more so than in the slashing first- and second-movement cadenzas, which are utterly gripping. Ultimately, her playing is enough to leave one wondering if Dependent Arising is, like John Adams’ Sheherazade.2, simply a piece that needs to be experienced live in a hall, rather than on disc, to fully come off.

Dmitri Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1, which fills out the album, can certainly inhabit both worlds, canned and fresh. Premiered in 1955, the work has been widely recorded, most notably (of late) by the Russian-British virtuosa Alina Ibragimova.

Pine’s performance here lacks the cutting edge and wild-eyed intensity of Ibragivmova’s reading. Even so, her interpretation is virtually note-perfect, especially in the climactic, well-sculpted Passacaglia and the defiant finale.

Muñoz and the RSNO are solid accompanists, though sometimes muffled and ragged (the Scherzo’s central contrapuntal sequences are a touch hairy and the Burlesque’s whiplash transitions don’t immediately settle). Regardless, little details – contrabassoon lines in the Nocturne, crisp woodwind licks at the beginning of the Scherzo – beguile and the larger reading impresses for its spirit of toughness and bravado.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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