Classical Album Reviews: Avalon String Quartet and Decoda

By Jonathan Blumhofer

The debut album of Decoda, the first — and, so far, only — affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall, and a disc featuring a trio of works by two mid-century Chicago-based composers, Florence Price and Leo Sowerby.

Chicago may, in popular parlance, be known as the “Second City” — and for any number of possible reasons — but its music scene has, for a long time, been first-rate. Naxos’s new release with the Avalon String Quartet emphasizes the point, with a trio of works by two mid-century Chicago-based composers, Florence Price and Leo Sowerby.

These days, Price is better known. Her story is noteworthy and compelling (the first African-American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra), even if the conservatism of her style sometimes got in the way of her ability to freely develop thematic ideas and break structural convention.

There’s a bit of that going on in the outer movements of Price’s A-minor String Quartet No. 2 that the Avalons assay. Its first movement has a tendency to ramble and the finale’s a touch insistent, rhythmically.

Yet the Avalons aren’t thrown by the former: there’s a strong sense of character and balance on display in their reading, and this confidence manages to smooth out most of the music’s rough edges. And the finale moves efficiently.

The middle movements don’t require much finessing: that’s usually where Price shined. Accordingly, the Avalons get the lyrical Andante to sing fervently and the third-movement Juba sounds conspicuously fresh and spry.

Price’s late Five Folksongs in Counterpoint largely follows a process of polyphonic accretion, each movement becoming denser and more involved as it proceeds. Though the tack becomes predictable as the music goes on, the Avalons highlight the likely unconsciously Ivesian qualities of Price’s writing, especially in the third movement’s breakdown of “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”

While both Price selections are steeped in folk song and hymnody, Sowerby’s String Quartet in G minor hails from a more abstracted place. His musical language is, generally, brooding and searching, tonal but richly chromatic and with lots of winding, unpredictable melodic twists and turns.

It’s a compelling brew and the Avalon’s advocacy for this 1935 score is palpable. The outer movements (especially the finale’s sinuous fugue) are fittingly intense and shapely. So is the gritty second movement, whose vigorous outer thirds call to mind the sort of music Bartók might have written had he lived in the American Midwest. As a counterweight, the slow movement unfolds with languid repose.

Decoda, the first — and, so far, only — affiliate ensemble of Carnegie Hall, celebrates a different, more recent strand of American music in their self-titled debut album.

Its biggest item is Reza Vali’s Folk Songs (Set No. 9). Scored for flute, cello, crystal glasses, and percussion (the latter are passed between the soloists), its eight movements evoke both the Pittsburgh-based composer’s native Iran and some of its familiar instruments.

Just about any way you look at it, this is attractive music, dancing, whirling, haunting. Vali’s writing consistently teases the ear: between drones and slightly heterophonic melodies, how many voices are actually involved in the opening Largo?

The third movement’s ghostly pairing of low flute and cello playing harmonics is stunning. So is the “Lullaby’s” lilting flute melody with crystal glasses. Flautist Catherine Gregory and cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir deliver an impassioned, vibrant account of it all.

The full group has the spotlight for the disc’s remaining fare, Valerie Coleman’s Revelry and arrangements of three William Bolcom rags.

Revelry, a sometimes ominous meditation on the concept of people congregating, packs a lot into its 10-minute duration. The first of its two movements ranges from buzzy, swirling textures to static ones. At times, the music seems to grow woozy, but all of its threatening gestures resolve, more or less, into something genial.

The short finale, on the other hand, provides no such comforting solution. Pecking bassoon riffs and edgy, insistent rhythms may or may not depict the title’s “War,” but they’re plenty unsettling.

Decoda dispatches the piece with energy and color; Coleman’s idiomatic writing ensures that everybody has their moments to shine.

The three Bolcom rags that fill out the disc — “Incinoratorag,” “Graceful Ghost,” and “Poltergeist” — also play to the ensemble’s strengths (the arrangements were crafted by members of the group). Though none of them quite top the keyboard originals, the outer pair offer a welcome bit of cheek, and “Ghost” swoons elegantly.

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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