Classical review: The music is coming up Roses at Blair

With a little effort, even a mediocre Scrabble player could probably find the name “Moses” embedded in the word “composers” – (co)M(p)ose(r)s.  But leave it to Michael Alec Rose to see its existential significance.

roseRose, a long-time professor of composition at the Blair School of Music, was at Turner Recital Hall on Tuesday night, presiding over a Nightcap Series Concert of his music. The Nightcap’s informal format allowed Rose to indulge in his two greatest passions – performing his own music, and talking about it. On Tuesday the ebullient composer was in fine form, waxing poetic about everything from Moses to Mozart.

“I never really wanted to be a rabbi,” said Rose, who generally wears his cultural heritage the way a tiger wears its stripes – with ostentatious pride. “Yet somewhere in my DNA I always knew that I could be a rabbi, because I’m evangelical. It’s just that my Bible turned out to be the Beethoven piano sonatas and the Mozart piano concertos.”

Rose, it would seem, listened to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Concerto and heard the voice of God. After that, the thought of rabbinical school must have seemed anticlimactic.

There was certainly nothing anticlimactic about the two Rose concertos that made up Tuesday’s program. Both the Piano Concerto “Interferon” (expertly played by pianist Shelby Flowers) and Sedentary Dances: Scenes for Cello and Orchestra (which received an exhilarating reading from cellist Felix Wang) proved to be bold and thoroughly entertaining works.

It’s been said that all composers steal ideas from other composers (“nothing comes from nothing,” Rose likes to say), but the really good composers don’t leave fingerprints. In that respect, Rose is like an especially stealthy cat burglar.

While listening to the composer’s 18-minute long, one-movement piano concerto, I could detect faint echoes of the Bartok and Prokofiev piano concertos. Yet there was nothing derivative about “Interferon.” Nothing was quoted or borrowed. There wasn’t a moment of homage. Rose has simply absorbed Bartok’s rhythmic angularity and Prokofiev’s motoric energy and dissonance into his own musical DNA. He has assimilated their techniques, making them a part of his own singular and original voice.

shelbyThe Piano Concerto “Interferon” came across as a kind of psychological battle, a test of wills. The pianist opens the work with a bold statement, playing fast, jagged melodic patterns and dissonant chords in the piano’s high treble range. As the music develops, the pianist begins to play frantic glissandi and big, double-fisted chords spaced far apart. One senses the pianist is a protagonist searching for balance and mooring in an age of anxiety.

The orchestra part (played in piano transcription by Craig Nies) seemingly serves as both the piano soloist’s foil and therapist. As the pianist chaotically dashes about in search of life’s meaning, the orchestra begins to play contrasting themes that seem to have a soothing, calming effect. This music eventually blossoms into a drop-dead gorgeous orchestral theme.

Flowers, a Blair School of Music senior, nailed Rose’s concerto. She played with dramatic flair, tossing off the concerto’s diabolically difficult passages with easy elegance. She readily conveyed the work’s inherent restlessness while also capturing its poetry. It’s worth noting that Flowers also skillfully arranged the piano transcription of the orchestra part. And, of course, with a virtuoso like Nies playing that part, one hardly needed an orchestra.

wangRose composed most of Sedentary Dances last fall, and on Tuesday night Wang gave the work its world premiere. Like “Interferon,” Sedentary Dances also seems to be a test of wills, another therapy session. Only this time, the roles are reversed. The orchestra (played in piano transcription on Tuesday by the composer himself) opens with a rush of anxiety-laden notes. Clearly, the orchestra is inviting the cello to join in the neurosis. But the cello won’t be drawn in.

Instead, the cello immediately changes the subject with a long-breathed, deeply felt melody. The orchestra continues to interrupt with wild exclamations. Somehow, the cello manages to take these gestures and transform them into ruminative, dark-hued lyrical lines. There is a moment, midway through the concerto, when the cello descends into its own dark psyche. Eerie harmonics, trills and string slides come to the fore. But the cello finds its grounding again in the tuneful, impassioned cadenza.

Rose certainly couldn’t have hoped for a better performance. Throughout the concerto, Wang was intensely in the moment, playing with a rich, round tone and warm expression. Rose, who usually sits in the audience during performances of his music, did a yeoman’s job playing the piano transcription.

One more observation about Tuesday’s concert: Flowers, the soloist in the piano concerto, returned to her usual student role as anonymous page turner during the cello concerto. I much prefer her in her newfound role as piano virtuoso.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.