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Rodney Waschka II: Music For Strings

by Karen Moorman

Rodney Waschka II: Music For Strings. N.Y.: Capstone Records CPS-8781, © 2007; 72:33; $14.00                                                           

Never judge a CD by its cover. This fine collection of works by Rodney Waschka II, wrapped in plain clothing and entitled Music For Strings (Capstone 2007), is worth checking out. Two string quartets —Laredo (1999) and Ha! Fortune (2003) — and works for solo stringed instruments performed by the award winning Nevsky String Quartet will make you put down your knitting and pay attention. 

Composer Waschka, known for his algorithmic compositions and associated with computer music, presents an assemblage of works for live musicians performing acoustic instruments. They are crafted out of mathematically-based compositional techniques, blended with artistic intuition and a firm grasp on string writing yielding exceptional work. And, as Jonathan C. Kramer remarks in his introductory notes, "Each reveals a distinct, vivid expressive manifestation of a clear artistic vision." Indeed, Waschka's manifesto — clarity — is achieved on all counts.

String Quartet: Laredo, in three movements, is immediately accessible, with understandable language. With just enough melodic material neatly woven into independently moving lines and interesting syncopated rhythms, it is well contained in a recognizable structure. Waschka avoids the trappings of pyrotechnics but exploits the natural resonances of the instruments. The result is lively, beautiful sounding music. In a recent interview with the composer, Tom Moore (Duke University) describes his initial reaction: "This sounds like nothing I have ever heard before," he says, "but at the same time it sounds very American." (21st Century Music, December 2007; Vol.14. No.12). No argument here — this quartet will reside among my favorites.
The contrasting political statement, Ravel Remembers Fascism (1991-92), for solo violoncello, performed by Dmitry Khrytchev, is dark and evocative. Waschka's writing, alternating between two schizophrenically juxtaposed voices, one frenetic and the other with penetrating lucidity, is daring and at the same grounded. Beside the influence of J.S. Bach's unaccompanied 'Cello Suites and 20th-century violinist and composer Krzysztof Penderecki, I hear the voice of guitarist Andrés Segovia, whose music inspired the composer in his youth. Khrytchev's performance is bold and dramatic.

Ever wonder what the all-time favorites of the viola literature might be? Strings Magazine writer Heather K. Scott queried top viola players and compiled her results in the article "Living in Alto Clef" (December 2007). According to Scott, Lawrence Dutton (of the Emerson String Quartet) says, "it means turning toward contemporary composers." Waschka makes a laudable contribution with Six Folksongs from an Imaginary Country (2003, with each piece performed impeccably by Vladimir Bistritsky. These reminded me of the pleasures of Bartók's duos, transcribed for viola by William Primrose. There are any number of hidden treasures for the player (and listener): rhythmic vitality, accents on secondary beats, tuneful melodic material and a variety of articulations, and a range from deep chocolaty sustained notes to raspy ones close to the bridge. Etched and painted with a swirl of color, these are delightful to the ear, rich and playful. Six Folksongs will surely capture the attention of violists on the lookout for new literature. 

Xuan Men (1991), commissioned and premiered by Xiao-Lu Li in Shenzhen, China, has been performed in English, Russian, Spanish, and Bulgarian. Like his more recent operaSaint Ambrose (2002), the piece requires the performer deftly to toggle between instrumentalist and actor. And like Waschka's other poetic works, the text is straight forward yet ambiguously funny:
                                    I'm worried. I'm very worried.
                                    Hey, I'm scared, very scared.
                                    I must say I'm very nervous, very nervous.
                                    Aren't you? . . .

In a convincing performance, Razoumova's reading of the text flows easily, and she cuts through the cadenza-like middle section like butter.

String Quartet: Ha! Fortune (2003), named for the motet by Guillaume de Machaut, is written in five movements, but only the fourth incorporates the Renaissance form — and any resemblance to the first movement of Laredo (repeated notes in the 'cello) quickly dissipates. The melodic material is richly developed, the motoric drive of the fast movements and contrasting Adagio movements make for a brilliant piece demonstrating command of the medium, and there is a powerful close. With the boldness of Henryk Górecki and beauty of Arvo Pärt's choral music, Waschka carves out his place with a unique voice. This CD deserves a home in every string devotee's listening library.

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