At Zipper, too — although I keep forgetting to mention it — a charming and communicative pianist named Amy Dissanayake came on from Chicago on March 7 to fill in the wild-card position in this year’s Piano Spheres roster. With her came Chicago music: six Piano Etudes by Augusta Read Thomas attached to descriptive titles — “Cathedral Waterfall,” “Rain at Funeral,” etc. Seven etudes by David Rakowski were more specific: “Repeated-note,” “Etude on Melody and Thick Chords.” I don’t usually expect to get much from the terseness of the piano etude (unless the composer be Ligeti), but these turned out as a pair of valuable, attractive garlands, very nicely put forth. David Rakowski teaches at Brandeis; when last heard from he had run his string of etudes to 70. -- Alan Rich, L.A. Weekly, April 12, 2006.
Vocal warm-ups will never be the same again thanks to David Rakowski's delightful series of Encores, works which are as brainy yet playful with singing as his trademark Etudes are with piano playing. On Scatter, Rakowski merges scat singing with melodies derived from pitch mapping the names of the performers. -- Frank J. Oteri, New Music Box, December, 2006.
Though written in 1991, David Rakowski's "Winged Contraption" also received its premiere on Saturday. The writing suggests a kind of smoldering Mahlerian intensity, funneled through a lean and often astringent harmonic language. The piece ends precipitously, leaving the ear still hungry for more. -- Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe, January 22, 2007.
David Rakowsky dans ces trois études résume quelques esthétiques du XXe siècle, sans rien y ajouter d’original. Absofunkinlutely qui se veut inspirée de la musique funk fait penser à du Stravinsky mélangé à du Ligeti (ah ! les fameuses « touches bloquées »), Rick’s Mood est une sorte de « pari musical » d’écrire uniquement des accords majeurs (Erik Satie l’a déjà fait ça) et NOT, avec sa récitation d’un poème minimaliste (« Happy ? not happy… Unhappy !!! ») renvoie aux happenings de John Cage dans les années 50. Pièces bien peu intéressantes malgré l’énergie qu’y donne Adam Marks.
[David Rakowsky (sic) in these three études summarizes some of the esthetics of the twentieth century, without adding anything to the originals. Absofunkinlutely, which wants to be inspired by funk music, makes one think of of Stravinsky mixed with Ligeti (ah! the famous “blocked keys”), Rick’s Mood is a kind of “musical bet” to write only major triads (Erik Satie already did that) and NOT, with his recitation of a minimalist poem (“Happy? not happy… Unhappy!!!”) returns to the happenings of John Cage in the Fifties. Pieces that aren’t very interesting in spite of the energy given them by Adam Marks.] -- Maxime Kaprielian, ResMusica.com, March 12, 2007.
[About SONGS AND ENCORES, Bridge 9199] The songs of Chester Biscardi and David Rakowski show that lyricism is alive and well in the hands of a younger generation. Five stars. -- Calum McDonald, BBC Music Magazine.
[About SONGS AND ENCORES, Bridge 9199] Also striking are David Rakowski's tonally ambiguous rhapsodic vocalises "Three Encores". -- Stephen Eddins, AllMusic Guide.
[About SONGS AND ENCORES, Bridge 9199] If this review gives shorter shrift to Biscardi, Picker, and Rakowski, it's not because their songs are less fine. ... Biscardi and Rakowski are less overtly romantic than Picker, but they too find the richness of the texts and communicate them to the listener fully. -- Raymond S. Tuttle, International Record Review, March 2007.
[About SONGS AND ENCORES, Bridge 9199] Most of the songs in this collection were composed within the last fifteen years – the majority of them for New Yorker Judith Bettina. Their consistently high quality says much for the discrimination of singer and pianist; while personal links with the composers are manifold, there’s little self-indulgence in the music or music-making. The stylistic and expressive range of these songs is appreciable. .... Violinist Curtis Macomber takes part with the duo in David Rakowski’s Musician, originally scored for soprano, string orchestra, harp and celesta. Like Picker, Rakowski studied under Babbitt at Princeton. His setting of Phillis Levin’s Georgic, ‘in memory of Edward Thomas’, is very impressive in its condensed drama. Three Encores, including the jazzy Scatter, are engaging vocalises. James Goldsworthy makes much of Rakowski’s three-minute elegy Sara, for piano solo. -- Peter Palmer, Tempo, July 2007.
David Rakowski supplied “Locking Horns” (2001-2), a French-horn concerto that also charts a voyage from murkiness to clarity. Each of the work’s five movements expands on the set of short figures set forth in the introduction, with the horn solo first presented as a gentle overlay, scarcely more than another strand of counterpoint. In the central slow movement, the horn — played gracefully here by Tianxia Wu — holds forth more powerfully, and it keeps the spotlight through the rest of the work despite a strand of orchestral horn writing that briefly steals the attention..... As in the second part of the Haapanen work and the best moments of Mr. Rakowski’s score, precise, energetic scoring creates its own excitement, whatever the densities of the language. --- Allan Kozinn, New York Times, October 1, 2007.
"Re-Inventions," the opening concert of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's 11th season, promised "glorious and subversive music for keyboards." While none of the four pieces heard Friday night fully lived up to either adjective, they did present individual and strikingly resourceful ideas on how the concerto, a timeworn musical form, could be reimagined for the present ...
The final work, David Rakowski's Piano Concerto, was also having its world premiere, with soloist Marilyn Nonken. It was the most conventional in form -- in four separate movements -- yet also the most fully satisfying work of the evening. It begins with a single note (A) plucked on the strings of the piano, and its repetition gives the first movement its initial jolt of energy. That plucked note opens all four movements, which comprise an adagio, with some gorgeous wind playing; a rhythmically complex scherzo; and a sweeping finale that recalls the first movement. Like Colgrass, Rakowski has the soloist use a second instrument - in this case a toy piano - though much more sparingly. The orchestral writing is wonderfully varied, and the soloist's part is both virtuosic and lyrical throughout.
Each of the four soloists was superb, and Nonken was outstanding. BMOP, under Gil Rose, gave the kind of vital, secure performances we have come almost to take for granted. May they remain glorious and subversive for years to come. -- David Weininger, Boston Globe, November 6, 2007.
Let's start with the obvious: The Philadelphia Orchestra's current Leonard Bernstein Festival honors its namesake in spirit more than in fact. ... Network for New Music's Wednesday concert at the Kimmel Center ended with David Rakowski's Sex Songs, and Lenny was known to like sex. ....
... The concert ended with the first hearing of Rakowski's Sex Songs: They're accomplished, thoughtful and so ambitious they sometimes felt more like sinfoniettas than songs. But sexy? Not at all. -- David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 19, 2008.
[review of Keys to the Future, concert 2] If there are still any shreds of doubt lingering about the wealth of compositional tools being assiduously mined by today's composers, an evening like this should dispel them entirely.....
Piano etudes are still very much in vogue, and David Rakowski is now working on his ninth book of them. (The final one listed on his website, No. 82, is "F This" in which he answers the challenge of writing an etude using a single note.) Amy Briggs Dissanayake chose four, written from 1997 to 2002, with personalities as varied as their titles. No. 40, "Strident," uses jazzy syncopations in the manner of early 20th century stride piano, whereas No. 13, "Plucking A," combines thuds and twangy work directly on the piano's strings. No. 41, "Bop It," is a flood of hyperactivity, while "Martler," No. 14, is an edgy exercise in crossing hands, with a furious ending in the lower register. Several of these were written for Ms. Dissanayake, who seemed completely unfazed by their sometimes amusingly frightful demands. -- Bruce Hodges, Seen and Heard International (music-web international), April, 2008.
Sweet is not an adjective generally associated with percussion recitals, but it's the first descriptor that comes to mind listening to this album and reading its program notes. That's not to say there isn't plenty of vitality and rhythmic energy and virtuosity on display here, but these pieces don't exploit the angst-inducing and nerve-jangling possibilities of which a modern percussion battery is easily capable. Most of the works are solos, but Michael Lipsey is joined in several by other players to create a small ensemble. ... In David Rakowski's Mr. Trampoline Man, a talking drum provides the springiness that effectively evokes a trampoline, as well as the ground for a passacaglia against which a tabla line is juxtaposed. His Framer's Intent for solo dumbek exploits the drum's timbral variety and has the sound of a genial, intelligent improvisation. -- Stephen Eddins, allmusic, May, 2008.
David Rakowski's "Imaginary Dances" were fast, dense, and vigorous. -- Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe, September, 20, 2008.
The first four pieces of the recital showed Kirkendoll at more accessible moments. He began with a captivating take on David Rakowski's Etude No. 52, "Moody's Blues," a rousing, rhythmically driven, rock-and-roll study inspired by Jerry Lee Lewis. -- Whitney Smith, indystar/indy.com, September 23, 2008.
In the space of about two hours last night, pianist Amy Briggs dove into the daunting field of modern American music -- at one point, nose-first (literally) -- and demonstrated the diverse richness of that repertoire in brilliant fashion.
Her concert, a presentation of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, included a couple of premieres. ... Like the Thomas work, David Rakowski's Piano Etudes pose any number of technical challenges, while attempting to provide a certain entertainment quotient. Briggs chose seven of the composer's nearly 90, sometimes cheekily-named Etudes, a sampling from the years 1997-2005. Absofunkinlutely conjures up boogie-woogie on acid; Palm de Terre (receiving its official U.S. premiere -- an "informal performance" is on YouTube) surrounds a gentle melody with misty harmonic clusters; Cell Division derives its glittery sonic coloring from the generic sound of a mobile phone being turned on; Chord Shark (an official world premiere, with an informal YouTube version) is like a thunderously dissonant variation on Chopin's C minor Prelude. Briggs delivered these and the remainder with abundant bravura, but her most distinctive feat came in a piece with a silly name, Schnozzage, that doesn't apparently aim for silliness. It calls on the pianist to articulate the melodic line with her nose, while her hands fill in subtle textures at either end of the keyboard. (Until last night, I was under the illusion that Peter Schickele had composed the only nasal keyboard piece -- and that one is intended for a laugh.) Rakowski was on hand to enjoy the dynamic performances of his music. -- Tim Smith, BaltimoreSun.com, January 27, 2009.
Certainly the quintet of composers, most of them now near their 50’s, are highly proficient with their instruments. Daniel Rakowski (sic), for instance, could take a piece by Erroll Garner—and Mr. Berman played it with Garner flourishes—and transfer it to a pair of keyboards, which become more and more complex, with the notes going totally out of sync. The punny Dorian Blue by David Rakowski sounded initially resembled cocktail pianoism gone out of whack. But that “eccentricity” actually came from a supposed 12th century Dorian mode sketch (thus the double pun) from a Jewish mystic. -- Harry Rolnick, ConcertoNet.com, March 1, 2009.
For David Rakowski, too, conventional sounds sufficed. Parallel lines played simultaneously on piano and celesta drifted in and out of sync in his Étude No. 71 (“Chase”), inspired by the jazz pianist Erroll Garner. In Étude No. 72 (“Dorian Blue”), an ancient Jewish devotional chant played with the left hand was embellished and occasionally bullied by right-hand flourishes. -- Steve Smith, New York Times, March 3, 2009.
Following intermission were two Collage commissions for full ensemble, one new and one old. David Rakowski’s Phillis Levin Songs (the premiere) was really a knockout. Levin’s writing occupied an interior space, looking out to nature for metaphors to explicate personal situations. The music was vividly pictorial, nimbly conjuring forest scenes, subatomic reactions, snowfall, and other snapshot moments. -- Adam Baratz, Boston Musical Intelligencer, March 4, 2009.
The second half of Monday’s performance was somehow more neurotically introspective: this is the musical sound world that is somehow less willing to reveal its secrets at first blush.
Bettina returned for the world premiere of David Rakowski’s Phillis Levin Songs, commissioned in 2008 for the Collage. Levin’s poetry is complicated and practically beyond comprehension, and it was unclear that Rakowski had attempted to understand the poetry or interpret for the listener anywhere beyond the most superficial. Mr. Hoose’s performance with Collage presented an attentive interpretation of Rakowski’s difficult score, but an almost juvenile understanding of Levin’s work, combined with unreasonable melodic lines that bordered on sustained “parlando vocalise” (what, exactly, does one sing when there’s nothing to sing? More precisely: how?) simply seemed a molestation the ensemble’s considerable talents. -- Sudeep Argawala, The Tech (MIT), March 6, 2009.
These [Tobias Picker songs] were sung by their dedicatee, new-music soprano Judith Bettina, who later returned for the premiere of David Rakowski's six Phillis Levin Songs, a new Collage commission. Bettina had suggested several of Levin's poems to Rakowski, but neither she (still visibly counting) nor Rakowski seemed to connect with or illuminate these poems about love, nature, time, and words. Rakowski's startling and colorful music might better have been left untrammeled by any vocal line at all. -- Lloyd Schwartz, Boston Phoenix, March 10, 2009.
About a year and half ago, we did a NewMusicBox Cover on David Rakowski, in preparation for which I studied his then 80 solo piano etudes and became a hardcore devotee. These quirky pieces are a rare breed—they're pithy and some are even hysterically funny, no small feat to accomplish in the abstract, non-representational medium of music. As a result, pianists flock to them, and they are fast becoming staples of the contemporary solo piano repertoire. But all through our talk, David insisted that he's more than "the piano etude guy". He mentioned to me that he had written a piano concerto for Marilyn Nonken and that she would be performing it with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose in Boston on November 2, 2007. I'm also a big BMOP fan—here's an orchestra that really can play, and all they do is new music. So I knew I had to be there.
So on that day, I left the office at lunchtime, zoomed downtown to take the Chinatown bus (the cheapest way to get to Boston). I rolled into Beantown, and then got on the T to head to the concert hall. After gulping down dinner from a Middle Eastern take-out place, I raced across the street and made it there just in time. But once the concert was over—having no place to crash that night and also needing to be back in NYC for another music-related activity the following morning—I bolted out during the final applause and barely made it onto the last bus back, finally getting home around 3:30 a.m. It was truly a whirlwind, as was Rakowski's concerto, which to my ears at the time lacked the cohesion and concision of his miraculous miniatures. Admittedly, though, my ability to process any of the music I heard that night—Elliott Schwartz's heady Chamber Concerto #3, Michael Colgrass's wonderfully insane multi-tasking concerto Side by Side, and Anthony Davis's intense Wayang V, as well as the Rakowski—was a tad hampered by the commute.Therefore I was overjoyed when I received a recording of Rakowski's Piano Concerto, which is part of BMOP's newly-released all-Rakowski CD on their beautifully packaged BMOP Sound imprint. I could now actually focus on this music. Even the etudes, which offer first-time listeners quite a bit to mull over and be engaged by, contain tons of sonic information which can be difficult to process on only a single listening. I knew that those pieces got more exciting—as well as more comprehensible—the more I heard them. So I was delighted at the prospect of the Piano Concerto's secrets, heretofore lost on me in transit, finally being revealed.
Indeed, the piece, which I've now listened to five times, is a remarkable construction. Derived from material that originally appeared in the piano etudes, but fleshed out with colorful orchestration (including having the soloist additionally play on a toy piano from time to time), the concerto feels like a giant four-dimensional Rakowski etude. (A fun parlor game would be to figure out how many etudes you can hear echoes of herein. Some hard-to-miss ones include the frenetic ostinato from the very first etude, E-Machines, and the rhythmic motif from No. 68, Absofunkinlutely.) Each of the work's four movements opens with the inside-the-piano plucked "A" from Rakowski's 13th etude, Plucking A, which gives the work's overall trajectory an unusual non-linear narrative. It's like beginning every chapter of a novel with the same opening sentence, or the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. Like that film, the material develops quite differently each time it is presented. The closest parallel I can think of in music is the Fourth Symphony of Charles Ives, each of whose movements seem to present a different answer to the same question. Rakowski's concerto feels equally serious, although this is perhaps in part due to his perpetual title punning being reined in somewhat. "Piano Concerto" is an atypical Rakowski title, but still he was incapable of resisting the following header for the last movement: "Poco andante, quasi adagietto, con gusty; Allegro; Cadenza; Allegro"—a nod to composer Augusta Read Thomas.
The disc also offers additional proof of Rakowski's weightier side. It opens with Persistent Memory, a 1997 composition which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. This is music that is way more somber and sublime than fans who only know Rakowski through the etudes would ever expect. It was originally written for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra during a particularly rough period in his life—his mother-in-law was dying of cancer and he could not afford to travel to see her before she died or to attend her funeral. In addition, Lily Auchincloss, the woman who had sponsored Rakowski's residence at the Rome Academy, where he was at the time of the composition, also died. So it's fitting, then, that the first of the work's two movements is an Elegy, which comes across to my ears sounding like latter-day Alban Berg. The other movement—Variations, Scherzo, and Variations—takes the material from the Elegy and messes with it structurally, turning it into something else entirely, though never quite completely away from its fundamental profundity.
At the other end of disc is the brief Winged Contraption (1991), the earliest of the works collected here. Composed in a total of 23 days—conceptualized, orchestrated, and copied all at once—the work was a 60th birthday present for Martin Boykan, Rakowski's colleague on the faculty of Brandeis University. In typical Rakowski prankster fashion, it is filled with allusions to Boykan's compositions as well as music by another friend, Ross Bauer (although these references are a bit harder to ferret out than the etudes that permeate the Piano Concerto). All in all, the disc provides a much needed window into Rakowski's music beyond the piano etudes. So if you're even a fraction less out of your mind than I am, you probably won't spend 10 hours on a bus to check out Rakowski's "other music," but now you no longer have to: just buy the disc! -- Frank J. Oteri, New Music Box, March 23, 2009.
David Rakowski is an interesting, inventive and well-schooled composer; his concepts are involved and engaging, he realizes them well, he is studious and hardworking. Rakowski is also prolific — his best known work is his collection of piano etudes, which currently run to 88 in number — and his credentials are unassailable, winning numerous prizes and capable of claiming Milton Babbitt, Paul Lansky and Luciano Berio among his mentors. BMOP's David Rakowski: Winged Contraption combines that interestingly named 1991 orchestral work with his Persistent Memory (1997) and the Piano Concerto (2006) he has written for pianist Marilyn Nonken.
Rakowski has a grip on his stylistic language which superficially can be said to be based in expressionist techniques, but is certainly more lightweight and individualized than that would imply. However, despite the presence on the disc of a work called Persistent Memory, this music tends to pass through one ear and out the other; there isn't anything memorable about it. That may well be Rakowski's intention, to make music that assumes a different shape and form every time you hear it and not to leave a lasting impression, so that it appears fresh every time. For some listeners this will work, but for others it leaves the ear kind of thirsty. Nevertheless, there is no doubting the passionate dedication on the part of the participants in this recording, particularly Nonken, who contributes a note on Rakowski's Piano Concerto that is both heartfelt and illuminating. The sound recording and quality of performance is excellent, although for some reason these BMOP discs will not play on certain CD players, which is odd as there appears to be nothing special about the CD format itself. -- Uncle Dave Lewis, allmusic, May 2009.
It remains a mystery why certain labels send their CDs to us. Like for instance BMOP Sound. It is a difficult job to cover these two of their new releases. They fall beyond the scope we usually cover. So I will be very descriptive only on these two. But first the label itself. It is the outlet of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. They perceive it as their mission to record important classical compositions of the 20th and 21th century. These two releases may illustrate this. We are talking now of two respected american composers who are however not very well known at this side of the Atlantic. To me are they are completely new. But both have long careers behind them as very productive composers. On 'Winged Contraption' by Rakowski three compositions are documented: 'Persistent memor' (sic), (1996-97), 'Piano Concerto' (2005-06) and 'Winged Contraption' (1991). The performances are led by Gil Rose. Piano and toy piano are played by Marilyn Nonken. Rakowski had his training at the New England Conservatory and other institutes. As a composer he made fame with his long series of piano etudes. Listening to his works on 'Winged Contraption' it was difficult for me to connect him with other composers and traditions. To my ears his style sounded very 'European'.
Also on the CD by John Harbison three works are presented: 'Full Moon in March' (1977), 'Mirabai Songs' (1982) and 'Exequien for Calvin Simmons' (1982). Harbison composed string quartets, symphonies, operas, chamber and choral works, etc. Also he makes sidesteps to the world of jazz from time to time. ... No doubt BMOP has a good nose for what are influential and innovative compositions in our times. And probably the compositions by Radowski (sic) and Harbison adjust to these criteria. But as said above this is not my territory, and their music doesn't really talk to me. -- Dolf Mulder, Vital Weekly #685, June, 2009.
Meanwhile the city’s other homegrown label, BMOP/sound, continues to impress. This scrappy in-house operation run by conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project was launched early last year, and it has released a steady stream of impeccably produced, beautifully packaged discs with exacting and engaged performances of 20th- and 21st-century music. Several elegantly probing pieces by Brandeis-based composer David Rakowski were recently featured on a BMOP Sound disc called “Winged Contraption,’’ including his Piano Concerto in a strong performance by Marilyn Nonken. -- Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe, July 19, 2009.
Born in Vermont in 1958, David Rakowski is best known for his long series of witty, extravagant piano etudes. They have been often performed, and recordings of them have been praised by ARG’s reviewers: Bridge 9121 (July/Aug 2003), Albany 681 (Jan/Feb 2005), Bridge 9157 (Mar/Apr 2005). Rakowski has written much else, too, including three symphonies, five concertos, wind ensemble pieces, and chamber and vocal music.
Three of his works for orchestra fill this expertly played and vividly recorded disc. Winged Contraption, from 1991, is a single 10-minute span that might be described as a modern tone-poem. The music is chromatic but sumptuous in a modern-but-approachable and quite sophisticated idiom with affinities to many other contemporary American and Western European composers, including (for just a few examples) George Perle, John Harbison, Richard Rodney Bennett, Robin Holloway, Peter Schat, and Theo Verbey. Long melodic lines arch out over bustling figures and explosive gestures, the whole conglomeration moving powerfully toward an abrupt ending. Despite the title, there’s nothing rickety about the piece, though it does have a certain aerodynamic fluidity.
Persistent Memory, from 1997, is in much the same style, though it’s twice as long and laid out differently, consisting of a slow, 9-minute elege that breaks out into a much more active 12-minute sequence of bustling, billowy variations.
By far the longest composition here—and the best—is the 2006 Piano Concerto. There are four movements that total 34 minutes. I and IV are allegros with slow introductions, II is an adagio, III a scherzo. Each movement begins quietly and tentatively, with a stuttering, repeated-note figure that acts as a “motto”; and each ends with a brief, chiming flurry on the toy piano. The keyboard writing—much of it derived from the composer’s piano etudes—is virtuosic and intricate, as indeed is the orchestral accompaniment. As the notes by Marilyn Nonken, who plays the socks off the solo part, point out, the piece is “architecturally complex and dramatically ambitious” though without renouncing the composer’s ebullient “sense of play” (most notable, perhaps, in the jouncy asymmetries of the jazz-inflected scherzo).
Rakowski’s concerto is a brilliant creation that offers a multitude of inventive details, lots of drama and excitement, and a satisfying sense of large-scale formal logic. If there’s a weakness it’s that the work doesn’t quite manage to project an instantly identifiable personality. But it does offer the listener more than enough incentive to go back and listen again, as I did with increasing pleasure and admiration, as the work’s individuality became clearer and stronger. — Mark Lehman, American Record Guide, July/August 2009.
... David Rakowski's 'For Wittgenstein' presents some of the most daring writing so far in terms of registral disjointing -- Narucki delivers it as beautifully as she surely would any Webern song. Throughout, Donald Berman's accompaniments are models of sensitivity. -- Colin Clarke, Tempo, July, 2009.
Composer David Rakowski’s jocularity is well known. His many piano etudes (88 at last count) feature a number of sly allusions to other styles and works, as well as more overt zaniness; one even requires the performer to play pitches with their nose! His previous concerti have featured various subterfuges in which the soloist is upstaged by the orchestra. And, famously, goofiness abounds on his website. But alongside Rakowski’s penchant for light-hearted expression are consummate craftsmanship and music of considerable poignancy. BMOP’s recording features three ensemble works that highlight both Rakowski’s eloquence as an orchestrator and his ability to evoke a wide spectrum of emotions in music.
Persistent Memory was written while the composer was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome: a period in which the composer experienced adversity and loss on several fronts. Cast in two-movements, it features an elegy suffused with considerable melancholy and long arching melodies reminiscent, without overt homage, of the Copland “Americana school.” This is juxtaposed with rejoinders: tart brass punctuations and, in the second movement, a defiant scherzo – featuring tour de force writing for the winds – and a series of variations that refract the elegy’s material through a multi-colored prism.
The CD’s title work was composed as a sixtieth birthday tribute to Martin Boykan. The pre-compositional conceit for the piece is that it is exactly sixty pages long – again a glimmer of Rakowskian witticism. But composer imparts considerable gravitas here as well. The texture features angst-laden horn-writing and Bergian dissonant string verticals that belie any notions of Winged Contraption as an occasional bouquet. Amid these serious signatures lie percussive adornments and a propulsive clock: an ostinato that manifests variously as repeated note figures (a frequent Rakowski device) and burbling arpeggiations.
Marilyn Nonken has been one of several tireless champions of Rakowski’s solo piano works. It seems particularly fitting that he has fashioned a concerto for Nonken that references several of the etudes composer for her – resulting in a work of ambitious scope and a near-frenetic events structure. Easily one of Rakowski’s finest pieces to date, it features a host of playing techniques – thereby allowing Nonken to exercise both her conventional chops and explore some avant paths along the way.
The first movement’s opening is a master class in the “one-note” introduction. A-natural is treated to dampening, plucking inside the piano, various chordal harmonizations, and gradual haloing by the instruments of the orchestra until it is revealed in relentless repetition as an ostinato – a self-contained first theme group! Repeated single pitches once again provide a motoric canvas upon which a host of coloristic devices and harmonic divergences are imposed. The plucked A-natural returns at the beginning of each movement of the concerto as a centering and invocational device.
While the piano writing is tailor-made to Nonken’s abundant capabilities, she’s also given a chance to exercise a bit of whimsy in several asides for toy piano. The concerto also features a few other unconventional touches, such as the inclusion of a novelty percussion item called chatter-stones. And although one is glad for Rakowski’s occasional digressions into humor and his imaginative textural additions to the proceedings, the most striking moments in the concerto feature elegant writing for the conventional instruments in the band. Wind solos and keening string sostenuto passages accompany piquant, colorful verticals in the piano – and that irrepressible plucked A! – in a gorgeous slow movement.
The scherzo, on the other hand, focuses on short rhythmic cells and terse orchestral interjections. It also revels in adroitly jazzy piano-writing. The orchestra answers these swinging signatures with sassy horn blats and suavely articulate strings: hallmarks of a bygone era of cinematic music warmly recreated here.
The repeated note device reappears in the last movement, leading to a quote from Rakowski’s first piano etude, “E-Machines.” The quote references still another quote (a quote within quote!) of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nonken records Rakowski’s cadenza for the CD, but it’s worth mentioning that the composer let her create her own for the premiere – such is the trust and close working relationship of creator and interpreter here.
The other interpreters on the scene, Gil Rose and the BMOP, are sterling in their preparation and superlatively musical. The disc is one of the orchestra’s best thus far, and the weightiest and most satisfying in Rakowski’s discography to date. Serious fun indeed! -- Christian Carey, Sequenza 21, October 1, 2009.
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