Lee is a Boston-based composer whom I have always associated with
an aesthetic I sense is prevalent in the city: a belief in hybrids
between learned and vernacular musics. I use those terms "learned"
and "vernacular" deliberately, instead of "classical" and "pop,"
because that's the tone of Bostonmore academic, scrupulous, and
Eurocentric than most of the rest of America. Syntheses tend to
get cleaned up there, rough edges ironed out, good taste asserting
itself against too much raucousness.
Which does not mean good music can't come out of the process. Lee's
growth as an artist has been steady throughout a 20-year span, and
his approach ultimately avoids many of the pitfalls that lurk for
a composer undertaking his sort of project. The very first work
on the CD, Morango . . . Almost a Tango, dates from 1983,
and is a very elegant character piece. It lives up to its title
by not trying to be a tango in any literal sense; instead, it's
like a shadow of that source.
Seven Jazz Pieces, from 1991, is devoted to a compressed
beauty and lyricism. The whole thing is also a bit hauntinghomages
and elegies to Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Antonio Carlos Jobim,
and Jaco Pastorius constitute individual movements. So what if it's
not as raw as jazz is supposed to be now? That whole construct itself
is just that, and if jazz really is as it's supposed to be, then
it can also be a source for tender, elegant, and precisely constructed
art, which is what these pieces are.
But the real star of the show is the 1996 string quartet Art: Arias
& Interludes. Its five movements are portraits of characters from
the Italian commedia dell'artePulcinella, Pierrot, Columbine, Harlequin,
and Pantaloon. Perhaps the fact that the music is drawing its inspiration
from a popular art form shrouded in time and distance gives the
composer greater freedom to assert his personality. The second movement,
"Pierrot's Dream," revisits the world of Morango, but 13
years later Lee's vision has deepenedthe music is just as mysterious,
just as langorous, but also less predictable. The music's rhythmic
gestures, its jazzy-tinged harmonies, and its dancy underpinnings
all feel less derivative than before. It is fresher, more personal,
and yet also more "classical." The Hawthornes perform flawlessly.
Listening to this disc reminds me that we are perhaps in something
of a golden age for string quartets.
Lee is a composer who's stayed the course. His own instincts are
clearly in tune with certain populist and postmodernist tendencies,
but he's also interested in developing an individual, integrated
voice. This disc suggests that he's right on schedule in his project.
Robert Carl teaches composition at the University of Hartford's
Hartt School of Music. His review, which appeared in the July/August
Fanfare, is excerpted by permission of Fanfare. Thomas
Oboe Lee has taught music at Boston College for the past 12 years.
The Hawthorne String Quartet became the University's string-quartet-in-residence
Photo: Thomas Oboe Lee (center) and the Hawthorne String Quartet
(clockwise from left): Sato Knudsen, Mark Ludwig, Ronan Lefkowitz,
and Haldan Martinson. By Gary Wayne Gilbert