Brushing Off An Unaccompanied Violin
The Bow & the Brush Dan Flanagan, violin. MSR Classics 1836 Total Time: 78:55 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
West Coast violinist Dan Flanagan debuts a host of new works for unaccompanied violin on The Bow and the Brush. Flanagan has performed with a number of orchestras in California and also records for video game, film and television scores. The present release includes recorded premieres of 14 of 23 new works inspired by paintings and sculptures that were performed in October 2022 at Opera America’s National Opera Center in New York. There have been a variety of these sorts of intermedia type works of late which create an additional interpretive experience for the listener/audience. The accompanying booklet allows one to scan with a smartphone and thus see the different pieces that were the inspiration for the composers represented here. Flanagan explains in the notes that his own love of visual art and collecting began to nudge his own creative juices and that became the impetus for commissioning additional works.
Each of the pieces also includes a brief bit of information about the visual artist’s background and ideas which also serves as an additional entry point into the music.
The opening work by Nathan Stookey, Shadow Breaking, is a somewhat contemporary-sounding work with interesting register exploration that seems to ebb and flow. Cadenza II, by Jose Gonzalez Granero, takes inspiration from a post-Impressionist painting of the Grand Palace, is a modern take on a gypsy violinist. In The Collection, Shinji Eshima explores a sort of quotation of specific violin techniques and other musical references connecting with Flanagan’s own art collection conceptually. This particular piece has a quite intimate, Bach-like, feel. A variety of contemporary techniques and non-pitched sound create a jauntier and more intense brief piece from Linda Marcel, Raven’s Dance, which shifts between tonal lines and more avantgarde attacks and sounds, with an appropriate bird-like precision. In Into the Light, Cindy Cox’s long, semi-angular lines move from the low, dark end of the instrument into the highest regions of the instrument, reaching ever outward in moving ascents. Evan Price’s Blue Swan references a more familiar work by Saint-Saens with some jazzier harmonic outlines and melodic twists. The art piece that inspires this work is a sculpture constructed from a cello that had been thrown out a balcony. The violin becomes a sultrier commentary on this situation with a bit of wry humor and is a good palette cleanser at about the halfway point of the album.
Of the composers represented here, Libby Larsen may be the most familiar. Her The Only Way Through is Slow, is an experiment in translating the brush strokes of a painting onto a musical score. This creates small motives and gestures that are populated across this more extensive piece that in one sense is almost like a deconstructed creative process in sound. Guillaumin, is a work by James Stephenson inspired by the French painter. His work provides a nice contrast with its jig-like folkish dance rhythms and somewhat perpetual motion in its opening bars which then seems to become morphed into a more cautious reflection with interesting glissandi looking through a veil of sorts. The folkdance returns, with a little whistling, that morphs into something remembered, or new perhaps. And Miles to Go by Jessica Mays has a somewhat melancholy lyric idea that is transformed as the piece unfolds in its momentary pauses followed by a sense of required forward motion. It does have an almost isolated feeling that comes across at times. Trevor Weston’s Notre Dame au Mileu de L’Eau et du Ciel is an interesting essay in three segments that depicts first the wisps of sky from the Lebourg painting that inspired it. There is also a more fluid central section to reference the Seine before a quoted reference to “Ave maris stella” appears to connect with the cathedral itself—there is even a hint of a Leonin piece before it comes to an end. Edmund Campion’s Splits (Le Grand Ecart) references an exploration of technique between centuries starting with approaches firmly-rooted in the 19th-century repertoire (a la Brahms) and then moving ever towards the more impersonal, modernist and contemporary styles of the last decades where sounds and more visceral energy further expand virtuosic demands on the soloist. Echoes of the isolation and elegiac realities of the pandemic come to the foreground in the penultimate piece, Same Old Sadness, by Peter Josheff. The work has a bleaker feel with interesting little effects that also seem to connect with the passage of time and a sense of isolation through seasons of life and nature.
Flanagan has two works of his own on the album as well. The first of these, Monterey Sentinels, starts in the higher register of the violin with a haunting thematic idea that is somewhat tonal. It moves into a flowing series of wavelike tonal ideas before heading back up into the ether. This also serves as a fine palette cleanser with its more traditional harmonic outlines and virtuosic energy. His An Animated Street in Autumn closes off the disc and is a sort of celebration of a return to the hectic, interactive, and busy lives that resumed after the lockdowns. Ideas intersect, interact with one another, and carry on moving through a sort of musical busy street. It serves as a fine contrast to the piece that precedes it and also sets up an enjoyable finale to the album.
The Bow and the Brush is an album that might cause hesitancy at first with its unaccompanied violin repertoire, but there is a great deal of fine music making here. These are all engaging pieces that connect in fascinating ways with their visual counterparts. A blend of more dissonant works is well balanced against pieces that maintain a mostly tonal harmonic atmosphere and allows for a fine ebb and flow of the music. The result is a sort of intriguing, endless variety of responses and personal approaches to writing for the instrument that explore ideas without sacrificing technical challenges or musical interest. Flanagan’s performances are expectedly committed with a sense of joy inherent throughout these different works that is one of discovery and challenge. The recording sets him front and center without an overly-dry acoustic which also aids in making the music a more intimate, and personal listening experience. This is a truly fascinating collection worth tracking down for those interested in new music and/or works for solo violin.