Delights & Dances; Harlem Quartet; Chicago Sinfonietta; Mei-Ann Chen, Conductor; Cedille CDR 90000 141 (2013) [Cover: Harem Dancers (the Jack Cole Group) performing at the Harem Nightclub in New York City, January 1, 1947 (Photo by Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)]
The composer Michael Abels (b. 1962) first came to our attention when his composition Global Warming (8:18) was recorded by the Chicago Sinfonietta. The recording was conducted by the Sinfonietta's Founder, Dr. Paul Freeman, for African Heritage Symphonic Series, Vol. III; Cedille CDR 90000 066 (2002).
On September 21, 2007 AfriClassical posted: Harlem Quartet Debuts “Delights and Dances by Michael Abels at Sphinx Laureates Concert. The post began: “The Sphinx Laureates Concert at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 25, 2007 will feature the Harlem Quartet's premiere of Delights and Dances, a work by Michael Abels which was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization to celebrate its 10th Anniversary as well as its dedication to promoting the works of Black and Latino composers.”
The Michael Abels page at SubitoMusic.com states: “In spring 2012, Abels’ Delights and Dances was featured on the Chicago Sinfonietta’s season finale-concerts, joined by the Harlem Quartet. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, the three-movement work (performed as a single movement) is scored for string quartet and string orchestra. Afterward, both ensembles recorded the piece for future release on Cedille Records.” The liner notes by Andrea Lamoreaux tell us the CD was recorded June 19-20, 2012 in Wentz Concert Hall at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.
The members of the Harlem Quartet are Ilmar Gavilán, violin; Melissa White, violin; Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola; Paul Wiancko, cello. Cedille Records is a nonprofit organization also known as The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation. Dr. Paul Freeman (b. 1936) founded the Chicago Sinfonietta in 1987 to achieve, in the words of its mission, "Musical Excellence Through Diversity". He served as Music Director from its founding through the 2010-2011 Season. Paul Freeman is featured at AfriClassical.com and was succeeded by Sinfonietta Music Director Mei-Ann Chen.
Andrea Lamoreaux provides a brief overview of the history of the concerto in Classical Music. She writes, in part: “In the 19th century, with the solo concerto firmly established as the preferred musical idiom, only a few composers carried on the concerto grosso tradition. Ludwig Spohr was one; England's Sir Edward Elgar composed his Introduction and Allegro for solo string quartet and string orchestra; and in the first half of the 20th century, prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinú created several works of the concerto grosso variety. On this album, the Chicago Sinfonietta compiles three recent examples of this type of work, showcasing the virtuosity of the Harlem Quartet, which performed these works with the Chicago Sinfonietta unde the leadership of musical director Mei-Ann Chen in concert prior to their recording sessions.”
Ms. Lamoreaux writes of the recording's opening work: “Michael Abels composed his Delights & Dances for for string quartet and string orchestra specifically for the Harlem Quartet.” “Along with the standard curriculum, he explored his African-American roots by studying gospel music and African drumming. Abels received two Meet the Composer (now New Music USA) grants, one allowing him to work with young musicians through the Watts Tower Arts Center in Los Angeles, the other providing a residency with the Richmond Symphony (VA) and its youth orchestra. His works include the 1997 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tribute Dance for Martin's Dream and 1991 composition Global Warming, which is not just a reference to climate change, but also to the thawing of international relations Mr. Abels hoped for after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.”
The CD Delights & Dances includes four works. The disc opens with Delights & Dances for String Quartet and String Orchestra (13:03) by Michael Abels. The CD is a World Premiere recording of the work. The second work, in four movements, is Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (20:49) of Benjamin Lees. An-Lun Huang composed Saibei Dance, from Saibei Suite No. 2 (4:08). The disc concludes with another World Premiere recording, West Side Story Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (25:47). It has ten movements and is composed by Leonard Bernstein and arranged by Randall Craig Fleischer.
The liner notes says of the Michael Abels composition: “The introductory section commences at a measured pace, Largo, with the further notation, molto rubato, indicating rhythmic freedom. Indeed, the opening passage for solo cello sounds almost like a cadenza. The solo picks up the cello's ascending seven-note motive and they combine in a short duet, joined soon by the two solo violins. When the orchestra enters, it plays pizzicato, in short, detached, syncopated patterns.” Hearing the work in a single movement contributed to our feeling that this 13-minute extravaganza for strings was transpiring very quickly. “Eventually, the solo quartet and the strings of the orchestra are united in a grand unison tutti for a full-throttle, upbeat conclusion.”
When the performers move on to the Benjamin Lees concerto, the recording's transition seems subtle and entirely appropriate. The second work is longer than the opening piece, and is followed by the much shorter Saibei Dance of An-Lun Huang. A more dramatic transition brings us to the familiar dance tunes of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, in ten movements arranged by Randall Craig Fleischer. As Andrea Lamoreaux writes, “Fleischer's rich and vivid scoring echoes the original sound of Bernstein's 1950s Broadway hit, which updates the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by transferring the story to the streets of modern-day New York City.”
Those of us who have been reading glowing reviews of Delights & Dances of Michael Abels in The New York Times since 2007, yet have somehow missed its many live performances, will welcome the arrival of this first-rate performance by the Harlem Quartet and the Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, on Cedille Records.
Disclosure: A review copy of this recording was provided by the record label.