Fanfare Magazine
David DeBoor Canfield
March 15, 2014

Fanfare readers have met Mathew Rosenblum in reviews by Robert Kirzinger in 23:5 and Robert Carl, who covered a New World disc of several works about a year ago, in 36:3. Both of my colleagues liked his music a great deal, and so do I. Rosenblum has forged a unique compositional voice, in part from the tuning and temperament that he employs in his music. The 21-tone and 19-tone scales that permit intervals in just intonation are among the tools in his toolbox.

The impetus for the CD began in the saxophone world, where Bruce Weinberger, tenor saxophonist in the renowned Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, and the only original member of the ensemble that was formed in 1969, commissioned Rosenblum on behalf of his group. The resulting work, Möbius Loop, wound up in two versions—one for the quartet alone, and another with orchestra—generating the idea of a joint project between the Raschèr Quartet and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The disc begins with a 2012 orchestral work Sharpshooter, which the composer describes as a “short, straightforward orchestral piece, avoiding the complexity associated with much of [his] writing.” Consequently, Sharpshooter is single minded in its approach, being based upon a constant 16th-note pulse that underpins sonorities that become increasingly “detuned” throughout the course of the work to, again in the composer’s description, “create a pervasive orchestral resonance that glows throughout.” The 19-tone scale surely contributes to this glowing, and I find that the tuning, used in a tonal fashion, imparts a rather Far-Eastern sound to the piece. There are echoes of the gamelan orchestra, as well as a general pentatonic sound. Certain intervals, especially minor and major thirds, seem to be used in structural ways, and the 16th-note ostinato might seem quasi-Minimalistic to some auditors, but not to me.

Möbius Loop in its quartet version is next heard. Some of the same elements found in Sharpshooter are present here—the persistent rhythmic ostinato and the structural use of certain intervals. The sonorities and rhythms are more complex, though, and the piece is a good bit less tonal, although it seems mostly confined to the 12 notes of the traditional chromatic scale, with occasional divagations into the realm of microtonality. The title of the piece comes from the themes and motifs that return in looping fashion, but extends to a reflection on the enigma of life, especially that of personal relationships, suggested (in a way I won’t pretend to understand) by the famously one-sided Möbius Strip.

Interestingly, the piece is the first work for saxophones that this saxophone-playing composer wrote. The Raschèr Quartet plays the work with élan, but the quality of their tone production is somehow not entirely to my taste. I prefer, for instance, the more refined sound of the Zagreb Quartet and several other groups.

The complexity of the music is notched up a bit more in the Double Concerto for baritone saxophone, percussion, and orchestra. The technical demands placed upon the soloists and ensemble also rise in this work to the level of supreme virtuosity, and are met admirably by soloists Coon and Pegher, as well as the orchestral forces. Anyone curious about the level of virtuosity attainable on the baritone saxophone only needs to listen to this work. The percussion part is no less demanding in its propulsive, kinetic drumming. Drawing upon improvisatory figures, the Concerto drives forward in a most exciting way, quite contrary to the annotator who states that it “never seems to move forward.” Was he listening to the same piece? The Concerto is cast in five movements, the first of which is as long as the following four combined. The second movement slows down the pace of the proceedings a good bit, and relaxes the harmonic complexity as well. The third draws heavily upon multiphonics in the saxophone, over which the percussionist goes wild in her fusillade of whacks on various percussion instruments. The final movement seems to combine many of the elements found in the preceding movements, and the work winds down after a nail-bitingly dramatic flurry of activity. Because of all the activity, this work would be as fun to watch as it is to listen to.

The disc closes with the quartet and orchestra version of Möbius Loop. The notes describe the solo quartet version as a distillation rather than a reduction of the larger scale work, and with the orchestral involvement, there is somewhat less for the quartet to do, but expanded color possibilities are also opened up. The work makes about the same effect in this version as it does in its chamber version in the harmonic language employed, but the grandeur of the gestures blossoms to fuller extent in the orchestral version.

Kudos must be given to Gil Rose, conductor and producer, and Joel Gordon and his engineer colleagues in the production of this first rate CD, but most of all to composer Rosenblum for giving the listener some really good, interesting, and original new works. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the music of our time.