* Violin Concerto (1979)
* Dialogues for piano and orchestra (1959)
* Cornet for narrator and orchestra (1984)
Cecylia Arzewski (violin),
William Wolfram (piano),
Robert Kim (narrator), RTE National Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo
Naxos 8.559226 (DDD) Total time: 57:16
Summary for the Busy Executive: La gazza ladra.
California-born Earl Kim studied with Schoenberg, Bloch, and, later,
Sessions. He taught composition at Princeton and wound up at Harvard.
He died in 1998, age 78. He never broke through to the public, although
he had the respect of his academic peers. To tell you the truth, I know
only one other piece, a song recorded by Dawn Upshaw on her "Orange Lips"
album, but I don't remember it too well. Few recordings of his music
appeared, which means that I remain in the dark about much of his output.
Aficionados know him for his Beckett settings.
The word on Kim is that, like Berg, he makes serialism lyrical. That
applies to only some of the pieces here, as we shall see. The description
misses the point. Kim's music often sings, but not necessarily serially.
One can hear echoes not only of Berg, but of Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky,
and Mahler. For me, Kim is a magpie of a composer. He takes a bit from
this one and that one. His saving grace consists of his ability to
create a personal viewpoint out of the pre-fabricated pieces. For
example, the violin concerto, written for Perlman, begins with shifting
chords, probably all variants of a row, in the manner of Schoenbergian
Klangfarbe ("sound-color"). This leads eventually through Webernian
pointillism with Stravinskian rhythms and an Adams minimalism to a
diatonic scalar passage straight out of neo-classic Stravinsky. The
work consists of eight brief sections organized into two large movements.
Throughout, one finds an intensity that I'd call austere, if it weren't
so sonically beautiful. The composer forces our attention on only a few
things at any one time, but he demands that we do indeed pay attention.
I recall particularly a passage of alternating thirds, very Mahlerian,
in the first movement that shows up in the second part as a Mahlerian
arioso, of a kind familiar to those who know the song "Ich bin der Welt
abhanden gekommen" or the adagietto from the fifth symphony. The music
is made up of moments, brief, spare, and, again, intense. The orchestration
shows a precise sonic imagination, but it paints in watercolors, rather
than in oils. One doesn't find, for example, the density of Webern or
Boulez. This is essentially chamber music with a lot of players.
For me, the concerto constitutes the major piece on the program. The
concertante Dialogues for piano and orchestra, written two decades
earlier, is a younger man's work. The Stravinskian elements show up
more strongly, but not the Stravinsky of the roughly-contemporary Movements
(1958-59), also for piano and orchestra, Instead, Kim leans more heavily
on that composer's work from the Thirties and Forties. It's extremely
well-written, and it shows Kim's characteristic elliptical expression.
But it's less personal than the concerto.
Cornet, based on Rilke's Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher
Rilke, is a melodrama - simultaneous music and recitation. I very seldom
see the point of the genre in general. Usually, either the music is
superfluous or the text is. You wind up wondering about the point of
the exercise. Kim writes a well-crafted accompaniment, but the work as
a whole doesn't escape the generic pitfall. I found myself wondering
whether the work is for people who can't read Rilke without some sensory
aid. Somewhere along the way, probably because the poem is so visual,
I thought of it as a soundtrack for a movie that would never be made.
But in all of these speculations, you see that the piece doesn't seem
to have a life of its own, no matter how good the workmanship.
Cecylia Arzewski broke several hearts at Severance Hall when she gave
up her Associate Concertmaster position in Cleveland to become concertmaster
of Yoel Levi's Atlanta Symphony. She has impeccable technique and a
true, though smallish tone, at least here. The Kim concerto calls on
the violinist to play in two modes: as a chamber player and as a virtuoso.
The textures, however, are so delicate that the soloist can't ramp up
into Tchaikovsky mode without upsetting the ensemble balance. Scott Yoo
and his Hibernians do very well indeed. Kim's textures are so transparent,
you have no place to hide. They do particularly well in the Cornet, no
small feat, since the level of simultaneous musical activity usually
surpasses the other works. Robert Kim, the composer's nephew, takes on
the role of the narrator, delivering a "natural," colloquial reading of
Rilke's text. Under other readers, Rilke's poetic prose could cross the
line into the unacceptably mannered and sink the entire enterprise into
pure corn. Above all, the story comes across as a savage one, told
against hellish landscapes.
The sound is good without calling attention to itself.