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Review: first things first

June 1, 2009

If you’re like me at all, you find yourself sleep deprived on a Sunday night arguing on the Internet with a friend of yours about, well, if you asked both me and him, two entirely different things , but definitely music related.  Nebulous conversations about the merit of different musical eras, the way people hear (and understand) music, and some well timed playful insults are pretty much standard discussion fare after a long weekend if someone is willing to engage me.

 In this one conversation last night, I tried to sum up my thoughts like this (but I was probably a lot less coherent at the time): new music in 2009 explores a much wider, yet subtle, emotional base than a lot of the melodramatic works of the Romantic era (he’s a boisterous tuba player), and new music relies on excellent performances to be understood.  One of the best examples of this to come across my plate recently is Nadia Sirota’s new album first things first (on New Amsterdam Records).

 On first things first, Sirota draws from three composers who fit together like puzzle pieces,  asserting their independence through tabs of different shapes and sizes.  The composers, Nico Muhly, Marcos Balter, and Judd Greenstein all write in such a way that fit what I said about new music to my friend… subtle emotions across an extremely wide spectrum.  The music might bounce around but take on a dark color, or seem to wallow and sparkle at the same time.  The duality sometimes finds its way by suddenly morphing from one emotional idea into another without warning, and more importantly, without feeling abrupt. 

 This is where the quality of playing becomes crucial.  A lesser performer would not have found those subtleties in the music or made the progression through the music’s ideas felt choppy.  Whether exploring the silkiness of the viola or its harsher side, Sirota is able to seamlessly navigate the hour of music on this album (with some help from Clarice Jensen on the Cello and the Chiara String Quartet , and electronics at times).  If I wanted to continue with my cheesy puzzle piece metaphor, I’d say that her playing is the beautiful New England lake that you don’t see until the puzzle is put together… but I’m not nearly cheesy enough to say that.  Not at all.

 The unifying aspect of all the music on the album is its closeness.  There is music that is meant for large stages, and there’s music meant to be listened to on headphones… on a Sunday night as you’re trying to re-align your brain synapses into something coherent.  first things firstis just the best music for that.  Whether its the liveliness of Muhly’s Etude 1 (seriously, I want the first 20 seconds of that to be my theme song whenever I enter a room), the quiet of Balter’s Live Water (with soothingly creepy whispers from both Sirota and a tape), or the fullness of Greenstein’s The Night Gatherers, I couldn’t have found anything better.

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