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Brion; 2 Songs from Silas Marner; Sindbad; Exiles
by Robert Carl, Fanfare Magazine

Harold Meltzer has not, as far as I know, written a large body of work, but he seems to write pieces of scrupulous craft and exceptional freshness, which makes each seem like an important contribution. Part of the trick (I think) is that Meltzer needs to find a unique take on any piece, and in particular its sound world, before he can write. (I remember attending a presentation where he played the recording of a solo flute piece written for Patricia Monson, which rethought the instrument from the inside out, without indulging in manneristic extended techniques, only necessary ones.) As a result, his music projects a consistently distinct character.
And that character is? Well, it tends to feature brightly contrasted colors that simultaneously aren’t flashy. Rather, they provide delight in their well-calibrated contrasts one to another. The little low-register piccolo lick at the start of the 2008 Brion is an example—I still can’t get it out of my head a few days later.
Another aspect I hear throughout is an ability to take simple, clear ideas and enliven them by putting them in a new context. Sometimes this is the aforementioned mix of colors. At other times it’s more complex modernist textures. At still others it’s a dreamlike archaism; one feels as though one is hearing music from a distant time through a glass darkly. He’s also unafraid of repetition, but also not obsessive, as in some Minimalist musics. And finally, there’s a lovely recurrent danciness. All these point toward Stravinsky as a progenitor, and indeed annotator Andrew Waggoner makes the apt comparison to Agon as a model. The good news is not just that Meltzer should gravitate to such a classy piece, but that he also doesn’t write a simple knockoff. The music’s energy and play are entirely his own. This is particularly true of Brion, which is a three-movement evocation of a visit by the composer to the Brion-Vega cemetery designed by Carlo Scarpa, near Venice. The seamless blend of modern and ancient tropes in the architecture is mirrored precisely in the music.
The rest of the program is vocal music, and this was a realm of the composer’s work I hadn’t known before. The Silas Marner songs (2000–01) take unpromising prose, and with a sinuously “weaving” cello accompaniment become quite direct and engaging, in such a way that deeper meanings seem revealed.Exiles is from 2001, and sets two texts, one by Conrad Aiken, the other a translation from the Chinese by Hart Crane. It’s probably the most conventionally modernist work on the program, though its accompaniment of glistening, revolving pitches, a little like wind-chimes, gives it a hushed and intense air.
But pride of place goes to Sindbad (2004–05), for narrator and piano trio. When I saw the title, I thought: What? A children’s piece? A fairy-tale fantasy? No, rest easy. The title is from the eponymous story by Donald Barthelme, the master of New York deadpan surrealism. Starting in full flower with the swashbuckling tale, it then suddenly veers into the first-person experience related by a timid professor, confronting students whose contempt for him is all too evident. Over time, it actually becomes clear that the entire text is speaking to the need of everyone to discover his/her own inner adventurer, and confront demons. But the message is never didactic, and the text has moments that are hysterically funny (at least to me, a professor). Meltzer’s music is unassuming but simultaneously fully in tune with the spirit of the text. It stands up as a parallel commentary, never serving as mere cues. John Shirley-Quirk embodies the double persona of the story with a plummy English accent, flamboyant at one moment, timid at the next. The genre of music with narration is one that has a checkered track record; this piece is a success.
This is the music of a strong voice, mature and focused, but never tripping up on over-seriousness. It gets a reservation for possible Want List inclusion at year’s end.
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