Tuesday , May 28 2024
Herschel Garfein The Layers album cover

Music Review: ‘The Layers’ – New Music by Herschel Garfein Inspired by Jane Kenyon, Stanley Kunitz, KC Trommer

Last fall I had the pleasure of hearing cellist Sophie Shao and pianist John Blacklow perform a glowing new piece by GRAMMY®-winning composer Herschel Garfein, a cello sonata of sorts called The Layers inspired by the Stanley Kunitz poem of that name. Shao and Blacklow now deliver this music to one and all on a new album, The Layers, which also includes two other significant Garfein works. Like the composer’s earlier King of the River, these are settings of poems for solo voice with accompaniment.

The Layers (the piece) brings together Romanticism in the first movement, a hallucinatory aura in the second, and a modernist klezmer feel in the finale. Recorded with clarity and depth at Oktaven Audio outside New York City (Garfein is currently on the NYU faculty), it touches the spirit from the speakers or (better yet) the noise-canceling earbuds much as it did in concert. Shao’s tone comes through with on ineffable sweetness that’s a credit to the audio engineering as well as to her energy and technique. The cello-piano mix is pristine, the piano sounding rich and bell-like. It’s an altogether gorgeous recording of this compelling music.

Herschel Garfein
Composer Herschel Garfein

In The Luminous Particular, Garfein sets poetry by Jane Kenyon for piano and voice. Forthright soprano Marnie Breckenridge and the fine pianist Michael Brofman prove to be ideal interpreters of the suggestive melodies and accessibly modern, rhythmic piano parts. The music reflects the lyrics in sometimes eye-opening but always fitting ways. The smoothly folded-up melody of the line “I am the one whose love overcomes you” leads to a dramatic flourish at the end of the first poem (“Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”). That’s just the example that happened to be flowing into my ears as I composed this sentence.

There’s something a bit Sondheim-esque about the languid, thoughtful “Twilight: After Haying,” while a delicate resolve infuses the sorrowful “Evening Sun,” a remarkable poem that depicts a recollection of youth: As she dances, a little girl learns early to grin and bear life, her skirt turning and flaring like Yeats’ widening gyre.

Patently religious, vivid but cryptic, the anti-war “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” becomes a micro-symphony of anger, regret, and spiritual mystery in Garfein’s hands. The set closes with a glistening setting of a powerful portrait of the awareness of mortality, “Otherwise,” with Breckenridge at her sensitive best in the ruminative melody, ending on a questioning high note that seems to linger in uncertainty into the ensuing silence.

Finally, Three Rides sets poems by KC Trommer to music for voice (Breckenridge), piano (Thomas Bagwell) and cello (Dave Eggar). Garfein is at his most visceral in this concise triptych. “Black Ice,” about a car crash and its psychological aftermath, begins with staccato anxiety, lapses into a time “suspended in each second,” and returns to panic mode before a softer mood descends to limn the poet’s dark thoughts. Here the music inhabits an emotional knife-edge, pinpoints of sound alternating with loping melodic intervals.

“The Mechanism of Pleasure” concerns a patient experiencing a flare of ecstasy while awake during brain tumor surgery. The music drifts between con moto and weirdly calm – even the high note on the word “delight” is part of the flow. Intriguing melodies and harmonic explorations capture the otherworldly strangeness of the experience.

“The Cyclone” evokes Coney Island’s iconic wooden roller coaster, with a looping quality to the music. Breckenridge captures this with an unforced simplicity that sets in high relief the poem’s adult sexual theme as well as the recollection of a younger, more innocent time. The poem ends by asking Coney Island, or the reader, “if there is a girl up there / in a striped shirt, her head back, eyes closed, / laughing her head off—”

How many selves are we at once? Listening to each voice – the vocals, the piano, the cello – it feels like the answer must be three at least, three layers.

The Layers is out now on Acis.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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