We have long known that Vermont is chock full of fine artists, but that makes it no less exciting when another emerges — especially one who combines originality and consummate skill.
University of Vermont composer David Feurzeig is just that. Associate professor of music theory and composition there, he manages to pay tribute to the music of the past while delivering originality and the unexpected in his new album, “Lingua Franca,” released last November.
Feurzeig’s music is largely tonal, but thanks to imaginative use of harmonic and rhythmic language, the effect is attractive and sometimes contemporary in a challenging way. There is such a range of style and emotion — from deeply serious sonatas for solo cello and viola to a kaleidoscope of composers’ solo piano styles to the outrageously theatrical — that this recording provides both introspective and entertaining listening.
Feurzeig reveals himself at his most serious in the excellent solo string music. While both sonatas are clearly inspired by the solo string music of J.S. Bach, they are uniquely their own, with unexpected turns.
Cellist Brooks Whitehouse clearly enjoys the depth and rich expressiveness of the 2006 five-movement “Sonata for Solo Cello,” a paean to Bach’s six solo cello suites. The opening Prelude is a grand ballad; zippy pizzicato lightly drives the Corrente; the engrossing Notturno combines varying mixes of arco, pizz and harmonics for an introspective ethereal experience; and the sprawling and devilishly driven Gigue isn’t always a gigue. It’s a potent piece.
The 2004 Sonata for Solo Viola takes its inspiration from Bach’s four-movement and more virtuosic solo violin sonatas. The opening Prelude is contemporary virtuosity; though with the semblance of an authentic rhythm, the Gavotte is an intriguing contemporary take on the Fuga from the C Major Bach Violin Sonata. The final “Carol” is a unique and delightful fantasy on the hymn “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Daniel Panner delivers the joy in this fascinating work.
Feurzeig, who earned a B.A. in music at Harvard and his master’s and doctorate in composition at Cornell, is his most personal on his own instrument. A pianist, he specializes in eclectic lecture-recitals featuring music from the classics to stride piano, jazz and new music.
And Feurzeig shines as a pianist as well as a composer in his four “Homages,” nods to great composer-pianists written from 1990 to 2006. “Bélnának a Blues a (Bela’s Blues)” is a witty mix of Béla Bartok, blues and jazz. “Lachrymæ Cærileæ (Blue Tears)” is a deeply beautiful contemporary take on the late lyrical miniatures of Franz Liszt.
Despite its tongue-in-cheek title, “Stride Rite — a Work of Genius” would make an ideal encore piece. It takes the opening theme of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” through stride, ragtime and more. It’s witty fun. And the final, “Happy Birthday Martin,” varies the theme in a broad spectrum of familiar styles. It’s a well-crafted mix of humor and romantic grandeur.
Still, the real fun happens in the album’s namesake. In the 2015 “Lingua Franca,” cellist Whitehouse and bassist Paul Sharpe must act as vocalists as well (and even more in live performances, according to the liner notes). This charmer comprises five well-crafted works of great silliness.
“Rice Noodle” is a series of short sung phrases, sung over driving cello and bass; “Chopstick Wrapper” offers Chinese-flavored chopstick lessons; “Electric Blanket” breaks the mood with soothing words over gorgeous expressive cello with bass obbligato; “Elevator Music” hilariously mixes musical quotations over obtuse Belgrade elevator instructions; and “Ice Tray” takes a silly narrative over cello lyricism with bass pizz. It’s all great fun.
In Feurzeig’s apt and very personal liner notes, he gives himself away with the Igor Stravinsky quotation, apparently swiped from T.S, Elliot: “Talent borrows. Genius steals.” Well said.
“David Feurzeig: Lingua Franca” (52:54) was recorded at Westchester (New York) Studios Nov. 30-Dec. 2, 2016 and July 9, 2017, and was released in November 2018 by American Modern Recordings (AMR1051). It is available at https://smile.amazon.com.