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ESF - Red Mark CD 9209
Proto: String Quartet No. 1 - Quintet for Piano and Strings - Trio for Violin, Viola and Double Bass

Frank Proto is based in the American mid-west where as well as being a noted composer and arranger, he continues as double bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps this is one reason why his string music, in well-judged performances such us as these, sounds so eminently natural and playable.

The other reason is that since student days in the 1960s Proto's work has been antipathetic to the unnatural gorge that opened up between classical music and more popular genres. True, his music has its own serious, reflective quality, one that speaks strongly in his slower movements here: the emotive Adagio of the Piano Quintet, for instance, with some striking cadenza-like solo writing for cello, violin and double bass, or the aerated final blues of the Trio. But Proto's early flair for vibrant jazz rhythms and patterns, which somehow lurk within his textures and from time to time surface triumphantly, ensured this music could be dubbed crossover long before the Kronos Quartet made such things fashionable.

The jazz aspect, for buffs, might be just a fraction cliched or hackneyed here and there, but for the general listener the mix is undoubtedly appealing. It's vibrant, life-enhancing stuff, as a glimpse of the final Ostinato and Blues of the First Quartet soon shows.

The relaxed ease of these slick Cincinnati players is tangible (emerging from concentrated collaboration: witness the violin and viola duetting in the Trio's slow movement); Proto himself supplies the bottom line in the Quintet, and (to good effect) in the Trio.

These are quality performances, recorded well forward and nicely balanced with no weak link. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable, inventive, approachable collection.

Roderic Dunnett
The Strad
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ESF - Red Mark CD 9209
Proto: String Quartet No. 1 - Quintet for Piano and Strings - Trio for Violin, Viola and Double Bass

Frank Proto is a long-time bassist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. His music combines a number of seemingly disparate elements into a listenable mix. Among the elements in his musical stew are jazz, the dissonance we associate with the 60s and 70s, and a good deal of traditional instrumental virtuosity. All three works are lively, pungent, and entertaining. Each is in three movements. The Quartet begins rather violently, with glissandos and bent notes that make one think it is going to be purely a sound-effects piece; but it soon settles down to some very fine working-out of material that lends itself to both classical and jazz interests. Proto is one of the very few composers who is not clearly on one side or the other; he talks down to no one and uses every style he comes across, from folk fiddling to aleatoric improvisation. The Quintet uses bass rather than a second violin, while the Trio is for violin, viola, and bass rather than cello. The only style I cannot detect here is minimalism.

These players are all members of the Cincinnati Symphony, with Proto himself on bass. There have been other recordings of Proto's music over the years but this is the first CD I have heard. If you like this, check the LP cutout bins for more. Highly recommended!

D. Moore
American Record Guide
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ESF - Red Mark CD 9209
Proto: String Quartet No. 1 - Quintet for Piano and Strings - Trio for Violin, Viola and Double Bass

Frank Proto's Trio (1974) was conceived out of a need for appropriate concert repertory for its unusual instrumental combination. Essentially a crossover work, its rhapsodic first movement fuses classical and jazz elements and features an insistent, repeated dissonant note-pair. The bass part is comparatively free and provides opportunities for Proto to display his imaginative improvisatory skills, implemented (on the evidence of this recording) prior even to the relevant printed annotation! A bass improvisation also features in the middle section of the contrasting second movement, marked slow 4 quasi funk, accompanying, but not coordinating with a violin cadenza, while the central part of the finale incorporates it violin solo marked Blues: sempre non vibrato and continues with an inventive solo bass improvisation based on a 12-bar blues progression.

Similarly, the Quintet (1983) mixes styles, with jazz providing its main inspiration. It proves an excellent vehicle for Proto's skillful writing for piano (expertly realized here by Michael Chertock) and strings, particularly the increasingly intense dialogues between the two camps in the central movement, conceived perhaps as 'a subconscious homage to Beethoven (in particular, the slow movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto).

Proto himself provides an admirable bass contribution throughout and comes into his own in the finale which represents, according to Jonathan Kramer, 'probably the most sustained evocation of jazz in Proto's chamber music', Members of the Ensemble Sans Frontière all associated with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, also demonstrate their versatility, intelligent musicianship and brilliant virtuosity in Proto's String Quartet No. 1 (1977), another 'crossover' piece that is often aggressively modernist and includes imaginative effects such as wordless singing and various cello sonorities produced by unconventional means.
Robin Stowell
Double Bassist

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ESF - Red Mark CD 9209
Proto: String Quartet No. 1 - Quintet for Piano and Strings - Trio for Violin, Viola and Double Bass

Ensemble Sans Frontière: Michael Chertok, piano; Larrie Howard violin and viola; Susan Marshall Peterson, cello: Laura McLellan, cello: Sylvia Mitchell, violin; Paul Patterson, violin and viola, Frank Proto double bass

The compositions of composer-bassist Frank Proto should be well known to all bassists. Most recently his concerto, Four Scenes After Picasso was premiered by François Rabbath at the ISB convention in Houston. His Sonata 1963 is now a standard in the repertoire. This CD is a celebration of Proto"s chamber music, which is engaging, spirited, at times haunting, and above all else, beautiful. It is not always beautiful in the most conventional sense of that word, as it expresses a variety of emotions ranging from ecstasy to sorrow. This music is also beautiful in its unique way of integrating musical idioms and vocabulary in a natural and unaffected manner.

Proto's String Quartet dates from 1977. A commission by the Blair School of Music in Nashville, it was premiered that year by the Blair Quartet. The quartet has movement titles like Furiously, Moderate Rock (I) and Ad lib, Ostinato Blues (III). Extended techniques are called upon, including percussive effects and vocalise. The organic use of eclectic vocabulary culminates in the third movement, with a blues in a 6 + 7 meter, somewhat evocative of Miles Davis' All Blues.

The Quintet for Piano and Strings is a complex work, unfolding over nearly thirty minutes. The opening viola cadenza is played beautifully by Larrie Howard, whose use of color and contour is stunning. Texturally, the quintet spans music of a single-voice - cadenzas and unisons, to dense, nearly symphonic structures. As harmonic leit-motive, the dominant 7th #9 harmony surfaces time and again like a primordial force that can't be repressed. The second movement features antiphonal writing which is strikingly performed. The third movement brings those harmonic forces to bear, with a density and angularity which brings McCoy Tyner to mind.

Perhaps the best known of these works, the Trio for Violin, Viola and Double Bass creates a larger than life illusion by virtue of the plethora of double, triple, and quadruple stops called upon by the composer. As is his habit, Proto calls upon the bassist to improvise. As the composer is bassist on this recording, it is an opportunity to enjoy Proto as a performer. He deftly moves from superb chamber musician to a rhythm section player to improviser, and just as seamlessly as his composition does.

The Ensemble Sans Frontière takes its name from the physicians (Medicenes sans Frontière) who work in hostile settings world-wide, helping those that nobody can or will. Made up of members of the Cincinnati Symphony, "E.S.F. is a group of musicians for whom music has no boundaries. They are as comfortable with Brahms and Webern as they are with Ellington and Zappa." Together, they give world class performances of the chamber music of Frank Proto. This CD is a fitting tribute to a man whose mind and music has had a great impact, not only on the bass world, but also in how we may see musical forces interact at the close of the 20th century.

Tom Knific, Recordings Editor
Bass World
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Sonata "1963"
for Double Bass and Piano

A newly printed (third) edition

As the title suggests, this Sonata was written in 1963 when Frank Proto was a student at the Manhattan School of Music. ".....I needed another piece to fill out my graduation recital program and thought I'd try writing one myself. This might be labeled Op. 1 since although I had been active as an arranger for five or six years previous to that, I had never attempted anything original before."

The Sonata is in four movements (Slow and Peaceful / Moderate Swing / Molto Adagio / Allegro Energico) and is available for both solo or orchestral tunings. The lowest string is re tuned to low D (G D A D) but this is the only change in an interesting and inventive cross-over work. Classical styles blend with jazz idioms to create a sonata that is challenging yet playable and modern yet accessible. The bass part, as one would expect, is well written with a lyrical and sustained first movement which links into a wonderfully virtuosic and unimprovised movement of jazz. Proto makes great use of jazz techniques in treble clef also and this movement would be suitable as a recital work in its own right.

The third movement is more meditative and reflective with an insistence on 7th chords in the piano part, and the harmonic language is advanced and effective. The last movement is linked to the previous movement and begins with a fugal figure that develops into a repetitive and aggressive quaver accompaniment. The solo line is allowed to soar into the highest reaches of the instrument for much of the movement and the virtuosic writing in each part produces a finale of great character, vitality and rhythmic invention.

The sonata has been recently reprinted and is a challenging work, technically, musically and harmonically that is a popular and much performed work in the modern bass repertoire.

David Heyes
The British and International Bass Forum
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Sonata "1963"
for Double Bass and Piano

Proto's piece began life as part of his final student graduation exams because its composer was unhappy with the available repertoire. It's been performed many times since and although I've yet to hear it I consider the prospect something to look forward to. The sonata has many things going for it from a performer's angle, being written by someone who knows what works and fits well. There are equal amounts of showy and lyrical material with good links and endings.

The first movement (slow and peaceful) starts with a bar of big, soft eighth note chords and continues beneath the bass' gentle, bluesy line throughout. One of my piano-playing friends thought the tonality reminiscent of Bernstein. This short movement gradually descends to a pedal D in the bass which is held while the piano begins the second movement. This introduces the main theme of the Sonata which, to me, is pute TV 'baddie' music. The bass enters pizzicato, forte, at quite a good lick and the unusual metronome mark of 170 seems uncannily accurate for the feel of this motive. The first statement doesn't seem too difficult but the second entry starts to get a little excited and I'm looking in vain for the arco sign - which isn't to be found until the next movement.

Along with plenty of rhythmic invention and clearly marked dynamics, often of an extreme nature, these tow pages are rather daunting to a non-jazzer. But the benefits outweigh the initially sore fingers. You won't have too many pizzicato problems after learning this.

The third movement has piano and bass alternating in cadenza mode, building on the same chords that open the piece. Although the general feeling is one of freedom, the piano part is thoughtfully cued in the bass part so a coherent whole is achievable. Worth noting is a little section in false harmonics that follows some low, soft pizzicato. He's making no effort to facilitate this rather large leap. I consider this a sign that the bass is growing up - Proto's assuming it's not a problem and you just can do it. The last movement is a lively fugal piece with difficult-looking passages that fit the fingers nicely. It's all the mark of a gifted and experienced craftsman, even though the sonata is from the early part of Proto's composing career.

Both the third and fourth movements share a similar coda, this last leading to a descending, accelerating and punchy cadence.

Click to view a sample of the Music

Neil Tarlton
Double Bassist
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