By Jonathan Kramer
Soundscapes for Solo Viola
Frank Proto has had an extraordinarily varied musical career. He is a double bassist, pianist, electronic musician, arranger, recording producer, and publisher, but he is foremost a composer who has created a diverse body of quintessentially American music. He played in the Cincinnati Symphony, in Broadway show orchestras, and in numerous jazz clubs. He has composed and/or arranged for musicians as diverse as Max Rudolf, Doc Severinsen, Thomas Schippers, Cleo Laine, Michael Gielen, Duke Ellington, Jesús López-Cobos, Dave Brubeck, Sherill Milnes, Eddie Daniels, Benjamin Luxon, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Winfield, Roberta Peters, François Rabbath, Ruggerio Ricci, Richard Stoltzman, Keith Lockhart, Peter Wiley, Alexander Kerr, and Lucero Tena. This list of collaborators is extraordinary for its length and variety as well as for its high level of artistry. Frank has indeed worked with many of the 20th and 21st century's greatest artists.
Proto has stated, "One of my purposes in writing these pieces was to offer something challenging to virtuosos today, some of whom actually would like to play new music. Like us bassists who are 'blessed' (or is it cursed?) with hoards of transcriptions, violists lament the fact that they too have been ignored by the great 19th century masters. Transcriptions are great fun to play and learn from and even perform on a recital. But we've got to have our own music."
The first Soundscape begins with an adagio in two parts. Both parts begin from a lyrical and soulful melody, first in the middle to upper register of the viola, and then relaunched from the low register. Both parts take us on different journeys, though with points of contact, originating from the same opening material. In each part, the music increases in intensity, eventually reaching some virtuosity and some sonorous double stops.
The second movement, "rhythmic," is a jazzy scherzo with infectious rhythms and sonorities often utilizing open strings. A slower middle section is followed by a reinterpretation of the opening scherzo, cast at first in pizzicato timbres.
Like the first movement, the third is an adagio that takes us on several journeys, all starting from the same gesture. What results is a series of four variations, each beginning with the movement's opening motive. The sonorities are often comprised of ethereal harmonics.
The fourth movement, "freely," begins from where the third movement leaves off. The opening section seems obsessed with the note G (usually played as a unison double stop), and struggles to get away from it, but G keeps pulling the music possessively back. What finally allows the music to escape the attraction of G is a reminiscence of the final gesture of the first movement. A slower middle section ensues, followed by a relaunching of the opening of the movement. This time the obsession is with the note C, the viola's lowest note. And so the piece ends, after an excursion into the instrument's highest register-with a powerful octave C.
Soundscape Number 2 begins with a largo introduction, commencing with what could almost be a 12-tone row (one note is repeated, for a total of 13). Anyone expecting an exercise in atonality will be surprised, however-although the entire work does often present sequences of several different pitches without duplication, a hallmark of the 12-tone style. The pseudo-row is followed by what begins as a retrograde statement, which then breaks away from any semblance of serialism, as the pseudo-row's final two notes, E and F, become a recurrent motive. Once the viola has descended from its high to its lowest register, the music is ready to break into a virtuosic allegro, initially mostly in 5/8 time.
The second movement is a coloristic adagio, replete with such special sonorities as harmonics, ponticello, and quarter tones. Materials from the first movement reappear.
The third movement, Feroce, continues to develop figures familiar from earlier movements in an extraordinary display of instrumental bravura. By the end, the music develops an aggressiveness that borders on brutality-surely not a quality usually associated with the viola. This movement, perhaps more than any other on this CD, shows how much greater the viola's potential is than most previous composers suspected.
With regard to the use of pseudo-rows, Proto has said that they constitute "one of my favorite devices, namely the use of quasi-rows in a kind of 'street' way-not adhering to the usual rules. I've struggled to use this sort of 'language' to give an overall flavor or 'theme' to a piece, trying to operate more at a subconscious level than right up there in the forefront. It's a tricky task, and whether it succeeds or not is can be difficult to discern."
Interestingly, Soundscape Number 3 also begins with a pseudo-12-tone row. This time there are 11 pitches-only G is initially omitted. Again, the purpose is more to establish a context of chromaticism than to initiate any rigorous compositional process. The opening theme predominates in this andante rubato.
The substantial second movement, allegro, begins with an archetypal figure beloved to many mid-twentieth-century 12-tone composers, namely a wedge in which pitches fan out chromatically from a central note. Here as elsewhere, Proto's purpose is not to embrace 12-tone techniques, but rather to learn lessons from them and apply them to music of considerable freedom and vitality.
The even longer third movement begins with the closing harmony of its predecessor, followed by adagio music reminiscent of the first movement. Eventually an allegro arrives, which explores all manner of viola pyrotechniques. The adagio returns at the end, considerably transformed.
The finale, allegro, also begins with the second movement's closing harmony. This movement is propelled forward by a wonderful rhythmic energy, except in the contemplative middle section, rubato. Music from earlier movements appears transformed.
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