Recording of April 2020: Afterimage

Cooper, Cerrone, Pergolesi, et al: Afterimage
String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Argus Quartet, Melissa Hughes, Kate Maroney, Rachel Lee Priday
Furious Artisans facd6823 (CD). 2020. Emily Bookwalter, Eli Spindel, prods.; Ryan Streber, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

If an orchestra is going to wait more than a decade before releasing its first record, it had better go big when it finally does—which is what the String Orchestra of Brooklyn has done. Afterimage includes compositions by Paganini (1782–1840) and Pergolesi (1710–1736) alongside works by Rome Prize winner Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984) and the less well-known Jacob Cooper (b. 1980).

The String Orchestra of Brooklyn knows of going big; its 32 musicians worked with composers John Cale and Tony Conrad in on a six-hour installation work at the 2015 opening of the Whitney Museum's new location in lower Manhattan. It has given premiere performances of works by Anthony Coleman, Catherine Lamb, and Alex Mincek.

The centerpiece of Afterimage—occupying more than half of its 49 minutes—is Cooper's astonishing Stabat Mater Dolorosa, composed in 2009. As a composer, Cooper covers a lot of ground. He wrote an opera about an imagined Britney Spears/Justin Timberlake reunion as well as a song cycle inspired by the haiku of Matsuo Basho. His Stabat Mater is a fittingly bold gesture for a bold orchestra. With just the title, Cooper puts himself in league with Haydn and Scarlatti, Dvorák and Verdi, Pärt and Penderecki—all of whom wrote settings of the 13th-century hymn for the Virgin Mary—not to mention Pergolesi, whose rendering served as the inspiration for Cooper's work. Music about the glory of God and the miracle of creation is common enough, but taking on the Stabat Mater is something more. You and God might be able to hang, but when God's mom walks in, you'd better say "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." Whatever one's spiritual beliefs, laying claim to that history is not something to be done lightly.

The work is built from a phrase from the first movement of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, slowed to the point of stillness and with voices submerged into the strings. The single movement falls naturally into three parts, with a reduction to the bass viols and later a brief silence, both giving the music a sense of expansiveness in slowly swelling waves; the second arc builds to a swirling, frightening beauty.

Cerrone's High Windows, which opens the disc, is similarly built from an older work, Paganini's Caprice No.6 for solo violin. But where Cooper works with stillness, Cerrone treats time like a pendulum, fast and slow working against each other in contrasting sections with Argus Quartet violinist Clara Kim's violin singing across. When the strings come together in understated unison, it's like heaven on earth.

The album concludes with the Paganini caprice and the above-mentioned single Pergolesi movement, almost like footnotes. Throughout, the recording captures the fullness of the orchestra, and the subtle, intersecting sonorities of voices and strings, and when the sopranos move to the forefront in the Pergolesi, the contrast is striking.

Minor complaints: It would have been wonderful to hear the orchestra play the whole of the Pergolesi, and the CD has room to accommodate it at typical tempos. The sequencing is also a bit odd, using Cerrone and Paganini to bookend the other works. That, of course, can easily be rectified by creating a playlist, but it feels inelegant.

Cerrone and Cooper are both members of Sleeping Giant, the composers' collective behind cellist Ashley Bathgate's remarkable 2019 record, Ash. For Afterimage, they both approach lofty subjects with reverence. Cerrone writes in his liner notes that his title references the windows at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn, where the orchestra premiered the piece, and a Philip Larkin poem about the wisdom that comes with age. Cooper explains that his work "sheds the Christian conviction" and focuses on the loss of a child. Both works are contemporary in their approach and structuring, but both reference eternal convictions. They're powerful works.

I perceive, or think I do, a shying away from profundity in (very) contemporary composition. It's not that there's no profundity at all; I hear it in the work of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir—see the review of the album Concurrence in this issue—or the American Scott Wollschleger, to cite two examples. But more often work I hear hovers between clever and complex, imbued with electronics or mathematics, post-minimalist tendencies, or populist inclinations. All of which is more than fine—enjoyable even—but one might wonder what happened to music that whispers or shouts at the sky, that strives to stretch beyond the reach of us mere mortals.—Kurt Gottschalk