Recording of July 2005: Area 31

The Girl from Guatemala, Flute Concerto, Violin Concerto
Wonjung Kim, soprano; Jeffrey Khaner, flute; Tom Chiu, violin; Anthony Aibel, Area 31
Chesky SACD288 (SACD/CD). 2004. David Chesky, David Eggar, prods.; Barry Wolfson, eng.; Rick Eckerle, second eng.; Nicholas Prout, mastering, editing. AAD? TT: 56:31
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

In an impassioned plea—which, if you know the man, is very much his way—the indefatigable David Chesky tried to convince me that with Area 31 he'd created a new music, a new fusion of classical music and jazz that (roughly paraphrasing) "would take classical music out of the concert hall and back to the people. Make it cool." He then tried to convince me that classical musicians could drink most rock'n'rollers under the table, but that's a subject best left for another day.

This ambitious new collection is the best collection of Chesky's own music so far, and proof that, no matter how variable the output of the record label that bears his name, he remains, first and foremost, a talented composer. Has he fulfilled the claim made above? Possibly. The music on Area 31 is still very much rooted in the modern classical idiom. It does, however, have lots of rhythmic touches—his constant use of flamenco-style palmas (handclaps), for example—that make it jumpier and give it a more urban feel, if I can apply that word to classically based music. In the concertos for flute and violin, there are moments when another word not usually applied to classical music comes to mind: this music can swing.

The strength of Area 31 lies in those concertos, which frame a weaker but mercifully short aria for soprano and orchestra. Unlike many compositions for soloist "and orchestra," each concerto is a showcase for its solo instrument. This is particularly true of the Flute Concerto, easily one of the most rhythmically vital works for that instrument you'll ever encounter. Instead of orchestral works in which the flute pops in and out to deliver solo set pieces, Jeffrey Khaner's excited playing weaves its often frenetic way throughout the entire piece; by the time the work reaches its crashing crescendo, he literally hoots at full volume.

Both solo parts are written with a jazz sensibility in mind, the attacks inherent in many of the solo bursts strongly reminiscent of the way jazz moves between ensemble and solo passages. The concertos are also similar in tone, their incessant South American–flavored rhythms vividly recalling the work of Villa-Lobos and other Latin composers. When we spoke, Chesky called the concertos "quasi-tonal," which seems apt—at any given moment, each flirts simultaneously with tonality and atonality. Both works are also sprightly, deliberately playful, romping about in almost insectile furor. Only in the Violin Concerto's plaintive Andante misterioso do things slow to a more contemplative tempo.

As for The Girl from Guatemala (surely a jokey reference to Jobim's classic "The Girl from Ipanema," though I forgot to ask), as bravely as Korean soprano Wonjung Kim tries to negotiate the work's tongue-twisting turns and wrestle them into intelligible form, most of the words, and thus the meaning of this tale of heartbreak, remained muddled. More often than not when this track came up, I found myself pressing the skip button. Here, Chesky's palmas add insult rather than the intended rhythmic accent.

Led by conductor Anthony Aibel, the Area 31 ensemble is up the task of tackling Chesky's adventurous, assured music. Their playing has the kind of edge that's needed to realize Chesky's bold dreams for this music. Violinist Tom Chiu's résumé includes more "out" credits than anything else—he's played with such unconventional talents as Ornette Coleman and John Zorn. Flutist Jeffrey Khaner's career has been more conventional; he was the Cleveland Orchestra's Principal Flutist before occupying that position with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Equal to this disc's music is its sound, which is sterling and without flaw in both the CD and multichannel layers. The three-dimensional sound portrait on the CD layer is astonishingly good. Part of David Chesky's theory of creating new hybrid music includes lots of low-end bass response—all the better for feeding one of those teeth-rattling car-stereo rigs—and here he doesn't disappoint. Turn up this reference-level disc and you can make window glass quiver.

I'm not convinced that David Chesky has created something entirely new here. Then again, great changes often arrive in a series of steps. More likely he's expanded his own canon in a meaningful way with these delightful new concertos delightfully well-recorded.—Robert Baird