ZAIMONT Chroma—Northern Lights. Ghosts. Elegy. STILLNESS . Zones (Piano Trio No. 2). String Quartet, “The Figure.” Astral. Serenade

ZAIMONT Chroma—Northern Lights. Ghosts. Elegy. STILLNESS ● Kirk Trevor, cond; Slovak Natl SO ● NAXOS 8.559619 (52:56)

ZAIMONT Zones (Piano Trio No. 2). String Quartet, “The Figure.” Astral. Serenade ● Ilmar Gavilán (vn); Melissa White (vn) Juan-Miguel Hernandez (va); Paul Wiancko (vc) Awadagin Pratt (pn) ● NAVONA NV5846, “enhanced” (64:41)

I have long considered Judith Lang Zaimont to be one of the most consistently rewarding composers of her generation, although her name may not be as widely known as that of some of her contemporaries. Now in her mid 60s, she has retired to Arizona to concentrate on her creative work, after a long academic career at such schools as the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Minnesota, among others. She has been the recipient of many prestigious awards and commissions, and her works have been performed and recorded widely.

Her own musical style is rather broad, but falls generally into what might be considered the “middle of the road” for her generation. That is, her music is all solidly based on traditional aesthetic principles, such as motivic development, a progression of rhythmic and contrapuntal energy, and some degree of adherence to tonality, although her approach to this latter dimension may extend from explicit, neo-romantic usage to more remote treatments complicated by considerable harmonic dissonance, and augmented at times by the use of unconventional gestures and textures as thematic elements. The result offers considerable variety, while maintaining a consistently serious sense of purpose, regardless of a particular work’s degree of complexity, and always remaining free of aesthetic dogma. Zaimont’s music can be fairly challenging, requiring concentration and repeated listening, but offers substantial rewards to those who make the effort.

The eight compositions on these two recent releases—one featuring orchestral music, the other, chamber works—provide a representative sample of Zaimont’s output embracing the two decades from the mid 1980s through the mid 2000s. At this point I will admit that I find Zaimont’s greatest weakness to be her approach to titles and, especially, program notes. Although the titles obviously intend to provide the listener with some sort of verbal poetic clues to the nature of the works, and the program notes attempt to go even farther in that direction, with insights into the structure of the music, as well as imagery that might offer additional clarification, I find these verbal appendages to be less than helpful. In fact, I find them to be “red herrings” that are not borne out by my own listening experience, while distracting me from the intrinsic virtues of the music itself, which are considerable.

The Naxos release offers several intriguing orchestral works. The earliest is entitled Chroma—Northern Lights. The 11-minute piece attempts to suggest the shifting patterns of light and color produced by the Aurora Borealis. The music oscillates back and forth between traditional gestures and more modernistic usages. Whether or not it achieves its extramusical intention, it provides a reasonably satisfying listening experience.

Ghosts (2000) and Elegy (1998) are two pieces for strings that, together with a third—Dancin’ over my Grave—were grouped in 2001 into a Symphony No. 2 for string orchestra, subtitled “Remember Me.” Ghosts is based on the intriguing concept of an imaginary meeting with six of Zaimont’s favorite composers—Scriabin, Britten, Ravel, Berg, Rouse, and Laurie Anderson. Each composer is represented by fragments of his/her work, and all are woven together into a pleasingly kaleidoscopic tapestry. The only problem is that the concept of the piece is likely to go “over the heads” of all but the most sophisticated listeners, as the outputs of her chosen composers are not exactly common currency. If her six composers were, say, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Grieg—not that I am offering this as a suggestion—at least the concept might be grasped more readily by her listeners. But I would guess that the number of people who can identify the pre-existing fragments is few indeed. On the other hand, once again the music itself is engaging, compelling, and satisfying, once one disregards the concept, as it proceeds through its course of well-integrated musical fragments. Elegy, written in memory of a favorite aunt of the composer,is perhaps the most traditionally styled piece on the disc. As one might expect, it is somewhat sad and heartfelt, although it maintains a degree of emotional restraint. While consistently elegiac, it is never lachrymose.

The longest and most recent work on the disc is STILLNESS (why all caps?), a 20-minute symphonic poem composed in 2004. This is perhaps the most flagrant example of the point I have been making: Aside from the affectation of an all-caps title, the program notes explore the various shades of meaning inhering in the word “stillness,” while noting that the piece is “the fruit of Zaimont’s study of the works of Morton Feldman and Frederick Delius.” That is an eye-roller that might frighten off many listeners who would otherwise be captivated by this fascinating and brilliantly-colored orchestral work. More than the two composers cited as sources of inspiration, Alan Hovhaness (in his 1960s style) and Joseph Schwantner come more readily to my mind. Although ostensibly aiming at a “steady-state” effect, the work maintains a clear forward momentum—especially the more animated central section. In short, the piece is quite a bit better than the program notes lead us to expect—the opposite of the more common phenomenon. Although its many sections result in a somewhat elusive formal structure, the music is so consistently engrossing that such concerns are readily overlooked. This is clearly the most effective work on the program, as well as the one that enjoys the most proficient performance.

Speaking of which—Kirk Trevor is well-known for the many, often-praised recordings of contemporary American music he has made with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. However, I must say that the performances of both Chroma—Northern Lights and Ghosts seem to lack a sense of direction; in the latter piece the orchestra often seems barely to be hanging on. Truthfully, the pieces sound as if they are being sight-read—which may well be the case—but they’re not supposed to sound that way. Perhaps the majority of the rehearsal time went to STILLNESS, as that piece fares much better.

The other recent release is entitled “Eternal Evolution,” and is an “enhanced CD,” which means that, while the printed commentary on the package is minimal, by placing the CD into one’s computer, one can access additional information about the music and the performers, as well as how to obtain the scores. The list price for all this seems to be somewhere between the price of a standard Naxos release and that of a full-price release. The recording offers a string quartet, a piano trio, a piece for unaccompanied viola and a short, lyrical serenade.

The String Quartet, “The Figure,” is a strong, powerful post-Bartók sort of work, and the Trio No. 2, called Zones, appeals to me even more. In fact, the latter may be my favorite of Zaimont’s compositions. These are solidly constructed works—ruggedly expressive, if consistently austere, rewarding close, concentrated attention. They are not ingratiating in a melodic or “romantic” sort of way, but they compel the attention of the listener, while making clear musical—if non-verbal—sense through contrapuntal rhythmic energy. Given the high level of dissonance, however, I would expect them to appeal chiefly to those whose tastes are especially oriented around 20th- and 21st-century music. There are some long solo passages that are less interesting, but the vigorous, rapid portions are highly compelling. However, not to beat a dead horse, the String Quartet—Zaimont’s first—comprises two movements: the first called “In Shadow” and the second, “In Bright Light.” This distinction is a matter of metaphorical imagery. But I must report that after listening to the work repeatedly I would find reversing those rubrics to be no less convincing. Similarly, the titles of the three movements comprising the half-hour long Zones—“Cold,” “Warm,” and “Temperate”—are utterly useless as guides to the listening experience. Again, the characterizations could be switched around without being any less convincing. Nevertheless, the music itself offers enough stimulation to invite prompt re-hearing.

The performances of both these major chamber works convey stunning conviction, captured beautifully on the recording. It so happens that Zones was recorded in 1997 on an Arabesque release (Z6683) that featured violinist Peter Winograd, cellist Peter Wyrick, and pianist Joanne Polk. That too was a fine performance that owed no apology. Interestingly, both recordings were produced and engineered by Adam Abeshouse.

Astral is a 13-minute work, subtitled “… a mirror life on the astral plane …,” whatever that is supposed to mean. It was originally composed for clarinet in 2004, but arranged for viola or violin or even alto saxophone more recently. The viola version is heard here. Regular Fanfare readers know that I am generally not a devotee of works for unaccompanied monophonic instruments, so the fact that I was less than charmed by this rather severe piece was not a surprise. However, I do have to say that it is a very substantial work, elaborated with evident taste and musicality. It is difficult, and demands to be taken seriously, while offering a considerable challenge to the performer, who is even expected to sing or hum at times. Violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez meets these challenges handsomely. I strongly recommend the piece to violists and listeners who do not share my bias regarding monophony.

The CD concludes with Serenade, a lovely 5-minute piece that demonstrates just how capable Zaimont is of writing a straightforwardly pretty, lyrical, tonal melody. It too exists in versions for piano solo, organ solo, and violin and organ. The one offered here features piano trio, and is played lovingly. Composed in 2006, Serenade fulfills its purpose tastefully, and ends the CD in a mood of repose and contentment.