by Walter Simmons
J. F. ROGERS Memoria Domi. Sonata Lunaris. Blue River Variations. Once Removed • Joseph Eller (cl); William Terwilliger (vn); Robert Jesselson (vc); Lynn Kompass (pn); Andrew Cooperstock (pn); Marina Lomazov (pn); Cameron Britt, Scott Herring (mmb) • INNOVA 707 (65:54)
This recent release, comprising music composed between 2003 and 2005, was my introduction to John Fitz Rogers, although listening to it made me wonder why I’d never encountered his name—or, more important, his music—before. Turning 50 this year, Rogers has been on the scene for some time. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he studied classical and jazz piano at a young age, and began to compose at 12. He studied with well-known compositional figures at Cornell, Yale, and Oberlin, and has amassed a substantial portfolio of works, which appear to have been performed at a variety of auspicious venues. Many of his pieces show traces of jazz and rock (although there is little of that on this disc). Rogers is currently composer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina.
Beginning my listening with the Blue River Variations for piano solo, I knew within about a minute that this was music that warranted serious attention. Despite Rogers’s enthusiastic involvement in the other genres of music that have surrounded him, the works on this disc are thoroughly traditionalist in their aesthetics, applying a Pre-Modernist tonal approach in forming his own Post-Modern voice, “an authentically middle-American one that unapologetically embraces its Western European antecedents,” as stated in the excellent annotations by Phillip Bush. This is not to suggest that Rogers’s works offer a reactionary retreat into familiar, easy listening. Rather, each piece offers an initial impression of authentic expression sufficient to encourage the listener to delve deeper. Nor do these pieces suggest pre-1900 styles; on the contrary, they sound thoroughly 20th century, but with “rounded,” rather than “hard” edges.
These Blue River Variations are smoothly integrated, each eliding with the next, so that the work doesn’t display the familiar strophic quality that variations so often do, instead accumulating more along the lines of a narrative. The style of the work ranges from “serious modern classical” to a number of vernacular piano styles, the whole treated with remarkable fluency and taste. The keyboard writing shows the skilled hand of an experienced pianist, and the work is played here magnificently by the Ukrainian Marina Lomazov, for whom the work was written. She is also on the faculty at the University of South Carolina.
Memoria Domi (or “a memory of home”) is the most ambitious work on the program—in four movements lasting 24 minutes, scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It is serious in tone and modern traditionalist in style, with emphasis on forms such as canon and chaconne. Again one gleans the sensibility of an artist of the “old school,” in which a deeply expressive emotional contour is inseparable from abstract musical development, creating a compelling sense of engagement. Moments of passion occasionally call the music of Ernest Bloch to mind (though without ethnic features). The third movement is energetic, with a brilliant central toccata, while the beautiful fourth movement reveals a serenity somewhat reminiscent of Lou Harrison. The performance displays precision and polish throughout.
Sonata Lunaris, a work in three movements for violin and piano, is sober, sincere music of a reflective cast, once more displaying fluent mastery of the chromatic tonal language that appears to be Rogers’s natural idiom, which the composer treats as “a living, breathing art,” in the words of annotator Bush. The emotional core of the work is the centerpiece, a deeply searching “Lullaby,” while the final portion again calls Bloch to mind, in this case the ending of Baal Shem, albeit with a thoroughly gentile character. The duo who identify themselves as Opus Two provide a fine performance.
Quite different from the three works just discussed is Once Removed, an 8-minute work for two marimbas that serves as the title of the disc. It begins in innocent simplicity, reminiscent of minimalism as practiced early on by Steve Reich, but before long the listener is aware of a more rapid, dynamic rate of activity, as well as a greater degree of both emotional and conceptual complexity. The performance is extraordinary, its coordination aided by separate “click tracks.”
All four of these works reveal a gratifying clarity and coherence that convey the impression that initial acquaintance only scratches the surface, and that there is plenty more of value to derive from them. I look forward to further acquaintance with Rogers’s music.