DRATTELL: Sorrow Is Not Melancholy. Lilith. Syzygy. The Fire Within. Clarinet Concerto, “Fire Dances”

DRATTELL  Sorrow Is Not Melancholy.  Lilith.  Syzygy.  The Fire Within. Clarinet Concerto, “Fire Dances” – Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO; Scott Goff, flute; David Shifrin, clarinet – DELOS DE 3159 (60:56)

This title of this disc, Sorrow Is Not Melancholy:  The Very Intense Music of Deborah Drattell, surrounds a most alluring headshot of the composer, about whom I know nothing.  Perhaps Drattell identifies with Lilith, the demonic seductress of Hebraic mythology whom she memorializes in one of her works.  As is Lilith, the package itself is both intriguing and off-putting.  On the one hand, the gay crowd has discovered how successfully living composers can be marketed for their sex appeal.  Why not?  And intense music — sounds good to me.  Sorrow vs. melancholy — let’s hear about it.  On the other hand, classical recordings with self-describing collective titles are usually pleading too hard.  We open it up and look inside. . .  No information at all about the composer.  Uh-oh — not a good sign.  No birthdate, no birthplace, nothing about her education or teachers.  There’s no logical reason they should, but presentations that omit this sort of information usually signal really bad music.  We do learn that Drattell is a “former violinist-turned-prolific-composer,” and from whom she received some grant money, but that’s about it.  At least there are program notes about the pieces themselves.  So what about the music?

We are offered five works, all composed between the late 1980s and the early ‘90s, and each between ten and fifteen minutes in duration.  The pieces share a great deal in common, so that one can generalize, even though two of them feature solo instruments.  For the most part, the pieces begin slowly and ominously, with portentous themes pregnant with possibilities.  In some cases, these openings are compelling in the manner of a good film noir score.  The music is oriented around melodies, most of which are vaguely Hebraic or generically Middle-eastern in inflection.  They are often accompanied by rhythmic ostinati accented by tambourine or other metallic percussion.  The reader might suspect the music to resemble that of Ernest Bloch, but this is true only of the opening theme of The Fire Within.  In fact, a comparison of Drattell’s music with Bloch’s illuminates the compositional weaknesses of the former.

Drattell’s harmonic language is basically tonal, with occasional dissonant passages; some pieces — the Clarinet Concerto, in particular — also feature post-1960s textural effects.  But the substance of the music is all quite simple and obvious, with little rhythmic or contrapuntal development — or true development of any kind that might provide intrinsic forward momentum.  An inadequate substitute is the mere repetition of an idea progressively faster and louder — a device that occurs in every piece.  In general the music attempts to conjure somber, lugubrious moods — often by means of thumping quarter-note pedals — and there are some striking moments; but their appeal is purely superficial.  As in the typical filmscore, with no true musical activity they go nowhere.

As I have written before, too many of today’s “neo-romantic” composers are insufficiently familiar with the accomplishments of their predecessors; there are precedents for this kind of music that set standards of quality that new works must meet in order to be taken seriously.  I would suggest that Drattell listen to Barber’s Music for a Scene from Shelley and Bloch’s Three Jewish Poems— two works comparable in style and content to hers.  By the ages of 23 and 33 respectively, these composers were farther along in achieving the sort of fusion of content and form her music requires.

If I were to select one of these pieces as representative for my collection, it would by Syzygy.  The shortest of the pieces, it is also the most concise and gracefully shaped.

The performances by the soloists are fine.  The Seattle Symphony sounds a little shaky and under-rehearsed (as it often does).