and I paint stars with wings…

A review from —

Stanley Grill: and I paint stars with wings…

In keeping with the lyrical tone of the album title are the four settings presented on composer Stanley Grill’s latest Innova collection. Each work differentiates itself from the others through changes in personnel, yet central to the album is the string orchestra, which is particularly well-suited to Grill’s material, rich as it is in modal harmonies and contrapuntal, interweaving lines. Performed by the Camerata Philadelphia (twenty members, including its conductor and music director, cellist Stephen Framil) with American violist Brett Douglas Deubner and Taiwan-born soprano Peggy Pei-Ju Yu as guest soloists, the recording offers a compelling portrait of Grill. While his music isn’t retrograde, it does reflect the influence of the Medieval and Renaissance music that he loves and that bolsters the ageless quality of his works.

At the core of Grill’s music is a humanistic desire for world peace and a desire to translate the physical world into musical terms—in his own words, “The world says something, I try to understand it, and then translate it into musical language.” To that end, he’s ably assisted by his sympathetic collaborators, whose realizations flatter him greatly. The album includes two works composed for Deubner, the first a viola concerto called The Four Elements and the second Mystical Songs, performed by soprano, viola, and strings and featuring settings of four Fernando Rielo poems.

Subtly programmatic in mood and musical design, The Four Elements presents movements named after the ancient elements. Deubner’s sumptuous viola is the first sound one hears when “Earth” initiates the performance, though the Camerata Philadelphia’s equally sumptuous strings aren’t far behind. Grill’s lyricism is on full display at this early juncture, the opening movement conveying a harmonious serenity that presents the planet as an idyllic place as opposed to one environmentally ravaged. “Air” inhabits a sphere that’s rather more ethereal, with melodic lines suspended as if on high and pizzicato playing helping to reinforce the impression. Animated by comparison, “Water” rushes forth in way that mirrors a river’s flow, whereas “Fire” is understandably the most turbulent of the four parts. Enhancing the musical effect, audible separation between soloist and orchestra is maintained throughout, which allows Deubner’s virtuosity to be all the better appreciated.

Grill’s humanism comes explicitly to the fore in the album’s sole work for string orchestra alone, Pavanne to a World Without War. Designed to promote non-violence, the rapturous standalone has the added distinction of being the inaugural work in the composer’s ‘Music for Peace’ project. Individual string players occasionally move to the forefront, but for the most part the work showcases the ensemble playing of the strings-heavy Camerata Philadelphia. The two-movement In Praise of Reason distances itself from the Pavanne by featuring the CA’s hornists, Trish Giangiulio and Jonathan Clark, prominently, even if the primary focal point is the cello of Framil, for whom the work was composed. Despite its instrumental design, a political dimension is present as Grill wrote the piece during the weeks leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, the composer despairing of the lack of reason witnessed in the political discourse and musing on how much better the world would be if the logic found in music could be carried over to other parts of life. The resultant work isn’t bleak, however, Grill opting instead to inspire by infusing his material with a hopeful, uplifting spirit.

While its musical character is complementary, Mystical Songs parts company with the other three pieces in two ways, in featuring singing, first, but also in its structure, which sees vocal and instrumental parts alternating. As mentioned, the work was composed for Deubner, but Yu’s singing leaves as strong a mark, especially when it’s the only time vocals appear on the release. In his selection of poems by Rielo, Grill purposefully chose ones that share common images—birds and trees, for example—that symbolically convey a sense of wonder about nature’s beauty. Whereas the instrumental sections are distinguished by Deubner’s artistry, the four vocal movements are elevated by Yu’s radiant voice. Texts (in Spanish with English translation) for the songs are included with the release, but chances are you’ll likely more fixate on her vocal delivery than the words she’s singing. Regardless, Grill’s music provides the soloists and the Camerata Philadelphia with splendid material to work with, and he in turn is well-served by the conviction the participants bring to the performances.
May 2020