Gernot Wolfgang: Passing Through
Albany Records

Following Common Ground (2006) and Short Stories (2011), Passing Through is the third collection of chamber recordings by Gernot Wolfgang, who received his formal training at Boston's Berklee College of Music and the University of Music in Graz, Austria and whose works have been performed in the US and Europe by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and the Las Vegas Philharmonic, among others; the Austria-born and LA-based composer also works as an orchestrator in the film and TV industries.

As indicated by its Groove-Oriented Chamber Music, Vol. 3 subtitle, Passing Through's contemporary classical settings draw upon the syncopated rhythmic drive of jazz, as well as other non-classical forms. Wolfgang demonstrates a special gift for integrating the styles in these pieces; never does the jazz-classical blend feel contrived, as if one has been artificially grafted onto the other, and in a wise and circumspect move, he offsets rhythm-focused passages with those of a slower and more tranquil disposition, a case in point the pensive central movement of Trilogy, “Another Life,” which was inspired by the film Sliding Doors.

Though the opening movement of String Theory is an homage to Bartók, it's Stravinsky who more comes to mind when the album's pieces share a number of qualities with his own chamber works: their strong melodic dimension, rhythms that draw from jazz as much as classical, and striking instrument combinations; it's rare to hear a work scored for oboe and bassoon, as the album's title work is, but the effect is refreshing. That Stravinsky connection is clearly intimated, to cite one instance, during its opening movement, “Bounce,” in the nimble interplay between the two woodwinds.

In featuring a jazz dimension and vivid contrasts between its three sections, the three-minute overture Flurry serves as both an effective template and microcosm for the album. During the introductory unison part, Nic Gerpe's piano playing exudes an Ellington-like swing, while the central section opts for a meditative bassoon-centered episode before the coda resurrects the animated spirit of the intro. That pronounced jazz dimension surfaces throughout until Trilogy, written in 1998-1999 and scored for oboe, bassoon, and piano, brings the sixty-six-minute collection to a close. Though, as mentioned, String Theory's opening movement is titled with Bartók in mind, it sounds as indebted to Bernard Herrmann for the Psycho-like aggressiveness of its stabbing string patterns. But, here as elsewhere, Wolfgang sidesteps one-dimensionality by juxtaposing propulsive and restful sequences.

His choice of programmatic titles in place of conventional designations enhances the music's evocative potential. In String Theory, for instance, the New Hollywood String Quartet's pizzicato playing in “Cartwheels” certainly does convey some of the gymnastic quality of body movement, whereas the contemplative character of “Northern Lights” captures something of the awe-inspiring impact of the phenomenon. His piano quintet setting, New England Travelogue, takes this to a further extreme in titling its four movements after places he visited over the years, including “Vineyard Reggae” for Martha's Vineyard and “Inman Square” in memory of jazz clubs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While the performances are all first-rate, special mention must be made of the playing of oboist Jennifer Johnson and bassoonist Judith Farmer in the title work and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and the Eclipse Quartet in New England Travelogue; the sensitivity they bring to Wolfgang's material brings it to vivid and expressive life. Adding to the release's appeal, notes about the works by the composer have been included for those in want of elaborate background detail.

October 2016