yMusic: Balance Problems
New Amsterdam Records

Don't be thrown by the title of yMusic's follow-up to 2011's  Beautiful Mechanical: if there's one thing that doesn't characterize the sextet's sophomore release, it's problems of balance. More to the point, the NY-based chamber ensemble's playing is earmarked by an exquisite degree of balance in the way the album's eight pieces showcase each of yMusic's members—Rob Moose (violin, guitar), CJ Camerieri (trumpet), Clarice Jensen (cello), Alex Sopp (flute), Hideaki Aomori (clarinet), and Nadia Sirota (viola)—in equally compelling manner. Certainly part of the credit for that must go to Son Lux who, having composed the title track on the group's debut, now dons the producer's hat for Balance Problems, which features compositions by Timo Andres, Marcos Balter, Mark Dancigers, Nico Muhly, Andrew Norman, Sufjan Stevens, and Jeremy Turner.

All eight settings are executed with remarkable finesse by the musicians, and the listener comes away from the forty-seven-minute recording struck by how thoroughly accessible its contents are. Throughout the disc, dissonance and abrasiveness are downplayed in favour of music that's melodious and harmonious, and histrionics of any kind are absent. It's almost as if the composers collectively decided beforehand that the pieces they'd write for the album would all be easy on the ears; at the same time, their pieces are sophisticated and nuanced examples of contemporary chamber music whose integrity isn't compromised by accessibility.

Muhly's opening title track begins with a horn flourish perhaps intentionally designed to evoke Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo, after which “Balance Problems” exudes a querulous wonderment and stylistic splendour reminiscent of John Adams' 1985 work Harmonielehre (a few moments also call Nixon in China to mind). Muhly's composition proves to be a perfect fit for yMusic, given how its energized flow grants all six of the players multiple avenues of expression. In contrast to the high-spirited rambunction of Muhly's piece, Turner's “The Bear & The Squirrel” is plaintive in spirit and funereal in mood, but it's also beautifully rendered by the musicians, who execute Turner's delicate material with sensitivity. Elevated by gorgeous writing for strings and woodwinds, Dancigers's luscious moodscape “Everness” benefits from a similarly nuanced reading. Slightly less satisfying is Stevens' piece, which is somewhat derivative by comparison. Whereas the other composers contribute works that embody their own distinct personae, “The Human Plague,” with its shuddering waves of strings and woodwinds, can't help but evoke Music For 18 Musicians, even if evidence of minimalism's influence surfaces in other pieces, too.

While an overall balance between the musicians largely reigns, there are times when a particular player is highlighted. Balter's entrancing “Bladed Stance,” for example, brings Sopp's flute playing to the forefront, whereas the opening part of Norman's “Music in Circles” gives the spotlight to rapid string flurries before part two sees the music blossom into full ensemble performance. yMusic also often makes its sextet configuration resemble a much larger ensemble. There are passages during Andres' “Safe Travels,” for example, when the music swells in a manner that suggests a small orchestra at work, and much the same can be said of yMusic's playing elsewhere. On a final note, the package includes little by way of background info on the compositions, which leaves the listener sometimes puzzling over the connection between a title and its content. Perhaps yMusic simply decided that the music and the performances should speak for themselves. The group's not far wrong on that count, as Balance Problems communicates powerfully, with or without supplemental detail.

October 2014