Composer, pianist, and teacher James Adler, who plays the Yamaha concert grand piano, was deservedly celebrated by Yamaha Artist Services, Inc. (YASI), for the release of his Albany Records CD “Introspections,” with a welcome and varied performance, at YASI piano salon on November 3. Played here was music, both from the CD and not, by Adler as well as written for him by other composers, and there were several premieres. Adler was at the Yamaha keyboard for all pieces and was joined by other musicians—some familiar from the CD and one who was not—for many of them.
The evening began with works written expressly for Adler by his colleagues, a great tribute to him and to them. The late Paul Turok’s “Tango for James Adler”—which is not on this CD, though Turok’s Clarinet Sonata is—is a lilting and soaring, angular, and passionate piece that sometimes demands that the pianist’s left hand cross over the right. The two of Seth Bedford’s “Three Postcards for Piano,” on the CD, played here, and evoking the early 20th century, were the bright and propulsive “Pike-Pine March,” which Bedford has described as suggesting music for a silent movie car chase, and “Beneath the Moonlight Tower,” as moodily romantic as an excerpt from an early 19th century Italian bel canto opera, but with a ragtime slant. Kevin Cummines wrote his “Three Works for James Adler,” the first of two memorial pieces included here and on the disc, after the death of his HIV-positive partner Kyle Spidle from meningitis, as a “thank-you gift for [Adler’s] tremendous support and care.” The “Toccata,” suffused with anger and sorrow, also called for the pianist’s left hand to cross over the right. In “Torque,” noble, mournful suffering predominated. “Termination” dealt with the survivor’s resolution—life continues, though changed, sometimes slowed, and with the agonizing still readily apparent.
The program continued with Adler’s own music, starting with the world premiere of a piece that is not from the CD and continuing with the local premiere of one that is. Emerson Head played his Yamaha Xeno B-flat trumpet in the new “Trumpet Lullaby,” one of two Adler works here marked by bitonality, that is, requiring the soloist to sound two notes at once, as well as by some rather blue notes. The work is indeed “Lilting and Gentle,” as indicated, but almost warily so. The idea of having a trumpet play a lullaby did put me in mind of the likes of stentorian Ethel Merman singing one, as she did indeed in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” where one of her songs was “Moonshine Lullaby”—talk about successfully writing against type: in both Berlin and Adler’s cases!
Adler wrote “Psalm for Michael,” the second memorial piece here and on the CD, a work new to New York, in response to his brother’s death and to that of their mother, and for it, Adler was joined by oboist Virginia Brewer and cellist Eugene Moye, Jr. With deepest emotion, the music mourned the losses, but also served to soothe.
Next we heard the second contemporary, driven and impassioned tango of the evening, Adler’s “Twisted Tango,” for tenor saxophone, played by David Babich, and piano. It also called for bitonality from a wind instrument, evoking different hues and divergent moods, joy and the blues, almost in a jazz style, evident in Babich and Adler’s duet and in the solo saxophone cadenza, written by Babich.
The final work from the CD, the one inspiring its title, was “3 Introspections,” the sole vocal work, for baritone, oboe, and piano, having its live performance world premiere. At short notice, lyric baritone Will Berman replaced Malcolm J. Merriweather, who sings David Cote's words on the CD. Oboist Brewer and Adler, at the Yamaha keyboard, repeated their parts. “Insomniac” touchingly depicted the speaker’s vain attempt to fall asleep, where counting sheep definitely does not work, as weary singer and wakeful oboe insist. “I try counting sheep, but the sheep count me,” the insomniac sang. I flashed on Dorothy Parker’s story on the same subject “The Little Hours,” where she wrote, “all my life I’ve hated sheep … They needn’t think that I am going to lie here in the dark and count their unpleasant little faces for them.” Respite here came perhaps with the Instrumental Interlude for the oboe and piano. In “Conservation,” the singer contemplated venerable damaged artwork, due for restoration, and came to a rueful realization that his work—“What I restore I re-create, I deface, I replace”—itself constitutes a sort of vandalism to the art.
Adler concluded with a timely Halloween treat, not from the “Introspections” recording, “Piano Fantasy on ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,’” a response to the Grand Guignol of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” as ferocious as Stephen Sondheim’s original.
Look for “Introspections” at www.albanyrecords.com
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