- David Feurzeig, Lingua Franca
(American Modern Recordings, CD, digital)
David Feurzeig's works on Lingua Franca — about equally distributed among solo cello, cello-and-double-bass duo, solo piano and solo viola — show a composer who deals in hilarity as easily as poignancy. An associate professor of music theory and composition at the University of Vermont, Feurzeig exudes a sense of fun that extends from disrupting the canon with a ragtime take on Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring to incorporating spoken recital — of consumer-product instructions, no less — into works for string duo.
The album opens with a five-movement solo cello sonata that gives little hint of the humor to come. By turns somber and eerie, the work is skillfully played by Brooks Whitehouse, who teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Brooks joins his colleague Paul Sharpe, a double bassist, to play the album's title work, Lingua Franca. The five movements take their inspiration from samples of English-language instructions written by non-native speakers for an elevator, an ice tray, chopsticks and so on. Feurzeig writes in a liner note that, with English now the world's common language (or lingua franca), native speakers are in a minority and "expert" usage is effectively a "dialect."
In "Chopstick Wrapper," recited lines taken from an actual chopstick wrapper become spoken poetry: "Please try your Nice Chinese Food with Chopsticks. the traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history. and cultural." The Eastern-sounding music, in this case, is "not authentically Chinese but Chinese Restaurant," Feurzeig specifies in his notes. In "Rice Noodle" and "Ice Tray," words are sung, making the combination of untrained voices and highly trained string playing both jarring and everyman-ish.
The heart of the album's everyman appeal is Homages for Solo Piano, played by Feurzeig. "Bélának a Blues-a (Bela's Blues)" evokes Béla Bartók with a hint of jazz. "Happy Birthday Martin" somehow combines two separate melodies, "We Shall Overcome" and "Happy Birthday," into one that's alternately wistful and rollicking. These pieces clarify why Feurzeig won Best New Rag from the Old-Time Music Preservation Association and a silver medal at the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest.
Mirroring its beginning, the album ends with the passionately played Sonata for Solo Viola — performed here by Daniel Panner, former principal violist of the New York City Opera and a guest with Juilliard, Flux and other quartets. The five movements once again show Feurzeig's capacity for shape-shifting: The gavotte is more Bachian than Johann Sebastian Bach; the final carol opens into an ethereally high riff on a single line from the traditional German Christmas carol "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." After all those comedic marriages of the vernacular and the serious, Feurzeig leaves listeners definitively in the land of new classical music, ears straining to hear the last fading high note.
Lingua Franca is available on iTunes.