Donald Sur – Berceuse for Violin and Piano
Although composer Donald Sur (1936-1999) merited an obituary in The New York Times published the same month that NewMusicBox launched (May 1999), being able to hear his music—both during his life and since—has been a privilege only for the lucky few who were able to attend the all-too infrequent live performances of his works. Having a particularly curious nature, I would try to dig for more information every now and then over the years and managed to learn a bit more about him than the scant obit narrated, but still came up empty in the auditory gratification department. The Times mentioned a work called The Slavery Documents which, turns out, is a massive work for chorus and orchestra that was commissioned and premiered in Boston’s Symphony Hall by David Hoose and the Cantata Singers—the same forces that commissioned and premiered Peter Child’s Estrella and John Harbison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flight Into Egypt, both works that have long been available on New World Records. In fact, Sur’s work garnered significant critical praise and along with those two other works was intended to be something of a trilogy, which makes it all the more baffling that there has never been a commercially released recording of it.
After more digging, I learned that Sur studied the ukulele as a child and that his favorite instrument was the mandolin. Without ever hearing a note I was completely smitten. But it was totally love in vain until last month when Albany Records finally released an entire CD devoted to Donald Sur, which is partly conducted by David Hoose. And hopefully this long overdue release will begin to redress his music’s many decades of neglect.
Of course, you’re probably saying to yourself by now, “This is a somewhat interesting story, but maybe the actual music isn’t any good.” Nothing could be further from the truth, if the eight works featured herein are any indication. And their range is even more remarkable.
Among the earliest works represented on the disc are three very short compositions each titled Catena which span the years 1961 to 1976. While they are all very much in the same spirit as the post-Webernian austerity so common to University-based music of that time (Sur actually earned a PhD in music composition from Harvard in 1972), these aphoristic works are somehow less unapproachable than much contemporaneous composition since all of the pieces include some impressive bongo licks and two of the three prominently feature Sur’s beloved mandolin. And the way Sur uses the mandolin’s plucked string sonority also ties these works to Sur’s Asian heritage (his parents were Korean and Sur himself spent several years in Korea doing fieldwork before landing at Harvard).
In total contrast, Red Dust feels massive. But while its forces are significant, the 20-movement score of the most Korean-sounding work in this collection of Sur’s music calls for a percussion ensemble of 29 players, some of whom are asked to occasionally perform percussive grunts on non-percussive instruments such as trumpet and conch shell. But that said, none of its movements is longer than 40 seconds and the moments flow into each other and form a seamless tapestry of primal rhythms.
But fast forward to the bizarre 1980 A Neo-Platonic Epistrophe While Crossing Times Square, scored for the same forces as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), and we’ve entered a totally different sonic world. Here Sur reintroduces tonality and even something of a ragtime lilt, albeit in a totally surreal way. There is simply no way to predict from one moment to the next where the harmonic progressions are going, if anywhere.
Its companion piece, the subsequent full-on Pierrot scored Satori on Park Avenue from 1984 takes Sur even further into dysfunctional tonality. The whole piece seems to flitter around a four-note ostinato which according to the disc’s booklet notes is actually lifted from the popular Vincent Youmans song “Tea for Two.” I’m not completely sure I would have deduced that on my own, but once I learned that information it was hard not to hear it.
From that same period comes The Unicorn and the Lady, for narrator, ensemble and slide projections. It’s the heftiest work on the current collection—slightly over 20 minutes in duration and featuring 12 movements each scored for a different instrumental combination. (Sur was not always the most practical composer.) Unicorn takes its inspiration from a set of 18th century hunting calls and a collection of tapestries housed at the Cloisters in New York City. Sur’s own music emerged after spent a long period of time editing and engraving those hunting calls. Unfortunately the slide projections, which display images of the Cloisters tapestries are not included on this audio-only CD, although luckily the CD booklet cover reproduces one of the images resulting in one of Albany’s comeliest covers.
But after all the sonic adventures contained on this disc I find myself most drawn to Sur’s Berceuse for violin and piano, which oddly is by leaps and bounds the most conventional. Berceuse—composed during his losing fight with cancer—was to be his last composition and it received its premiere only three months before Sur’s death. Taking the tonal leanings of Epistrophe and Satori and going over a cliff with them, Sur has here composed his most heartachingly beautiful music, seemingly light years removed from the vagaries of our times, or any worldly time for that matter. To my ears, it’s on par with my favorite moments in similarly scored music by Brahms and Debussy and could be favorably compared to any of the so-called greatest masterpieces for this standard chamber music duo. The fact that it hasn’t already become standard repertoire is further proof of how behind the times the arbiters of taste in classical music continue to be. But thanks to this loving performance by Catherine French and Christopher Oldfather, the rest of us no longer need be informed.
Overall, judging from the contents of the present disc, Donald Sur might one day emerge as one of the forgotten masters of the second half of the 20th century. History sometimes has a funny way of righting wrongs—look at the Morton Feldman renaissance of the last decade that’s still going strong. (This month Mode finally issued Feldman’s late great Piano Trio). But it seems like we still have a long way to go with Sur. For starters, where’s The Slavery Documents? Still, for the time being, it’s great to finally hear some of Donald Sur’s music and shine some light on him in NewMusicBox.