Ezra Laderman: Allegro from the Ninth Quartet, Alianza String Quartet
from The Music of Ezra Laderman, Volumes 1-9 (Albany Troy 1192)
Ezra Laderman has been a major behind-the-scenes force in American music for many decades. Generations of composers have studied composition with him, first at Binghamton University and later at Yale, where he still teaches and where he also served as dean for the entire School of Music in the early 1990s. A tireless advocate for the field at large, Laderman has additionally been president of both the American Music Center and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the head of music programs at the National Endowment of the Arts. But perhaps as a result of all of this work helping other composers, Laderman’s own compositions have not been in the public consciousness as much as they should be.
However, over the past decade, Albany Records has released a total of nine CDs devoted to the music of Ezra Laderman, all in compelling performances that were personally supervised by him. And in late June, in honor of Laderman’s 86th birthday, they issued all nine volumes together in a deluxe boxed set. The material featured herein, while devoted exclusively to Laderman’s chamber music, spans an extremely broad range of musical invention as well as chronology and can serve as a relatively thorough overview of Laderman’s compositional trajectory thus far.
This hefty package, which clocks in at slightly over nine hours of music, features a total of 27 separate pieces of music, although there are a few groups of works that were conceived collectively. To briefly sum up the contents of the box: The first volume encompasses the Second Piano Sonata, a Duo for Violin and Cello, and a Duo for Cello and Piano, while the second volume is mostly devoted to violin/piano duos with the addition of a single-movement solo cello Fantasia. Volume 3 offers three interrelated string quartets: 6, 7, and 8—Laderman has composed a total of 12—while volume 4 is devoted to a trilogy of works for multiple cellos, an instrumental configuration that has inspired composers ranging from Heitor Villa Lobos to Julius Eastman. In Laderman’s hands, the ensemble frequently sounds Mahlerian. Volume 5 offers perhaps the most unusual program of the series: a striking bassoon concerto (presented in a chamber music reduction), a sextet, and the 10 Violin Duets from 1998. The sixth volume pairs Laderman’s two piano trios, composed nearly forty years apart, with his extensive Scenes from an Imagined Life, which, like Olivier Messiaen’s celebrated Quartet for the End of Time, adds a clarinet to the violin/cello/piano configuration. Parsed into two “books”, Scenes from an Imagined Life is a remarkably rich composition. The sixth movement of the first book, in particular, is achingly beautiful. Volume 7 is devoted exclusively to solo piano music, the lion’s share of which is devoted to the massive Third Sonata. The eighth volume offers another concerto in reduced orchestration—the Clarinet Concerto from 1991—along with Celestial Bodies for flute and string quartet, and the Duetti for Flute and Clarinet. The final volume offers three more string quartets—9, 11, and 12—which Laderman, in a booklet note he wrote expressly for this recording, has described as the final ones he “will ever compose.”
It’s a lot of music to absorb, but it’s well worth the effort. And, to guide you on the journey, there is an extensive program note included for each of the compositions. The first six volumes feature notes by composer Harold Meltzer and the final two by Susan Hawkshaw, who conducted the interview with Laderman for Yale’s Oral History American Music Project; the remaining volume (No. 7) has notes by Laderman himself. In addition, in all of the volumes for which Laderman does not offer his own annotations, he offers a pithy autobiographical reminiscence, so his voice is always present. These essays roughly correspond to the various photos of Laderman which appear on the volumes’ covers, beginning with a childhood portrait at the piano and ending with a recent photo of him again at the piano. While the music on the discs doesn’t always correspond to the period of his life he is reminiscing about, the effect of reading about his life and hearing all the music he has created through the years is ultimately a cumulative experience.
Still, despite its largesse, this series only scratches the surface of Laderman’s extremely prolific output, which also includes a great deal of orchestra music: numerous concertos and a total of eight symphonies. Years ago an all-Laderman disc containing his First Violin Concerto was issued by the Louisville Orchestra; it is material well worthy of a re-issue in the future. Laderman also composed several operas, among them one based on the life of Marilyn Monroe that was derided by critics at its premiere; but, like so much new music, with hindsight it might prove worthy of a re-assessment. Therefore the complete absence of any vocal music whatsoever on this series is quite frustrating. As is the inclusion of only six of his twelve string quartets herein; that particular lacuna is made all the more irritating by the fascinating description of the Fifth Quartet in the booklet notes for volume three, a work not recorded there (or anywhere else, for that matter). However, even as it stands, such a generous offering of a single living composer’s output offers listeners an opportunity that is all too rare. Heard altogether, Laderman’s oeuvre retains a consistency of voice in a period spanning six decades. As Meltzer has noted in his accompanying essay for the very first volume, “Laderman found a way to choose both […] rigor and accessibility.” While his earliest mature works were a by-product of the twelve-tone method, he never veered too far away from tonal sensibilities and eventually reverted back to tonality full force, without eschewing the expressive possibilities offered by composing in post-tonal idioms. As Laderman has remarked in Volume 6:
[M]y compositions have embraced a pluralism of musical gesture. It is the path taken. A path taken not with the intention of making a different sound, but a good sound—one that was mine. […] I have never agreed that “new” translates to important. I have simply wanted to extend the Western canon with my own voice. I didn’t have to “make it American.” I am an American…
This pluralism manifests itself through to the final volume of the series. The three string quartets featured herein, despite all being clearly identifiable as the work of the same composer, are remarkably different in how they are organized. The lush and relatively expansive Twelfth Quartet—after all, he has declared it to be his last—contains movements within movements filled with sweeping melodies, whereas the Eleventh mostly explores just two, albeit extremely different, musical ideas—slithery glissandos and a firm, somewhat brooding three-note motive—all within a tautly-packed single movement. The Ninth, which resonates the most with me, also juxtaposes contrasting material, but does so in a series of six mostly short movements. There is so much going on in all of this music, and ultimately it is music whose only agenda is itself.