American composer Steven R. Gerber has achieved his greatest success, oddly enough, in Russia, and the venerable St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony plays his very American music as though to the manner born (although the strings are less than silken in the highest notes). Among the hundreds of concert works that engage with the raw material of the African-American spiritual, Gerber's is unique. In his own words, his Spirituals for String Orchestra "are not arrangements, but new works inspired by the original songs." Further, "[m]y intent was neither to deconstruct the original material nor to treat it ironically, but simply to pay homage to its beauty by creating new compositions out of it." What this means in structural terms is that Gerber neither quotes entire tunes nor reduces them to abstract motivic or intervallic content. Instead he selects a specific detail that carries something of the mood of the whole, and extends it into a compact form -- with the exception of the first one, all the spirituals are quite short. Not all the pieces are based on actual African-American spirituals at all: the first piece, "Homage to Dvorák," draws on the spiritual-like first-movement theme from the "New World" Symphony, whose authorship by African-American singer Harry T. Burleigh is nowhere near as settled as Gerber makes it out to be, and "Amazing Grace Notes" combines material from "Amazing Grace" (not a true spiritual, either, although it certainly entered African-American tradition) with a detail of a work by John Harbison. Nevertheless, Gerber captures something intangible about the spirituals: a weightiness, a melodic density that evokes great depths. The concise forms of the Spirituals suit Gerber ideally; the two short concertos that round out the disc are more diffuse although flattering to the soloists, violinists José Miguel Cueto and Natalia Malkova, and clarinetist Jon Manasse. Anyone interesting in the continuing musical and, well, spiritual ramifications of the African-American spirituals should hear Gerber's entirely original take on them.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Spirituals for string orchestra|
|Serenade Concertante, for 2 violins, harp & string orchestra|