Astral Travels

David Arend

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Astral Travels Review

by James Manheim

Astral Travels offers a pair of concertos, one for double bass and orchestra and the other for double bass, tenor saxophone, and orchestra, by California-based composer David Arend. The title applies to both works, referring to different senses of the word "astral": Voyager: Three Sheets to the Wind refers to the journeys of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, while Sequoia Sempervirens, the double bass concerto, evokes the spiritual connotations of the term. Arend is a gifted pictorialist: Sequoia Sempervirens depicts not only the ambience of Northern California's forests, solemn yet full of life, but also, in Arend's words, "forest energies through the night and into morning." Little orchestral motifs flash through the orchestral pillars of sound, equally well representing mental energies, light flashing through the trees, and life on the forest floor. But the most remarkable aspect of Arend's work here is not its representational quality, but its novel fusion of concert music and jazz. This appears in Sequoia Sempervirens in the improvised double bass cadenzas, but is more elaborated in Voyager: Three Sheets to the Wind, whose title refers to the work's three-movement structure. Arend, joined by tenor saxophonist Salim Washington, devises movement forms in which the relationship between jazz and compositionally specified music is not the point of the piece in and of itself, but integrally contributes to the overall mode of expression. Jazz improvisation is introduced (it is not always possible to determine exactly where, which is a testimony to the depth of Arend's fusion) as the music develops, and it represents motion, the development of a journey, the introduction of uncertainty as the journey proceeds. The second movement, "The Grand Tour," is in five parts, the first entitled "Escape Velocity" (sample this one for a rough idea of how Arend treats the jazz component), and the rest each corresponding to a planet from Jupiter to a sparse, quiet Neptune. The finale, "Interstellar Space," establishes a static jazz pattern before concluding with a sort of space-age Copland sound. Both these works let you imagine what might have happened if Copland in his old age had let himself come to terms with what jazz was about instead of conforming to the serialist diktat, and both are highly recommended. The Czech Republic's Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky (Sequoia Sempervirens) and Jiri Petrdlik (Voyager) acquits itself very well in what must have been unfamiliar situations.

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