Madeleine Mitchell

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FiddleSticks Review

by James Manheim

The title of this album refers to the rather unlikely combination of instrumental forces involved: the music is for violin and percussion ensemble, with Britain's Madeleine Mitchell and Ensemble Bash joining together to make it happen. There is one established modern work for these forces, Lou Harrison's Concerto for the Violin with Percussion Orchestra, which he quizzically dated 1959-1940. The album took shape as the players performed that work and decided to commission pieces by contemporary composers to go with it. Harrison's piece is even more of an east-meets-west affair than his other major works, with the percussion laying down textures strongly evocative of Indonesia's gamelan traditions but then interrupting itself with episodes that lead into long stretches of dissonant but lyrical melody on the violin -- Harrison said he was also influenced by Alban Berg's violin concerto in writing the work, and the whole thing has the intriguing flavor of a composer trying to make sense of the different stages of his own career. Mitchell and Ensemble Bash deliver a wonderful, live-wire performance of this work, without conductor, that seems to plunge the listener into Harrison's thought processes. What's curious is that the music takes a turn after the concerto ends and never quite returns to home base. Four British composers were asked to write music to go with Harrison's but really took on only the forces; the influences in their pieces center on Steve Reich, on the African traditions from which he drew, and, in the case of Stuart Jones' Gharnati, on Arab Andalusian music. The disc ends with a full-improvisation on Senegalese materials. Perhaps the most effective piece is Anne Dudley's Vermilion Rhapsody (the title, if not the music, is a Gershwin homage), which has something of Harrison's attempt to find a place for the violin in a percussive world: Dudley uses a lot of marimba and vibraphone, and she sets up the violin in such a way as to make it sound a bit like overtones from the percussion group, but not to the extent that it loses its lyrical soul. The other pieces somehow leave you thinking back to Harrison and the questions he raises -- they don't advance those questions, although they're engaging enough. The recording is fun to listen to, however; anyone can appreciate it, it's adventurous, and it'll get people talking. Contemporary recordings like that are always welcome.

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