Dello Joio Piano Concerto Ohlsson Bridge 9583

Justin Dello Joio (b.1955)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra ‘Oceans Apart’ (2022)
Due Per Due for cello and piano (2011)
Blue and Gold Music for organ and brass (2009?)
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Alan Gilbert
Carter Brey (cello), Christopher O’Reilly (piano)
American Brass Quintet, Colin Fowler (organ)
rec. 2009-23, Riverside Church, New York; American Academy of Arts and Letters New York; 2023 Symphony Hall, Boston
Bridge Records 9583 [40]

This is the first music by Justin Dello Joio that I have heard. The three works presented here are diverse in style and expression, so I imagine they can act as a good introduction to this composer’s work. The only shame is that Bridge Records has only used 40:10 of the CD’s capacity.

The disc opens with the most recent and longest work offered here; the Piano Concerto ‘Oceans Apart’ completed in late 2022 and premiered in January 2023. The recording given here is taken from two of the three premiere performances it received given by long-term friend and colleague of Dello Joio; Garrick Ohlsson with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert. Given the stature of the performers, it comes as no surprise to learn that the performance is wholly convincing, technically brilliant and musically confident. There is no audience noise or ensemble slips – until the enthusiastic applause at the end of the recording, I was not aware of the concert provenance of the recording. In the liner the composer explains the title “Oceans Apart” in two ways; “There is my sense of astonishment at the immensity, the oceanic vastness, of the polarization of our time. People seem to be moving irreparably apart…. the gulf between sides is vast and difficult to comprehend”. He then explains a second metaphor; “Writing this piece conjured in my mind the unlikely images of big wave surfers; one person surrounded – nearly consumed – by the daunting force and fury of these massive 100-foot walls of water. That scale feels akin to the relationship of a piano soloist and the force of a large symphony orchestra”.

The concerto is a dense and compact work, running to a single movement span of 19:12. The sense of conflict, whether between people and ideologies or man and nature, is evident throughout. This is restless, troubled music with an aggressive energy that rarely if ever finds calm, let alone resolution. In the note Dello Joio mentions the use of a tritone as a key musical building-block. This “devil’s interval” has long represented instability and lack of resolution in music, so its use here is both a neat metaphor and a practical musical tool. As mentioned above, Garrick Ohlsson is a hugely impressive guide through this demanding work – Dello Joio was inspired to write a concerto for him in the light of his previous promotion of the composer’s work, including an earlier [partial] disc for Bridge of solo keyboard works. The Boston players under Alan Gilbert are equally alert and responsive to this far from straight-forward score. The opening immediately introduces the tritone from a quiet but oppressive orchestral mist. Gradually the momentum of the music builds with the solo keyboard a near ever-present instigator and from around the 5:00 mark until the closing two or so minutes the music does seem to represent a conflict between implacable ‘enemies’ represented by soloist and orchestra. Not that there is any resolution found, with the work ultimately collapsing down to exhausted silence. The engineering of this live performance is very impressive – Ohlsson’s intricate keyboard part is always audible without seeming inflated and likewise the complex and sometimes thick scoring of the orchestra registers with textural and rhythmic clarity. The recording made in Symphony Hall was overseen by the Boston Symphony’s own engineer which explains the success given their experience of recording the orchestra in that space. Given that I do not know any other orchestral works by Dello Joio I have no way of knowing how typical this is of his style and aesthetic. For sure this is not comfortable music, but it is a compelling and unflinching portrait of the world in which we live.

Due per Due dates from more than a decade earlier and is – as the title suggests – two pieces for two players – here a cello and piano. Cellist Carter Brey [principal of the New York PO since 1996] appeared on the earlier Bridge disc as well which was released in 2007 so four years before the composition and recording of this work. Again, I can imagine Della Joio must be thrilled by the high level of skill, commitment and musicianship displayed by both Brey and pianist Christopher O’Reilly. Again restlessness, emotional as much as physical, seems to be a prevailing characteristic. The first piece, Elegia: To an Old Musician. The “old musician” is Dello Joio’s father, the composer Norman Dello Joio who died in 2008. The liner is a little confusing as the text says the work was composed in 2009, but the back cover recording details say “completed 2011”. Whatever the truth of that, this is a lyrical and heartfelt piece that is played here with great feeling and insight. The second movement is a demanding Moto Perpetuo that makes extreme rhythmic and technical demands of both players. There is a genuine equality between both instruments and again the engineering unfussily captures this well. Although the liner makes no reference to this, I did wonder if there are a couple of deliberate fleeting references to other works. There is a melodic phrase in the Elegia that sounds as if it is alluding to something else whereas in the Moto Perpetuo a ‘DSCH’ related motif hovers in the background more than once.

The disc is completed by the 7:33 long Blue and Gold Music for Brass Quintet and Organ. The combination of brass and organ is always effective and so it proves here. The mood of this work is quite different from the other two, as befits its commissioning to celebrate and memorialise both the headmaster of Trinity School in New York City and the school’s tricentennial. The dynamism and energy present in this work – and again executed quite brilliantly by the American Brass Quintet and organist Colin Fowler – is more buoyant and good-natured than that present in the other works. Again, the engineering is very successful at achieving a believable balance between the very contrasting instruments within a generous church acoustic. The work is framed by the use of a “zimbelstern” stop on the organ. Literally meaning cymbal-star, these are unpitched bells which ‘twinkle’ very appealingly. My only performing thought is wondering how common this stop is on organs. Not only is this an instantly attractive and appealing work, it helps give the new listener to Dello Joio’s work a sense of his range and compositional diversity. Curiously the liner recording details suggests that the work was; “completed June 10 2009, recorded Jan 10 2009[!]” and elsewhere says it was premiered in October 2008.

Running to just 40:10 does seem like short measure, especially when this disc appears to be only one of three that are devoted to Dello Joio’s music. But that said, all three pieces receive wholly compelling and skilled performances, which are well documented in the liner alongside well-engineered and produced recordings. As such, it must be considered an attractive and impressive introduction to Dello Joio’s work.

Nick Barnard

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