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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Eliesha Nelson, Permutations, with James Howsmon

Afro-Americans who devote their careers to classical-modern classical seem rather rare in terms of what I have been exposed to of late. It seems to me that there should be more and perhaps I am not exposed to them. In the 20th and this century we have had our share of composers of note, some wonderful opera stars, but instrumental soloists of stature sadly I have been exposed to rather few. Perhaps it is a vagaries of chance that has made me miss some, but I cannot be sure.

An exception today most certainly can be found in violist Eliesha Nelson, whose viola and piano recital Permutations (Sono Luminus 92186) is just out. James Howsmon accompanies her quite ably as they embark on some pretty spectacular performances of five American or Americana-related compositions in a modern vein.

Some of the composers will be familiar to many readers, others perhaps not. All give us a varied and interesting program that Eliesha dives into with virtuoso fire and elan.

Ross Lee Finney (1906-1997) is from an earlier generation of modernists. His "Second Sonata for Viola and Piano" performed well here reminds us that his rhythmically lively and melodically vital music still sounds well, especially in the hands of Ms. Nelson.

Jeffrey Mumford (b. 1955) provides a brief work, "Wending," scored for unaccompanied viola with an intricate and starkly beautiful sound that employs multi-stops and open string harmonies that flesh out the very fluid melody line. Ms. Nelson makes of it a smoothly articulate wholeness in a most beautiful way.

George Walker (b. 1922) has been one of the most brilliant Afro-American composers in our world and his "Sonata for Viola and Piano" gives us some memorable music that exemplifies why. There is a poignant modern lyrical side of him here, which grows into some rhythmically propulsive music well conceived and performed with an intelligent zest, then blossoms in the second movement with a searching, yearning passion that is unsentimental and thoroughly advanced in its edgy tonality.

Russian Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937) gives us a lively jazz inflected "Sonata for Viola and Piano" which ingeniously combines old jazz and new into a thoroughly modern classical framework. This is most certainly a work Ms. Nelson dives into with exciting drive, a precise but very incandescent attack. It is the sort of music where composer and soloist bring much to the sound and meet for a superb result. There is a vital liveliness that is most exhilarating to hear. The final movement is especially fine, almost ferocious in its soulful post-stride tumultuousness. Ms. Nelson and Mr. Howson give it a real spin!

Finally John McLaughlin Williams contributes his "Two Pieces for Viola Solo." He is a celebrated figure of late as conductor and musical director, winning several Grammy Awards, but shows us here a more intimate chamber personality. The music is rather haunting and comes across with real beauty and expressive elation in Ms. Nelson's hands.

Throughout James Howsmon is impeccable and matches Ms. Nelson phrase-for-phrase in his well-thought-out wholistic approach to each of the piano parts. Eliesha has a beautifully hard-edged tone which has more in common with the violin of Joseph Szigeti than Joshua Heifetz; she evinces great character and power more so than sweetness and rhapsodism. The repertoire here is just right for her characteristic tone personality and it all very much comes across with excitement and strength.

This is vital music. Eliesha Nelson is a vital artist. I am impressed and very pleased with this album. You with the contemporary in your blood will no doubt feel the same way! Oh I should mention that this release, like many of the Sono Luminus ones, comes as a regular CD and a 5:1 surround Blue Ray disk, all in one package.

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