The Name of the Game

I was speaking with a composer colleague a number of years ago, and remarked that the music of Richard Wernick is exceptionally under-appreciated. My friend thought for a moment, then replied, with some vehemence, “we’re all under-appreciated!” Well, that’s true, but more than some, Wernick’s music truly does deserve wider recognition and performance.

Not that he has been lacking for first-class advocates. The opening piece on Bridge’s most recent CD of his music is a horn quintet performed by no less than William Purvis and the Juilliard Quartet. The flavor of the harmony and the bustling texture of the work’s opening suggest Schoenberg, although frankly Wernick’s harmony makes more sense to my ear than that of the earlier master. Furthermore, the contrasting quieter sections in Wernick’s music have a stillness and meditative repose (though never static) that is foreign to Schoenberg’s expressive palette. I remember reading a record review years ago about Wernick’s first piano sonata, (recorded by Lambert Orkis for Bridge) in which the reviewer connected Wernick’s music with that of Morton Feldman. That reviewer was way off target, as Wernick is vitally interested in the meaningful pattern making that Feldman seems to studiously avoid. Rather than Feldman, I connect Wernick’s most inward moments with the crystalline slow movements that are sometimes found in the music of Ralph Shapey; I know Wernick admired the older composer’s work tremendously,

The CD also offers the Colorado Quartet playing Wernick’s Sixth Quartet. This is darkly intense music, as befits its impetus: a memorial work for a cousin of Wernick named Henry Levy who worked for forty years as a field executive for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. According to Wernick’s program note, Henry Levy was an extraordinary man, unstinting in his service to Jewish refugees from both Nazi and Communist regimes. Even after his retirement, Levy continued to support Jewish causes financially and eventually left the bulk of his assets to universities in Israel. Wernick honors this remarkable individual with a tightly focussed single movement work, entirely derived from a powerful unison opening.

The last major work on the disc, The Name of the Game, is for guitar and 11 players. David Starobin, creator of Bridge Records, is the featured soloist in this piece, originally written for Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, and here performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), with Cliff Colnot conducting. Starobin is responsible for encouraging hundreds of composers (including Crumb, Carter, Davidovsky, Rouders, Foss, Schuller and Babbitt) to create new works with guitar, and Wernick honors him in a time-hallowed manner by deriving his musical material from the letters of Starobin’s name that correspond to musical pitches: D; A; vi; D; S (German “es”); and so forth. Starobin’s performance is typically virtuosic, full of varied colors, and Wernick draws a similarly kaleidoscopic array of sounds from the ensemble. Two short solo works played by Starobin round out the disc.

Although the charming picture on the cover of this CD shows Wernick tossing sheet music to the wind, he is not interested in randomly scattering notes – rather, what Richard Wernick accomplishes, through painstaking craft and deeply expressive intensity, is to give his music flight.

One thought on “The Name of the Game

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