Highbrow Lonesome

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor
Appalachia Waltz
(Sony Classical)

Arvo Part
Litany
(ECM New Series)

Uh-oh. It's force-feeding time at the music trough again. Every so often, a clever mind from the classical kingdom decides to shove pop ideas up the genre's decidedly non-pop form. The results are often poorly planned, poorly executed drivel. Think of last year's attempt to put New Age woo-foo to Hildegard of Bingen's uncompromising 14th-century chants. Think, too, of the Three Tenors capping off an otherwise boffo evening of televised arias at the Met by stumbling through "New York, New York" for an uncomfortable Big Apple audience.

But not all crossover is the kiss of death. A new project--these things invariably are "projects"--from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Mark O'Connor and bassist/composer Edgar Meyer blissfully breeds classical constructs with, of all things, country-western fiddle music. And it works. The results make for a highbrow, high-lonesome sound of stunning beauty.

The CD, Appalachia Waltz, feels at first like a sequel to the PBS Civil War soundtrack, with the trio sawing away at a slew of mournful notes in minor keys. The sound is suitably folksy, but refined in a lofty, Aaron Copland kind of way. At best, as on "First Impressions," the music's mood hits like a sudden pulse of sadness on a sunny day. "First Impressions" is written by Meyer, who either pens or arranges most of the CD's songs. But it's O'Connor's considerable fiddle work that gives Appalachia Waltz its twang. The title cut, for example, is an O'Connor original that grabs hillbilly music's inherent introspection at its soul. O'Connor, a onetime whiz-kid fiddler, stretches out nicely while keeping the tone beautifully subdued and thoughtful.

Not that there's much chance of a hoe-down breaking out with Ma and Meyer in the mix. Ma, one of classical music's premier cellists of the past 25 years, is an artist as accomplished in experimental "projects" (check out his gold album Hush with the equally active Bobby McFerrin) as he is in more traditional settings. And Meyer, a much-admired and innovative bassist as well as a celebrated composer and pop/jazz dabbler, is also willing to venture from conventional frameworks. But he is clearly a classically minded composer. On "Mama," Meyer's bass notes lead a slow passage that opens up with brisk, minimalist tugs and pushes. The result is like the theme for an imaginary Western as envisioned by Philip Glass. Nice.

What's not so nice is when the highfalutin hybrid sound gets lazy and settles for simple country comforts. The trio's take on the old standard--and Popeye theme song--"College Hornpipe" comes off like a button-down hootenanny that wanders too close to hyuck-hyuck stuff. Better is the approach on the traditional "Star of the County Down." Here, O'Connor, Ma and Meyer blend the song's recognizable, old-time folksiness with a modern classical mindset, making for a somber and moving experience.

Appalachia Waltz is the most accessible and evocative classical recording of the year. It's a sturdy bridge from the nether regions of serious sounds to more familiar lands where music matters to the masses.

A similar case for accessible non-pop can be made for cult fave Arvo Part's latest release, Litany. It's an effort that's pure Part in the way the neoclassical sounds hover, glide and sometimes stall in an air of edgy meditation. An Estonian mystic, Part is deeply religious in a searching, contemplative way, and Litany works wonderfully in transposing his vision to music.

The CD opens with the title cut, a 23-minute piece made up of the 24-hourly prayers of St. John Chrysostom. Britain's trendy Hilliard Ensemble choral group, veterans of previous Part recordings, leads the way, the members' crystalline vocals presenting the prayers, one after the other, with a minimum of melody over empty spaces of sound. The Hilliards sing with steady, strident emotion, allowing the background music to build like a coming storm, the austerity occasionally giving way to a series of quick, sharp orchestral bursts. It's all nicely timed as it finally plays out to the operatic and eventful "Amen," a convincing climax made extra emphatic by its comparative boisterousness.

The CD's other two cuts are instrumentals, but they come equipped with typical Part pensiveness. "Psalom" is a seven-minute birthday dedication to Alfred Schlee, but we're not talking paper hats and pinatas here. The music moves quietly and cautiously behind a worried curtain of strings. The melody is gripping, made all the more so by its consistently suspenseful sense of contemplation. Must have been quite a birthday party.

The CD's final cut, "Trisagion," is equally apprehensive in tone, but also just as melodic. The music, by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, sways in varying degrees of insistence until a more forceful passage pops up halfway through. Part then furrows his brow for all of 90 seconds, followed by a return to the earlier undulations and their softer, more sober sentiments. The piece ends with another emotional rise, this one of beautiful, cascading strings. But even here there's a sense of nervousness in the way the most lilting of notes come up short. It's a convincing finish to a moving CD that should only further Part's reputation as the perfect mystic for the end of the millennium.

 
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