THE EPONYMOUS OPENING SONG of Peter Scott Lewis’s Where the Heart is Pure, the eminently attractive cycle that kicks off this new Naxos collection of his vocal music, begins with an energized, quasi-Bartókian intro on solo piano. It’s soon joined by a striking vocalise, courtesy of mezzo Christine Abraham, that gradually soothes the accompaniment into relative tranquility. Thus, once the actual text begins, we’re in the right mood for the vivid Pacific Northwest imagery of Robert Sund’s poem. (Lewis writes in the notes that this cycle depicts his own journey from San Francisco to visit Sund in Washington State.) In the second song, “Night Along the Columbia,” Lewis uses an evocative rolling triplet accompaniment to underscore the first part of the poem (“Far out on the dark river / A fish jumps”), and continues to provide equally well-suited musical representations for the excursions that follow. Lewis is skilled at setting his texts so that the meaning and imagery land with impact, and his euphonious, extended tonal language is a good fit for Sund’s idyllic celebrations. Abraham’s clear, glowing declamations are as eloquent as the music and the poetry; she is given sympathetic support throughout by the sensitive pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, who also provides fine descriptive playing in the solo passages.
In The Changing Light, a four-part cycle for vocal quartet and piano, Lewis’s originality emerges more fully. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s opening line declares “The changing light of San Francisco / is none of your East Coast light / none of your / pearly lights of Paris,” and Lewis follows suit with strikingly bright and pungent harmonies, including a touch of Manhattan Transfer-style jazz. The kaleidoscopic chromaticisms are vivid musical representations of the different kinds of light (“Changing Light,” “Big Sur Light,” and “Dictionaries of Light”) depicted in this cycle. Commissioned by Craig Hella Johnson for his vocal ensemble Conspirare, the piece originally called for twenty-four singers and an instrumental quintet, but it works exceptionally well in this crystalline, stripped-down version, as dazzlingly rendered by The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet with Stephen Gosling at the piano. The Five Love Motets that follow call for a cappella vocal quartet, and here the four singers are even more impressive, foregoing any pitch reference from the piano. Setting his own texts, Lewis again provides artful, sophisticated sonorities, as if love opens up previously unexplored harmonic possibilities.
After those two cycles, the ear needs a break from the vocal quartet texture, which Lewis provides with his early cycle Three Songs From Ish River (1976–78) for soprano and guitar (Lewis’s own instrument), to poems by Theodore Roethke. The moving, folk-like elegy “Going Out to Meet the Moon Whales” is striking in its relative simplicity. The cycle’s first entry, “What day is it now?,” shows more harmonic and melodic inventiveness; together, the two songs show Lewis’s creative range in writing for the voice-and-guitar. The versatile, accomplished soprano Susan Narucki and dexterous guitarist Colin McAllister perform all three songs smoothly and persuasively.
Peter Scott Lewis New Music ‘The Four Cycles’ review:
American composer Peter Scott Lewis (b. 1953) is a masterful creator of song cycles, as we readily hear in his recent offering The Four Cycles (Naxos 8.559815), which includes his complete vocal music to date. He is both modern and expressive at the same time, capable of writing in a harmonically ultra-advanced, edgy tonality or at times staying closer to a key center, his piano parts sometimes complicated, moving especially in the case of "Where the Heart is Pure (Duo Version)" (1993/2013) where Christine Abraham's mezzo-soprano has a massive impact that the piano part (Keisuke Nakagoshi) makes tangible and modern-dramatic.
"The Changing Light" (2013) and "Five Love Motets" (2014) are scored for The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet and, for the first of these cycles, piano (Stephen Gosling). They are beautifully conceived and performed, with a four-part counterpart-homophony that stands out as constituting some of the most accomplished chamber vocal music of our times. There is a sure hand at work and results that tintinnabulate in the ear with irresistible heft and charm.
The final "Three Songs from he Ish River" (1976-78) substitutes classical guitar (Colin McAllister) for the usual piano, and thrives on soprano Susan Narucki's delightful nuance.
This is "pure" vocal music in an international modern style. There are no obvious vernacular touches but instead a play on consonance and dissonance, almost hearkening back to the Viennese School but ultimately original and captivating in its own right.
It's a surprise and will be a joy for all attracted to the modern-day extensions of the lieder.
Peter Scott Lewis New Music ‘The Four Cycles’ review:
Peter Scott Lewis has a vivid and idiosyncratic affinity for the human voice, as heard on ‘The Four Cycles’, a disc that spans four decades of creative activity. The San Francisco-based composer writes in a style that might be termed ‘rugged lyricism’, with vocal lines and harmonies taking unpredictable directions. A certain sonic pungency invigorates the texts, which are centred on nature and love.
Lewis wrote the verses for Five Love Motets (2014) for a cappellaquartet. The songs are concise and unsentimental, the voices wrapped around the words in ways that suggest the challenges love often presents. Similar in mood is The Changing Light, three songs setting texts by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Four voices and piano explore the various hues in close communication.
‘Where the heart is pure’ originally dates from 1993; Lewis transformed the chamber version into a duo for mezzo-soprano and piano in 2013. Robert Sund’s texts reflect aspects of his native state, Washington – the first of the three songs, ‘There is no exile where the heart is pure (for Pablo Casals)’ opens with a yearning vocalize. The oldest collection, Three Songs from Ish River (1976-78), places Sund, Paule Barton and Theodore Roethke in succinct, intimate contexts for soprano and guitar.
The performers include two vibrant soloists, mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham and soprano Susan Narucki, and the expert New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet conducted by the composer.
Peter Scott Lewis New Music ‘The Four Cycles’ review:
The music of San Francisco composer Peter Scott Lewis combines ingratiating surfaces — strong-boned tonal harmonies and melodic gracefulness — with secure structural underpinnings that keep everything logically in place. The results come through handsomely in this compilation of four song cycles of various hues and scales, all of them performed with delicacy and vigor. Two of the pieces are for vocal quartet (the aptly named New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet), and Lewis makes canny use of this textural resource — particularly in “The Changing Light,” a group of Lawrence Ferlinghetti settings that capture the poet’s spacious, muscular rhetoric and crisply turned lines. Even more arresting are the solo works, beginning with “Where the Heart Is Pure,” a slimmed-down version of a 1993 work that sounds all the sleeker with just piano accompaniment; mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham and pianist Keisuke Nakagoshibring out the music’s vaulting pictorialism. But the tiny, sparkling gem here is “Three Songs From Ish River,” a gorgeous and maddeningly brief triptych delivered superbly by soprano Susan Narucki and guitarist Colin McAllister. It’s painful to arrive so quickly at the end.
Peter Scott Lewis New Music ‘The Four Cycles’ review:
The Four Cycles in this release on the Naxos label's fine American Classics series are song cycles in the classic sense, unified by a common poetic thread and musical structure. One even feels that San Francisco composer Peter Scott Lewis has the Romantic Lied tradition in mind with his lengthy introductions that set forth mood, concept, and pitch inventory for most of the songs. This said, the four cycles differ substantially from one another, with vocabulary ranging from nearly conventional tonality in the brief, guitar-accompanied Three Songs from Ish River to substantially irregular chords and rhythms in the opening Where the Heart Is Pure. Two are for vocal quartet, not solo voice, and perhaps the Five Love Motets (2014), with texts by Lewis himself, work the best here: they are less motets than madrigals, with the texture fitting the texts effectively. The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet also catches the informal language of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in The Changing Light (2013). Sample one from this cycle to get the considerable subtlety in Lewis' pictorial text setting, but it's in evidence throughout, and it lends the music substantial appeal. These are songs that contemporary singers should get to know; they could enliven any recital.
Peter Scott Lewis New Music ‘The Four Cycles’ review:
Peter Scott Lewis, born in 1953, belongs to that group of North American composers who work in a musical language based on the modern use of tonality. The present disc covers his complete output of vocal music in the shape of song cycles beginning almost forty years ago with Three Songs From Ish River. Written over a two year period, and using the Indian name for the coastal area of Washington State, it uses a soprano and guitar to paint words in music, though the poems used are then for the reader’s interpretation. At this point in his career he was not a ‘lyrical’ writer, in the way we normally use that word, and at times the voice leaps around in the style of Alban Berg. Where the Heart is Pure came fifteen years later, his writing having matured and linked back with Americana in the era of Copland, accompaniment playing a more important part of the pictures he is creating. Using poems by Robert Sund that reflect rural America, it is here performed in a version for piano and mezzo, an adaptation of the original score for voice and chamber orchestra. Another twenty years pass to The Changing Light, his ideas far more striking and outgoing with the use of a vocal quartet and piano. There are hints of the ‘close harmony’ of popular music from yesteryear as we move into the city of San Francisco for the opening song. Three years ago he completed Five Love Motets to his own poems, in much the same mode but now in the classical world of the motet. With the composer in charge of the recording sessions, I am sure he was well pleased with the performances.
**** The three chamber works on this 2007 release from Lapis Island Records may give the impression that Peter Scott Lewis is an eclectic composer of a highly poetic nature, yet they also point to the importance of organization in his music and demonstrate a formal consistency that may not at first be apparent. A sublime, even dreamy mood is established at the beginning with "A Whistler's Dream" (2005), a four-movement work that could be viewed as a programmatic sonata for flute and piano, or conversely, as a somewhat formalized suite of four evocative tone poems; either way, its success is due to the strength of its long-breathed melodies; its rich, thirds-based harmonies; the evenness of its moods; and its balanced form. Lewis' musical language is often freely chromatic and quite rhapsodic in spirit, so it might seem on the surface that these pieces are loosely organized and nearly improvisational in origin; yet structure is always clear in Lewis' work, and the modified classical forms that he employs keep his expressions well within the expectations of chamber music. This is evident in the tightly organized "Serenade for Winds" (2005), which is quite tuneful and varied in effects, yet efficient in the development of ideas and compact in its partita-like arrangement. "River Shining Through" (2004) is indebted to the modern string quartet and is the most harmonically complex and energetic piece on the program; yet Lewis avoids the density and hyper-virtuosity that make many contemporary string quartets difficult to appreciate, and the lightness of its rhythms and clarity of its textures bring out the underlying dance impulses. The performances by flutist Timothy Day, pianist Marc Shapiro, the Dorian Wind Quintet, and the Ciompi String Quartet are all first rate in execution and interpretation, and they are handsomely served by the studio's responsive acoustics and exceptional engineering.
River Shining Through is well-crafted and engaging. Exploring ideal textures for string quartet, Lewis shows a knack for the medium. He gives the players some fun counterpoint through out, and spicy rhythmic ideas in the final two movements.
Lewis shows equal skill and intuition when writing for winds. Serenade for Winds is delightful and bouncy; with tender moments juxtaposed with driving chordal textures ("Serendipity"). Lewis' works are full of contrast, alternating between complex harmonic motions and simple melodies.
The disc contains two of the composer's major efforts. Rhapsodic Images, is an immediately winning work for the conventional complement of a piano trio (piano, violin, and cello). There are moments aplenty of genuine melodic and rhythmic interest that held my attention throughout. (…quite attractive and engaging.)
The piece is played here by a trio of musicians (Amy Hiraga, violin; Peter Wyrick, cello; and Marc Shapiro, piano), all with notable credentials, and all currently members of the San Francisco Symphony.
Kees Hülsmann, who premiered the work (Atlantic Crossing), must surely know the solo violin part inside out. He is a fine artist with a distinguished career and reputation, and I have to assume that his performance of the piece here is beyond question.
“For me, this is the contemporary discovery of 2004.” Julian Haylock, The Strad
Atlantic Crossing is Peter Scott Lewis’ 2002 violin and piano version of his 1996 Violin Concerto, originally premiered in Rotterdam by the violinist on this recording, Kees Hülsmann. Cast in four movements, with an extended Lisztian introduction, it’s a work who myriad stylistic points of reference are negotiated here with chameleon-like ease. Late Delian chromaticism colours the more reflective passages of the first movement (An Awakening/Bright Morning!), while the dramatic opening of the finale (Arrival) initially pays homage to Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, yet continues with music of a tonally free, dancing, Bergian intensity. Hülsmann plays with a Ferras-like jewelled accuracy, employing an extraordinary range of bow pressure, speed, and articulation. This is big-personality playing of exquisite subtlety, which ensures that the music’s post-Romantic gesturing emerges as a compelling narrative. Stunning pianism, too, from Matthew Edwards, is ideally complemented by a high-impact yet atmospheric recording.
Rhapsodic Images was (unusually) a three-way commission from the Bakken, Raphael and Robert Schumann trios. Completed in July of 1998 and scored for traditional piano trio, it is cast in two movements, the first of which is an extended (18-minute) rhapsody which fluctuates hauntingly between soaring lyricism and rhythmic potency. The four-and-a-half minute Epilogue which rounds out the piece is a separate coda that reflects upon the music heard in the previous movement with heart-warming affection. Amy Hiraga and Peter Wyrick, currently members of the San Francisco Symphony, and pianist Marc Shapiro sound intoxicated by the kaleidoscopic iridescence and sheer verve, effortlessly carrying the listener along with them. For me, this is the contemporary discovery of 2004.
“San Francisco composer Peter Scott Lewis writes music that deftly balances vibrant dissonance and lyrical, slightly post-minimalist textures. It's smart, intricately crafted, and it makes a willing, even urgent appeal to a listener's sensibilities. The two substantial works on this new CD show Lewis at his most ambitious, and the results are gripping and almost deceptively forthright. "Atlantic Crossing," an arrangement for piano and violin of the composer's Second Violin Concerto, boasts a wealth of strong-limbed melody; the performance, by violinist Kees Hülsmann and pianist Matthew Edwards, is fearless. Also included is "Rhapsodic Images," a freer, more overtly ingratiating trio played with wonderful passion by violinist Amy Hiraga, cellist Peter Wyrick and pianist Marc Shapiro (all of the San Francisco Symphony).”
The music is all fresh and the playing superb.
The First Suite (1977) is the most melodic and direct. The Second Suite (1979, epilogue 2000) is more of the same, but not so tightly constructed. The Third Suite (2000), which opens the disc, is the thorniest, with the most abstract melodic material and asymmetrical rhythms. Yet you sense you are in on the composer's deepest thoughts.
These three guitar suites present a convincing fusion of many styles and attitudes—blues-inflected harmonies sit comfortably alongside diatonically oriented flamenco figurations; minimalism with the Classical languages of Sor and Carulli. There are also spiritually borrowed moments from such Latin American composers as Agustin Barrios-Mangoré and Carlos Guastavino, often leavened with quite natural jazz syncopations. That last element, however, is subsumed into contexts that bring Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin and solo cello to mind—works that were, in their time, inspired by the age-old impulses to sing and to dance.
Lewis’s guitar technique is utterly clean and precise. He has a fine understanding of his comparatively quiet instrument’s paradoxically awesome dynamic range. His chord voicings are organ-like, and his ability to float his often-austere melodies over large time stretches is satisfying.
The sound is state of the art
In sum, if you are a guitar aficionado, this release is essential.
A COMPELLING, SELF-PENNED, SELF PERFORMED RECITAL FROM AN URGENT BUT ELUSIVE ARTIST
Vivid, Entrancing, and Remarkable:
Guitarists spend so much time alone that it is no wonder the music they play often expresses deep yearning for communication with the outside world. Peter Lewis’ three suites for guitar are personal and introspective ruminations that occasionally compel the listener to feel twinges of guilt for crashing the private party. But the pieces are also appealing and subtly coloured, so the guilt quickly morphs into appreciation.
Lewis composed the first two suites in the late 1970s, when he was under the influence of guitar masters and teachers Alirio Diaz and Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Even so, these pieces only momentarily bask in Spanish influences, instead embracing impressionistic harmonies, recitative-like phrases and borrowings from Northwest Indians. The Third Suites, written in 2000, isn’t light years away creatively from the earlier pieces, but its languished sighs, asymmetrical metres and motoric elements, complete with dashes of flamenco spices, are vivid and entrancing. Lewis’ music exudes songfulness, as when he tries for exuberance (as in the “Burlesque” movement of the first suite, which is based on a tritone), he sees the dark side of things.
The composer plays his own scores with all the urgency and commitment one would expect from a performer who knows the music from the inside out. There isn’t a wasted gesture or hesitant moment in these interpretations, a rather remarkable feat for an artist who hasn’t appeared in public since 1985. The intimate acoustics enhance Lewis’s restrained virtuosity.
Peter Lewis is featured here as the soloist in his own four-movement Three Suites, works that show off the formidable technique Lewis commands — his right hand is particularly amazing, capable of the most fleet-flowing repeated notes. Tuneful and highly rhythmic, the suites (especially the last one) have an improvisational feel, with repeated passages that alter slightly and gradually metamorphose into completely different material. The writing exploits the guitar's resources very stylishly.
San Francisco composer Peter Scott Lewis writes in an attractive tonal idiom that appeals to both the heart and mind. The music is euphonious and often disarmingly pretty, but with a core of strength that shows itself in surprising harmonic choices and vigorous instrumental textures.
Where The Heart Is Pure: ... a thoughtful and varied song cycle to poems of Robert Sund. The vocal writing shows equal concern for the shape of the poetry and for the autonomous demands of melody, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Friedman gives a beautifully crafted performance. Violin Concerto: ... with vibrant sections... receives a committed performance from Kees Hulsmann. Delicate Sky: an offbeat, charming trio, gets a finely wrought performance by violinist Nadya Tichman, percussionist Jack Van Geem, and pianist Robin Sutherland.
The mood throughout is romantic without clichés, the writing contemporary without contrivance. The piece makes demands on the soloist in ways that are both exciting and rewarding, with fresh sounds deftly woven into the total fabric. Above all, it is an easy piece to listen to, yet one that promises fresh insights on rehearing.
Particularly attractive was an ostinato figure in the orchestra during the second movement that provides momentum over which the violin unfolds a lyrical melody.
Composer PETER SCOTT LEWIS uses the poetry of Northwest American poet Robert Sund to very different effect. Where The Heart Is Pure (New Albion) is sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Friedman and performed by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. Both composer and poet capture the misty shades of the Northwest hills in their music and words, and while this is in the "new classical" vein, it will nonetheless appeal to any audience with good ears and an adventurous spirit.
Peter Scott Lewis is a west coast composer, now living in San Francisco... What you find is a serious, straightforward neo-romanticism, almost Bergian, without the Viennese master’s edge. Written in the mid 1980s, at the height of a flowering of concerto composition in the United States, Lewis’ Violin Concerto is a fine example of the genre. It is challenging for the soloist and accessible to the audience, without pandering or condescending. Kees Hulsmann gives a fine performance. The other pieces are also quite good, especially Delicate Sky for violin, piano, and percussion, which recalls a less dense and more colorful John Harbison. All of the performers are excellent, as are New Albion’s sound and packaging.
Peter Scott Lewis’ new CD creates orchestral music, joined by unique chamber music, blended in a careful manner. The first composition, Violin Concerto, is embellished with vitality and much calm. In contrast, Where The Heart Is Pure, a composition dedicated to Pablo Casals, the results are more rigorous and extroverted. In Delicate Sky, specially composed for this CD, the composer creates a climax with a simple and correct ascension. Lastly, Sun Music is a brief exercise for the piano, which is accentually dramatic.
**** PERFORMANCE: Excellent SOUND: Excellent
This CD is a real find. It is a great recording of what might best be described as post-modern chamber music by the California composer Peter Scott Lewis. Beaming Contrasts and Through The Mountain are the two highlights. They are both substantial new works that deserve to become staples of the contemporary chamber music repertoire. Yet the other three striking compositions are far from just filler. For anyone interested in contemporary chamber music, this well played and recorded CD is an essential acquisition.
San Francisco composer Peter Scott Lewis writes music marked by an appealing combination of intricacy and rhetorical straightforwardness, and the five pieces included here -- in excellent performances by San Francisco based musicians -- afford a good entree to his work. The most immediately accessible work is the opening “Journey To Still Water Pond,” a quietly colorful nature portrait for vibraphone, marimba, and string quartet. But there are other pleasures here, too -- particularly the far-ranging title piece, which gets a suitably protean rendition by guitarist David Tanenbaum and the Alexander String Quartet.
Peter Scott Lewis’ new CD on New Albion is something completely different. The piece that has held my attention (and garnered plenty of response from WPKN listeners) is “Journey To Still Water Pond.” Lewis develops a beautiful tension between strings and percussion that grips you tightly. Another exciting piece is “Little Trio,” a mix of aggressive exchanges and romantic phrases.