In a recent conversation I had with Sue Grace, Colorado College artist-in-residence and music director of the college's Summer Music Festival, the pianist spoke enthusiastically about a world premiere performance that her piano duo, Quattro Mani, had been a part of. They had debuted Paul Lansky's "Shapeshifters" with the Alabama Symphony to considerable acclaim.
Now, with the release of an engaging and well-recorded CD of "Shapeshifters" and two other orchestral works by the composer performed by the Alabama Symphony and its music director and conductor Justin Brown, I can enjoy the performance I missed.
Sue and her piano partner Alice Rybak make the most of the four-movement work, which was composed with their talents in mind. Lansky has created an experience that never fails to engage as it creates an unstoppable rhythmic engine for the two keyboard instruments. This artfully contrasts with the broad and lyric language of the orchestra. The influence of Poulenc, Stravinsky and Shostakovich easily can be detected, but the composer's own enthusiasm for rhythmic variety and the American spirit wins the day.
"Shapeshifters'" finale takes the piece over the top with an infectious Afro-Cuban Big Band-inspired celebration. Grace and Rybak's intense concentration and keyboard clarity are present throughout.
No less satisfying is "With the Grain," a showpiece for brilliant guitarist David Starobin.
The Latin influence is pervasive throughout all four movements.
This is gentler music than "Shapeshifters," and its aura is almost dreamlike. Once again, a charming finale (with an almost direct quote from Poulenc's "Gloria") tops off a piece that belongs in the repertoire of contemporary guitarists.
This disc finishes with the all-orchestral "Imaginary Islands." Now front and center, the Alabama Symphony shows itself to be a superior ensemble well suited for modern expression.
Lansky, known in the industry as a avant-garde electronic composer, once again produces accessible, unpredictable but highly enjoyable soundscapes.