Expressive and atmospheric music with a hint of populism
James Lentini is a typical American classical music success story. He is both dean and professor of music at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (the 10th oldest public university in the United States), and the music department boasts an outstanding faculty and library.
James Lentini’s contribution as a composer, as heard on this recording of music written for friends and performed by colleagues, is music that expresses deep human feelings. Like the opening bars of his four-movement Orchestra Hall Suite in which bassoonist Paul Ganson evokes the romantic moonlit world of Weber overtures, the sober mood prevails, although there is always ample energy to keep the audience awake, as a hint of Midwestern populism surges into the third movement and beyond.
There is an ample variety of excellent sounds on the remainder of the programme. El signo del angel enlarges the repertoire of high-stratosphere effects a viola and a harp together can create. The pièce de résistance of the disc may be Scenes from Sedona, perhaps the best piece for viola and cello since Beethoven’s “Eyeglasses” Duet. It is a set of unconventional riffs on five of the valley’s spiritual landmarks, about the disconnectedness of human life which the famous red rocks are known to cure. It is performed by the dedicatees, Celliola, with a sort of casual, film noir intensity.
The sound is uniformly clear and strong, able to reproduce everything from a tuba player’s fantasy to a bassoon in heat. The composer’s booklet-notes are serious indeed.
Gramophone, October, 2010
James Lentini’s music is new to me, but I’m exceedingly grateful to be introduced to his absorbing works through a fine new recording of his chamber music on Naxos. In short, there isn’t a single weak movement on the disc, and the six works are performed with precision and dedication by a superb group of instrumentalists, many of whom are members of the Detroit Symphony or colleagues of Lentini at Miami University in Ohio.
Concert halls are not often inspirations for compositions, but if any fit the bill, surely a prime candidate would be Detroit’s sumptuous Orchestra Hall. Lentini’s Orchestra Hall Suite as well as Scenes from Sedona were recorded in that hall, and what a fine impression the venerable space makes on this recording! The sound is just a bit warm, but very clear, precise, and finely balanced. The suite for four players is balanced toward the lower registers, and the influences seem varied but usually not obvious, except for a second movement in swing rhythms that honors the presence of jazz legends who performed in the hall in the 1940s. Elsewhere there are hints of the elegant craftsmanship of Bartók in movements that are succinct and tightly honed. Scenes from Sedona for viola and cello consists of a group of miniatures drawn from five monuments from that Arizona town. The full range of the two strings is artfully exploited, from artificial harmonics down to double-stops in the low register.
His fondness for short movements also appears in the Five Pieces for Cello and Piano, but the keyboard here seems to inspire more rhapsodic and lyric flights of fancy than in the other pieces. At times brief movements can lend music a disjointed character, but the composer avoids that here by tying earlier melodic ideas together in the finale. Lentini probably had no direct models for his harp and viola duo, El Signo del Angel , but he handles the medium well and makes the combination sound natural. At times the dusky sound of the viola meshes perfectly with thick chords in the medium and low register of the harp, while at other times he seems to be highlighting the natural timbral contrasts. As in all his works for strings, he finds creative and idiomatic ways of weaving thick textures from the bowed instruments.
East Coast Groove for tuba and piano again finds the composer incorporating jazz elements. Velvet Brown conjures a vivid virtuosity from her instrument that will no doubt surprise listeners unaware of its considerable potential. Lentini shows that he’s more than capable of writing for standard instrumental ensembles with his Montage for piano trio. The three players easily vanquish all of the considerable technical challenges. This is a first-rate disc, with performances of the highest rank.
Michael Cameron ~ Fanfare Magazine
The personnel required in Music for Brass, by James Lentini, has to impress, if for no other reason, because there are so many of them -- them being The Michigan State University Brass Ensemble, conducted by Stanley E. DeRusha. Maybe it's the resounding echoic acoustics of the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, East Lansing Michigan. No, it's more than that; Music for Brass is a well-constructed piece (with big wobbling, arching tones) that features plenty of strikingly original brass writing in an intelligent package.