Gerald Cohen: Voyagers Explores String Quartet Possibilities

What I like best about this release is the program. Gerald Cohen’s three works all involve the string quartet — but used in three very different ways. 

“Voyagers” was written for the 40th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft launch. It quotes from a Beethoven string quartet, a Renaissance galliard, and an Indian raga. Cohen’s original music ties these disparate sources together into a cohesive whole. 

Cohen uses the dark, resonant character of the clarinet and bass clarinet effectively. The instruments blend well with the string quartet. Together they create something that sounds homogeneous, yet exotic.  

The Cassatt String Quartet commissioned “Playing For Our Lives.” That gives their performance here a degree of authority. It premiered in a concert of music by Holocaust victims. The work is a contemporary memorial to the musicians and composers murdered in the camps. 

Cohen reproduces all the emotions tied up in the music of Terezin. It meant temporary escape for the prisoners. It meant propaganda for the Nazis. It meant entertainment for the guards. And for the performing inmates, it meant another day of life (as the title suggests). 

Those conflicting emotions blend in a work that’s sad and restless, with outbursts of rage. It’s a powerful work. And it successfully memorializes the Holocaust experience of both survivors and victims. 

Cohen wrote the “Preludes and Debka” in 2001. The melody comes from the Sephardic tradition. Balancing the trombone against the string quartet is a challenge most composers avoid. Cohen bests the challenge masterfully. 

Part of his solution is to keep the trombone reigned in. Although it carries the bulk of the melodic content, it seldom plays at full volume. Cohen doesn’t try to blend the brass instrument with the strings. Rather, he uses the opposing timbres to sharpen contrasts. 

Cohen’s overall style is modernist but very accessible. This is contemporary music at its best. The composer created this music in response to the world he lives in. He used the language of his time. And he did so in a way that connects with contemporary audiences. And it’s well-crafted, ensuring this music continues to connect with future audiences.

Gerald Cohen: Voyagers
Cassatt String Quartet
Narek Arutunian, clarinet, and bass clarinet
Colin Williams, trombone

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