Thursday, April 24, 2014

Dennis Nygren. A Clarinet Collective.

Dennis Nygren.  A Clarinet Collective.

Dennis Nygren, Professor of Clarinet at Kent State University from 1983 until his recent retirement in 2012, has been a prolific performer, with among others, the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, the Cleveland Ballet, the Ohio Ballet, and the Blossom Festival Band.  His arrangements of works for clarinet have also been performed widely.  He’s been around the block.  Here, he has put together a group of musicians including pianist Jerry Wong, and conductor Wayne Gorder, also of the KSU School of Music, with a couple of ensembles, and the Aiden String Quartet (a graduate string quartet in residence at KSU).  All local talent, and very fine talent indeed.  For this CD, Nygren has placed eight works together, some recent, a couple a bit older, plus pieces by Debussy and Mozart.  With most works played with a different set of musicians, Nygren creates a varied program that is extremely enjoyable and very well-performed.  

I love wind ensemble music, although my tastes tend to run toward much earlier music than is principally represented here, so I was skeptical at first.  However, the first work, by Gallois Montbrun won me over immediately with a combination of lush romanticism and jaunty, playful modernism.  Each movement is quite different, and the variety is very pleasing..  At the other end of the CD are the Four Church Sonatas, by Mozart which serves with the first work as bookends to the music of the smaller forces.  While the distance between Gallois Montbrun and Mozart are great, what strikes me is the similar attitude of playfulness in both.  The two ensembles, both led by Wayne Gorder, overlap in personnel considerably in the winds and brass, although the first is more than twice the size and includes percussion.  The Mozart sonatas included both zesty “Allegros” and a more gently-played  “Andante.”  (being over 60, I am allowed to use the terms “jaunty” and “zesty” without irony or postmodern subtext).

Sandwiched in between are the six other pieces, for clarinet and string quartet, clarinet and piano, or solo clarinet.  The work by Frank Wiley is a single movement, written for Nygren as a showpiece for his clarinet abilities (Wiley also teaches at KSU), with contrasting rhythms, considerable range, and long runs.  In some places it is frenetic (the composer’s words, and they are true), and in some ways it recalls the Gallois Montbrun work just before it, but without the larger forces.  Three works, by Griebling, Kennan, and Debussy, bring in Jerry Wong at the piano.  “The Four Elements” was first performed by Nygren in 1991, each movement referring to some aspect of an element.  Nygren and Wong perform it quite effectively, and I especially enjoyed the flow of the quieter passages. The Debussy piece is lovely, as one might expect, and Wong gets to show off a bit more.  Kennan’s work is a short lament, acting as sort of a contrasting bridge between Debussy and Mozart.  Stout’s contribution is also short, one of the works Nygren plays with the Aiden String Quartet.  I think it’s my least favorite piece, so I’ll just stop there.  The quartet gets more work with “Four Debussy Songs,” and play very effectively with Nygren’s clarinet substituting for voice.  The arrangement is exquisite, and the performance my favorite of the album.

This is a fine album for fans of clarinet music, with delightful contrasts, excellent performances, and several surprises.  I hope it is not the last recording for Mr. Nygren, whose playing  is outstanding.

Personnel:  Dennis Nygren (clarinet), Jerry Wong (piano), Aiden String Quartet, Gallois Montbrun Ensemble (Wayne Gorder, conductor), Mozart Ensemble (Wayne Gorder, conductor).
Tracks:  Six Pièces Musicales D’Etude (1955) (arranged for clarinet & wind ensemble by D. Nygren) (Raymond Gallois Montbrun); Invocation and Spirit Dance (2000) (Frank Wiley); Movement for Clarinet and String Quartet (1973) (Alan Stout); The Four Elements (1990) (Mary Ann Griebling); Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune (1894) (Claude Debussy); Four Debussy Songs (arr. for clarinet in A & string quartet by D. Nygren, 2000); Threnody (1992-1993) (Kent Kennan); Four Church Sonatas (1756-1791) (W. A. Mozart).

Jeff Wanser

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