By Julie Amacher, Classical MPR
David Shifrin, Fred Sherry, Hila Plitmann, Carol Rosenberger, Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, Dominic Cheli, Sarah Beck — Mark Abel: The Cave of Wondrous Voice (Delos)
Mark Abel has been composing for most of his life, even when he served as a specialist in foreign news at the San Francisco Chronicle. His music career has pollinated from rock to jazz. Then he found his way back to the classical music he grew up listening to with his Dad. It was that music that influenced Mark's first full-fledged chamber music recording, The Cave of Wondrous Voice.'
You mentioned your dad loved classical music — he loved chamber music. Wondering how his love of chamber music perhaps inspired your first full-fledged chamber recording?
"So I heard a lot of Brahms and Beethoven and Mozart and Dvorak and a few other people when I was growing up. So it's kind of ironic that it took me decades and decades to get around to trying to crack the nut of writing for chamber music, because, in fact, I've been hearing that idiom since I was very young."
As I was listening to your Clarinet Trio, I couldn't help think that Brahms is probably in the back of your mind as you wrote this; is that true?
"Three years ago — magically, I had no idea how this happened or whatever — the block that was in my brain up to that point dissolved. And it probably fitting that the first piece that I produced was a clarinet trio since the Brahms clarinet trio is such a cornerstone of that repertoire.
The last minute and a half of it or so is a romantic gesture. I think you could say in a way that that's a bit of an homage to Brahms. There's something about his combination of seriousness and tender feelings. He's pretty hard top."
The title of your new chamber music is Cave of Wondrous Voice. Why is that the title?
"It's actually a line from one of the Marina Tsvetaeva poems in the cycle of her work that I set, and I just loved the phrase so much."
And you're also working with an incredible soprano once again. You and Hila Plitman have worked together several times, how was a soloist of her caliber interested in you and your work, how has that made a difference for you?
"It's made a tremendous difference. I mean, I'm sort of coming out of left field in the classical world in a lot of ways. I didn't go to conservatory. I'm completely self-taught. She's really helped me up my game because she can just do things that other people can't do. And I'm just, you know, eternally grateful for her interest. I have to say."
This is the first setting of the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva in English translations; why is that?
"Good question. And I don't have much of an answer other than her stuff is real difficult to translate. Her poetry is so it's so visceral and so original that it just gives you a very vivid sense of what was going on between the wars in Europe."
God Bent Under is the final song in this cycle. I have to say, the text is beautiful and the imagery — talk about this piece, please?
"Yeah, the imagery is really beautiful. You don't think very often of God as a person, but that's how Svetayava depicts him in this piece. And the idea of him kind of tinkering with his human creations is a great little concept, because obviously we humans could stand some some tweaking in our our outlook towards life. And so the idea of him bending over and trying to make some adjustments that would make for a better life for everybody is pretty irresistible."
The other pieces on this recording are instrumental , and that's a little unusual because you're known for choral and opera. One is called The Elastic Hours, and it's a two- movement work featuring violin and piano. Can you talk about how you came to call it Elastic Hours?
"I think that both movements do suggest the attention span of somebody going through a day and holding onto a certain thought and then losing it and drifting off into something else. And that's really how people's subconsciouses function, I think. So I just decided I would go with that. And I don't think that. I think it's OK to give listeners a little something to think about."
The Cave of Wondrous Voice, an irresistible new recording from composer Mark Abel.
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.