Monday, December 9, 2019

An Imaginative Duo Album that Misses the Mark

Stick&Bow performers Juan Sebastian Delgado and Krystina Marcoux (photograph by Annie Éthier, from the News Web page on the Web site for Shira Gilbert PR)

At the beginning of last month, the Canadian label Leaf Music released a new album entitled Resonance. This was the debut album for a duo called Stick&Bow, so called because it brings Canadian marimba player Krystina Marcoux together with Argentinian cellist Juan Sebastian Delgado. As might be guessed, almost all of the selections on the album were arranged by the performers. The most notable exception was a piece composed for them by Jason Noble. His contribution was the seven-movement Folk Suite, based on sources from Newfoundland and Labrador, the two districts that constitute the easternmost province of Canada, where the composer was born. In addition, for the final track, an arrangement of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” Stick&Bow joined forces with Ben Duinker, currently based in Montreal, where he is pursuing a PhD in Music Theory at McGill University.

This is one of those projects that probably looked better in theory than it turned out in practice. San Francisco is a first-rate city for listening to quality percussion performances. I have had no end of enjoyable experiences listening to marimba performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and in following some of the graduates into recital settings. Through those experiences I have come to recognize that a good marimba player can present chamber music with just about any other instrument or group of instruments.

It was thus more than a little disconcerting that, on the opening tracks, both of which were arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, the balance between marimba and cello was consistently muddled, primarily because Marcoux never brought clear articulation to her performance technique. (To be fair, that particular performance may have sounded better in concert, meaning that the problem had more to do with audio production than with the instrument itself. Nevertheless, one would like to assume that Marcoux had some say about what constituted an acceptable recording.)

On a more general level I fear that neither of the players showed much respect for any of the sources that they arranged. I appreciate that, when Nina Simone recorded Walter Donaldson’s “Love Me or Leave Me” for her debut album, her keyboard work for the middle instrumental section was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach; but the Stick&Bow track seems about as out of touch with Donaldson and Simone’s imaginative stylization as it is with Bach. On other tracks Delgado is best when writing music that was actually written for cello (such as the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 40 cello sonata in D major). However, as we now know from a recording of his own performance, Shostakovich endowed the piano part for that sonata with a rich diversity of rhetorical turns, none of which were given a particularly credible account on the marimba.

Finally, the decision to describe each piece in the accompanying booklet with text that segues between French and English may have seemed clever at the time; but for the reader with any interest in the music itself, those descriptions are just plain annoying!

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