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CD Review: Seasoning

Stas Venglevski & John Simkus: Bayan and Piano Accordion


Seasoning: Twelve Original Waltzes by Stas Venglevski

1) January, , 4:02
2) February, 2:44
3) March, 2:33
4) April, 3:42
5) May (solo), 3:33
6) June, 2:18
7) July, 3:32
8) August (solo), 4:01
9) September (solo), 3:32
10) October (solo), 3:52
11) November, 2:02
12) December, 6:01
Total time: 41:35
Review date: August 2002
The album was produced in July, 2002 by Stas Venglevski and dedicated to John Simkus, who collaborated on the project.
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A CD Review by Dr. Paul Allan Magistretti

Stas Venglevski begins his new CD with a plaintive triplet and sustained note that seems like the essence of musette; then, after this initial penetrating detuned sound the piece softens into a convincing French waltz: January. January proves to be appealing, traditional and modest—a pleasant tune with a fine sense of melody and phrasing. It seems right for the album's beginning: something you feel you may have heard before and for a moment you try to remember where and when. It seems to say, waltzes start here—and voilą it's the first waltz in an album of twelve original waltzes, each named for a month of the year; and barely hinting at what is to come.

Seasoning is an apt title. There are numerous spicy effects in the music and every piece is tasty, colorful and appealing to the senses. I also fancied it as a verb: we're onboard for a calendar year in three-quarter time, we're going seasoning.

February started out like another French musette tune, but there's a surprising B section, a shift to a lovely Moldavian waltz with dissonant chorded triplets, all of which eventually folds back into the French motif. It seemed to foreshadow what was to come: a quest in twelve episodes for ways of expanding the genre. March starts with a halting, poignant melodic line suggesting a sense of being caught between reflections of winter and a hope that spring will come. It evoked a meditative and restless mood that cracked open a window of anticipation.

This CD began as an exercise—not a bad premise; all of Scarlatti's sonatas were esercizi. Ultimately, the results were intended to be presented to the Chicago Accordion Club, either in performance or published in the newsletter. Fortunately, through the collaboration of a superb musician, John Simkus, Stas was able to bring the project to life as a CD—and wonderfully so. The twelve original waltzes—four solos and eight duets—are beautifully conceived and performed. Stas and John establish themselves as a solid duet; they are complementary, well integrated and deliver a fine sense of dynamics and phrasing—beyond technique their performances are heartfelt.

April begins with a gentle, accelerating melody that becomes more complex with each reiteration, not unlike April showers. May may or may not bring flowers, but it alternates a haunting dark theme and a fanfare of chords that turn the piece upon itself; later, a variation of the theme in the upper register and bellows-shake glissandi add intriguing effects. Then, June enters with a fluid six-eight feeling and a haunting refrain possessing an extended, well-developed melodic line that is more personal than what we've heard before. The use of rubato and phrasing are sensuous and poignant. John beautifully interpolates an obbligato around the main theme. At 2:19 it's over too soon, but a clear personal statement has been made that changes our perspective on the course of the project.

July reveals bellows shakes, accentuated chords and a topsy-turvy melody suggesting dizzying activity, if not a touch of modernism. Opposing melodic lines play dissonantly against each other and propulsive shakes and glissandi interweave throughout. In seven short monthly steps we've come a long way from a humble, imitative French waltz. July delivers some intriguing suggestions for taking the waltz well beyond its generic roots as a dance; I thought of Piazzolla's interpolations of the tango.

August is a favorite of mine. It is poignant and beautifully played. It seems contemporary and fresh, a jazz waltz. Stas' rubato and phrasing demonstrate some of his best playing; he nicely holds back and completes each phrase. He achieves an ebb and flow of melodic expression that is consistent with the music's emotional development. Of the many excellent pieces on the album I found myself returning to this one—there's wit, irony and pathos. It contained clear analogues for the heart—which was also true of many of the other pieces.

When music excites our emotions like a cri de coeur, then it is appealing to us on its most fundamental level. Of course, it can do other things. It can be a constellation of sound that whets the intellect; an audio event that surprises, startles and amuses—it can even be an exploration of the nature of sound itself, a cognitive experience. Music has as many uses as people care to give it. And yet, music originated from the human experience: a beating heart, breathing, sounds of nature, a cry, a laugh, a sigh, a celebration, a lament, a prayer—later, these expressive sounds inspired correlating movements (dance), vocal utterances (singing & instrumentals) and eventually evoked an innate need for depicting and witnessing stories and moods about the human condition; Stas' compositions appeal on such a level.

September is short and demonstrates Stas finding interesting variations on a simple tune and developing a sense of conflict. The middle section in which the conflict becomes intense is interesting—the theme is good, inventive; Stas' playing against an aggressive, dissonant counter rhythm is quite effective.

The album's last six pieces, June to December are a creative journey. June and Julyannounce the beginning like an overture; August is the first act. September is an intensification of conflict. Then, October gives us a lyrical reflection upon the demise of summer, if not mortality. There is an elegiac feeling to the opening: the melody proceeds deliberately, while bass notes are sustained like a lament, creating a sense of loss. The middle section breaks into waltz tempo as if reflecting upon a past moment that is now a bittersweet memory. October is a small gem, an extremely complex emotional experience developed from seemingly simple means.

November begins with a feeling of urgency—a persistent repetition of chords carefully played with a bellows shake that mimics falling snow. After a moment the melody enters with a melancholic statement, suggesting forbearance. I liked the theme's long, sustained notes. Then, came a surprising intrusion of a near-quote from Beethoven'sFifth and Stas takes the original theme through a compounding treatment that is very satisfying. I thought his improvisatory reworking of the theme could have gone on longer.

December begins with what seems like a Nino Rota theme—not from The Godfather, but from his movie scores for Fellini—and it wasn't imitative. Instead, Stas evoked that off-center, emotionally rich domain that few except Fellini and Rota have penetrated. This final waltz seemed a wonderful way to end the album—suggesting a sadder-but-wiser glance over the shoulder (a little like Giulietta Masina's in Le Notti Di Cabiria). After a tempo libre opening Stas and John develop variants of the melody into waltz-time, culminating in a new statement of melodic impressions and a gradual acceleration into ecstatic responses that seem to be pleading their case right up to a series of sustained notes that linger and slowly fade away—a very nice effect. When the piece returned to the original theme it seemed reflective of what we've been through, lending the composition a sense of dramatic structure. The restatement carried a sense of reconciliation that was moving—it was beautifully performed.

Stas's work springs from a natural gift for melody, and he is developing in impressive ways. While he consistently synthesizes a feeling for folk idioms in his work, he is never imitative. His apparent facility embraces deeply felt emotions and his sincerity disavows any fashionable mimicry of modernism. He often achieves substantial emotional impact with seemingly simple means, which is the essence of sophistication. The music remains original while using the appeal of a common emotional language; yet, never strays into pop, self-conscious modernism or shallow sentiment—it is substantial, open and sincere, qualities that are hard to achieve. Several of the pieces might even be made more effective through lengthening them with additional thematic development and some carefully structured repeats.

There are not many young artists who with a single opus could offer so many new compositions in a particular genre at this level of achievement. CDs containing twelve originals may have one or two that are good, maybe one that is outstanding; all twelve of Stas' are good and six are brilliant. Furthermore, while the CD is satisfying as a listening experience, it is fascinating for what it portends. Seasoning is a significant step in the development of a composer who possesses a recognizable voice and a genius for empathy. The fact that this composer is an accordionist is doubly exciting. If Stas continues being true to himself and developing intuitively from his natural resources, he will make some significant contributions to music.

Stas and John perform wonderfully together. Should they continue their artistic relationship, we can anticipate more exciting works in the future. I liked the sound of the two accordions and Stas' arrangements are excellent—he creates an effective chamber orchestra.

The music for Seasoning has been published in solo and duet arrangements and is available from Stas.

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