On debut disc, youth serves listener well

Greenberg pieces reveal a major talent

Music Column

August 15, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Genius.

That word gets tossed around so freely that it may have lost its attention-grabbing power, but it's the only word that seems to fit in trying to describe Jay Greenberg.

The Connecticut-born composer has five symphonies, five concertos, a dozen piano sonatas and assorted chamber works to his credit.

He's received a bunch of awards and commissions. His career is managed by IMG Artists, one of the most up-market of firms.

His exclusive recording contract with Sony BMG Masterworks has yielded its first product - performances of his Symphony No. 5 by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jose Serebrier, and Quintet for Strings, performed by the Juilliard String Quartet with cellist Darrett Adkins.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Greenberg is 14?

We're talking unusual talent here. Greenberg, a scholarship student at New York's Juilliard School since the age of 10, started playing the cello at 3 and took his first composition lessons at 7.

He is apparently so advanced that, as a rule, he hears pieces in his head, fully formed and organized, before notating them - a la Mozart.

It's all a little spooky.

These are such cynical times that I wouldn't blame you if you thought this was all a fraud, a joke, a gotcha of some kind. But every indication is that Greenberg is the real thing.

Time, of course, will tell how, or if, this kid will fulfill his enormous potential. For now, give a listen to the Sony BMG disc, released today, and marvel. (Greenberg is the youngest composer signed by the record company, and the youngest to be signed by IMG.)

Completed a couple years ago, the four-movement Symphony No. 5, is basically tonal and often very melodic, yet, for the most part, avoids sounding cliched.

The orchestration is remarkably assured, showing a keen ear for how sections of instruments can complement and play off each other. There's a clear sense of direction and purpose to the work, a nicely judged build-up of drama and tension that ends with a satisfying blaze of high-spirited energy.

The short melodic idea that launches the first movement - a line in the strings that takes a short step up, another step down - doesn't sound terribly promising, but it quickly reveals its potential to spawn other motives and generate thematic development.

The second-movement scherzo, set in motion by a nicely sinister snare drum, has an engaging pulse. The brooding, slow third movement is full of carefully limned musings, constructed according to a mathematical function that Greenberg used to build an intricately layered arc form.

In the finale, he unleashes bustling, contrapuntal themes that lead toward a blazing brass chorale (this music, in subtler fashion, first appears in the preceding movement). The drive, sparkly instrumentation and piquant harmonic shifts are applied with a flair that recalls such showpieces as Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

Written in three substantive movements, the Quintet for Strings likewise reveals impressive imagination and skill. The fugal finale, inflected by dance rhythms, is especially effective.

As with the symphony, the news is not so much that the musical language or structural design is exceptionally advanced, but that, within a basically neo-romantic framework, Greenberg creates real music, fresh music.

This isn't pale-imitation stuff. For all of the suggestions of past composers (the ghost of Shostakovich, in particular, pops up here and there in the quintet), Greenberg is very much his own young man.

Serebrier and the LSO make a vivid, sturdy case for the symphony. The Juilliard players and their guest do the same for the quintet.

The disc provides an enticing introduction to a composer who has probably only just begun to surprise the heck out of us.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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