Their debut recording showcases their lush musicality with pieces like Gerald Finzi’s “Romance” and Ravel’s “Sonatine.” David Short’s arrangements for the group are outstanding, especially his inventive and moving take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Jeff Zumfelde, cpr.org
Sphere Ensemble’s Divergence is a graceful, enchanting and alluring modern string album.
Brian F. Johnson, Marquee Magazine
Serenade for Strings, Op. 20 – Allegro piacevole
The album begins with the first movement of the first piece on Sphere’s premier performance on April 1, 2011. That concert was an entirely classical affair, with Elgar’s Serenade joining Tchaikovsky’s Serenade and Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies. It marks the starting point of Sphere’s musical exploration and serves as a reminder that, in music, innovation comes from the evolution of musical history, and musical tradition.
Elgar completed the Serenade for Strings in May of 1892, finishing it to celebrate his third anniversary with his wife, Alice. Describing the piece to his friend Arthur Jaeger (who became Nimrod in Enigma Variations), Elgar declared it “really stringy in effect.” With long slow sonorous harmonies and lilting melodies, it encapsulates the British string orchestra aesthetic in an economy of composition. The Serenade remained one of Elgar’s favorite compositions. He included it on the last recording of his own music that he ever made, recording on August 29, 1933 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, roughly six months before he passed away.
All the Rowboats
Regina Spektor, arr. David Short
At first, Regina Spektor’s All the Rowboats seems to describe what happens at a museum after the patrons have left. Paintings and artifacts are secured under lock and key, protected in frames and glass cases. Then, as the lights are finally turned off, the tone shifts and the museum is now a tomb, a mausoleum and a prison. The lyrics suggest that, even as we declare these works masterpieces, we ensure their long, slow fade to obscurity.
Spektor’s original arrangement is dark and brooding, while still maintaining the suggested elegance of the locked-up artwork. The sung version is incredibly effective, but would be sparse and thin if directly translated to the string orchestra. The inspiration for the Sphere arrangement was found in the lyrics at the end of the second and third verses:
But the most special
Are the most lonely
God I pity the violins
In glass cases
They keep coughing
Forgotten how to sing, how to sing.
At the second bridge, each instrument takes a turn playing a piece from the solo repertoire. After a few measures, they begin to repeat what they have already played as if forgetting how the tune ends, fading to a soft murmur as the next instrument begins. Most of the pieces have been altered in some way to fit the dark harmonies, the most striking being the melody of the third movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Usually bouncing and joyous, transposing Mendelssohn’s melody transforms it into a maniacal caper, unceasing until Spektor’s original bass line cuts through the texture and the verse returns.
All the Rowboats represents Sphere’s belief that art, in any form, should be shared with everyone; that art can be, and should be, transcendent; but that art also can be, and should be, taken off the shelf and played with a little. Sphere believes that by exploring our art — and maybe getting it a little dirty — we demonstrate new appreciation for its beauty, its genius, and its worth.
Emily Rose Lewis and David Short
The tune of Butterfly Jig was written originally for a bluegrass band, but as the tune evolved, it became clear that it was meant for Sphere. The fiddle tunes Emily writes tend to have an Irish or Celtic influence, and the opening of Butterfly mimics Uilleann pipes. The name came when Emily looked out the window and saw a butterfly flying by.
The arrangement blends Sphere’s fiddle and classical roots. The opening slow melody is later transformed into one of the melodies of the jig. There are moments of improvisation, followed by moments of counterpoint. Instruments alternate between traditional bowed techniques and special percussive effects, such as striking the back or front of the instrument with the thumb or holding the violin like a mandolin and rapidly strumming the strings.
II. Mouvement de menuet
Maurice Ravel, arr. David Short
Originally for piano, the first movement of Ravel’s Sonatine was written in 1903 as an entry into a composition contest conducted by Weekly Critical Review. The competition was never completed partly because Ravel was the sole entrant – and therefore, it was not a competition – but also because financial trouble led the publication to bankruptcy. Ravel may have ultimately been disqualified from the contest anyway, as the first movement of the Sonatine exceeded the 75-measure limit by 12 bars. Ravel went on to finish the remaining two movements in 1905, with the first performance occurring the following year in Lyon, France. He was pleased with the reception of the work and kept the piece in his touring rotation, often leaving out the third movement, believing his own modest performing abilities did not meet the technical demands of the movement.
It is possible to hear hints of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major in the Sonatine and vice versa. This makes a certain amount of sense as the string quartet was completed in August of 1903, close to the completion of the Sonatine’s first movement. Dave’s arrangement tries to honor the similarities between the works, borrowing from the quartet’s color palette, especially in intimate moments. The third movement maintains its virtuosic character, which causes as much consternation for 13 string players as it does for a single pianist.
Divergence was written by Wil Swindler in 2000 while he was attending the Henry Mancini Institute. Swindler, an accomplished saxophonist, evokes the emotion and slow lyricism of Barber’s Adagio for Strings while incorporating his own harmonic language. Strong and colorful individual lines weave their threads among the rest, creating a rich pattern of sound.
Divergence became the title track of the album when we realized how closely the piece mirrored Sphere’s own artistic goals. The individual musical lines are powerful on their own, but mixed together become something greater. The piece honors tradition, but the twists of the composition turn away from expectation. The language is classical, but jazz elements blend seamlessly into it. While All the Rowboats represents Sphere’s belief about art, Divergence represents who we are.
Mack Gordon & Harry Warren, arr. Chris Jusell
Strings already feature heavily in the Etta James version of At Last. Chris has always loved the string arrangement, the sound, her voice, and the song itself. His arrangement is almost an exact transcription of both the string parts and the lyrical, free rhythms of the vocal interpretation. The original song might not sound complex, but vocal lines are full of scoops and slides, play freely with timing, and are challenging to recreate. While it would be easy to simplify the rhythms, it would also take away some of the power and beauty of the original version. The non-vocal lines are as faithful as possible to the Gordon & Warren arrangement, with hints of the original rhythm and percussion accompaniment throughout, and a few new lines added to the second half.
Francisco Canaro, arr. Alexander Vittal after Carlos di Sarli
This piece was composed by legendary tango guardia vieja composer/violinist/director Francisco Canaro, who was active in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s. In the decades since its composition in the 1920s, it has become a tango standard and favorite of dancers and orquestas. The version recorded here is based on a 1950s arrangement by another tango legend, Carlos di Sarli (known as El Señor del tango; the Gentleman of the tango), and is very representative of his late style, which contrasts extremely short and percussive bow strokes with dramatic, lush sonorities in the strings, and improvisatory ornamentation in the piano.
The Rooster’s Wife
Kailin Yong, a cross-cultural violinist, dedicated the writing of this piece to The Rooster’s Wife, a concert series in Aberdeen, NC. Inspired by the Cajun fiddling tradition, the piece is marked by “swampy and pulsating grooves.” And, if you listen carefully, you can hear the squawking and scratching of chicken feet in the second melodic section.
Sphere’s rendition of The Rooster’s Wife appeared on our first “shuffle” concert. Simulating an mp3 player in shuffle mode, the concert was the first time that we incorporated non-classical elements into a concert. The high energy piece quickly became an audience favorite and has become a staple of Sphere’s repertoire.
W.A. Mozart and Daft Punk, arr. Chris Jusell
Get Mozart is a mash-up of melodies from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, his Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”), and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. Sphere has performed mash-ups before, always pairing a current pop song with a famous classical tune. There are challenges when combining different eras and different genres; the feel of classical music is not the same as that of disco, and the bright, major-key mood of Eine Kleine stands in contrast to the ambiguous sonority of Daft Punk. The juxtaposition can be quite comical. For example, while this piece begins with Get Lucky, quotes from Mozart start sneaking in early on. When the whole group finally has a statement of Eine Kleine together, it is always a surprise to listeners. It’s an amusing moment, and one that has caused laughter in every audience that has heard it.
Leonard Cohen, arr. David Short
Inspiration for this arrangement of Hallelujah came from the Rufus Wainright version that appears in the movie Shrek. Classical elements are woven throughout, paying tribute to and transforming the original concept. The opening sections invoke the spirit of chant, both of a single cantor, represented by the viola, and then in three voices by the upper strings. After a pause, the original Wainright arrangement appears before spinning off again into a flowing, rolling accompaniment reminiscent of Smetena’s Moldau, and then changing again into a chorale. The last section builds slowly, with instruments being added singly and in pairs until the whole ensemble releases together and the viola that began the movement plays the final statement alone.
Romance, Op. 11
British composer Gerald Finzi’s early life was one of loss. His father, one of his brothers, and his first composition teacher were all killed in the First World War. His other two brothers were lost to pneumonia and suicide. Only his sister and mother lived beyond the Great War. These troubling times shaped Finzi’s life into one of pacifism and introversion, and the Romance matches the proclivities of its composer. Starting from a place of calmness, the opening melodies have a halting, introspective quality tinged with melancholy. The piece builds upon itself to an outburst of passion that quickly fades back, almost apologetically, to a more introspective state. The Romance ends much as it began, in a careful, quiet solitude.
Come Sail Away
Dennis DeYoung, arr. David Short
The Sphere arrangement of Come Sail Away highlights the classical elements present in the rock music of the ‘70s. Played on strings, the opening verse has the feel of an early Classical-era string quartet before blooming into a full, undulating sound from the whole ensemble. The heavier rock sections are an attempt to translate synthesized sounds back into their acoustic counterparts. For example, the seagull sounds are played by a single cellist creating false harmonics on a single string, a technique used to great effect in George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae.” There is a long glissando up and down created by pulling the string slightly as the finger slides to gain the siren effect without engaging harmonics. Also, in the Styx version, a single instrument was recorded multiple times to give a layered effect. In the Sphere version, the same effect is achieved by having different players perform the same line at slightly different times.