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Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, September 2011

Nine violin works by Lawrence Dillon (b. 1959), written from 1983 to 2008. Mr Dillon, the youngest composer to have earned a Juilliard doctorate (as a student of Vincent Persichetti), currently teaches at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He has stated his wish “to connect with the classical music heritage”, a respectable project that should be welcomed by many listeners.

The opening track, Mister Blister (2006), properly belongs with 15 Minutes, a collection of 15 one-minute solo violin pieces. Facade (1983), written while he was still a student at Juilliard, thumbs his nose at the modernist faculty with a corny 19th Century salon waltz, contrasted with a modern-musicky middle section that prompts a faintly nauseating recap. ‘Bacchus Chaconne’ (1991), for violin and viola (Jean-Miguel Hernandez here), came about owing to a cancelled cello concerto commission. The five-minute piece opens with a despondent but very beautiful canon and ends with a sarcastically rock-ish chaconne.

The 2008 Violin Sonata (with piano) is in three movements and is the most substantial piece on the program. Subtitled Motion, the piece plays its neoromantic card skillfully. The first movement works with an obsessive triplet rhythm. II divides between impassioned dissonance and mysterious quietude, with heavenly harp strumming in between. The finale ups the energy level and ends with “wildly antic homages to early rock-and-roll” (I would say “mildly”). There is another extended quiet middle section. The piece was originally for flute and piano—this is a transcription.

Spring Passing (1997) is a transcription of a song dealing with the composer’s mother’s response to his father’s untimely death. It is scored here for marimba (Stan Muncy) and piano. It is appropriately moving, but might be more so with sung text (which is included in the notes).

15 Minutes (2006) is a set of one minute pieces for solo violin, humorous, and well written for the instrument. They end with a Chopin-esque ‘Minute March’.

Another transcription closes out the program. The Voice (2008) is an arrangement of an aria from a 2001 opera, text included: beautiful and expressive, it makes one wonder what the opera is like.

All told, the scraps that make up this program give the impression of a serious and talented composer…Ms Belen is a fine player, and Mr Dillon’s work fits her well.

MusicWeb International, June 2011

The Naxos blurb says: “A love for lyricism, a dash of wit, and what he has called “an irresistible urge” to connect with the Classical music heritage have remained easily identifiable hallmarks of Dillon’s music.” These words give a pretty accurate idea of what the potential listener can expect from this disc. Dillon does have a blog on Sequenza, a trendy American site which grandly bills itself as “The Contemporary Classical Music Community”, but which leans heavily towards music that “refuses to be pigeon-holed”: experimental-cum-crossover. But the nearest the music on this CD gets to that is the short ‘duet’ in Fifteen Minutes for violin with kazoo—otherwise this is an hour of music that is often profound without being pretentious, sometimes light-hearted but never ‘lite’, humorous without being arch, and immensely appealing but never frivolous.

This CD also represents the debut recording of up-and-coming Mexican-American violinist Danielle Belén, who was Grand Prize winner at the 2008 Sphinx Competition. Her award charged her with choosing an American composer with the intention of recording his or her violin works—she chose Dillon. Her website, at the time of writing, features a YouTube video of her performing the Bacchus Chaconne. Her musicianship on this disc bristles with expressiveness, technical agility and considerable enthusiasm for Dillon’s writing.

The recording covers 25 years of the composer’s work. There are two pieces for solo violin, the brief and zippy Mister Blister and the quarter of an hour long Fifteen Minutes. The two are related in that they are in a way the same commission, one done right, one done wrong—the amusing story is in the notes! Fifteen Minutes—with a nod to Andy Warhol—is really 16 individual shorts moulded into a polystylistic and often technically challenging suite, which includes a variety turn on the kazoo.

There is one work for violin and marimba, Spring Passing, an atmospheric, nebulous elegy Dillon wrote by way of tribute to his father, who died when he was two; and one for violin and viola, the Bacchus Chaconne, which Dillon composed as a cathartic response to the very late cancellation of an almost-finished commission for a cello concerto. The work starts slowly and deliberately solemnly, all the better to contrast with the dancy, rock-inflected chaconne that follows, in which the soloists try to outplay each other, before the work ends, figuratively, in tears!

The remaining three works are all for violin and piano. The Voice is Dillon’s melancholic, dramatic embellishment of a transcribed aria for an “unstable” soprano, from his own 2001 opera Buffa. Façade is one of Dillon’s earliest works. In his own words, it takes “an 1890ish waltz, a pretty salon melody, and twists it through some increasingly irrational harmonic shifts until it shatters into inarticulate fragments. After a minute or two of stumbling about in confusion, it gradually reassembles itself into a fragile version of its former self.” A lovely, sharp, innocuous piece, Dillon reports that it caused a bit of an uproar at its university premiere, with a “distinguished professor” instructing his students never to perform such a shockingly unmodernistic piece!

The final work is also the most important one: the Sonata, which started out as a flute sonata—indeed it was in that form that it received its premiere in 2005. Dillon adapted the work for Belén for this recording. Subtitled Motion, the intriguing titles of its three movements are: Motion/Emotion, Emotion/Commotion, and Commotion/Motion. According to Dillon, the movements explore the conflict implicit in the titles. The finale contains what he describes as a “whimsical tribute to early rock and roll”, but that should not deter listeners: from beginning to end this is a fine, impassioned, attractive work, played alternately with great vigour and delicacy by both Belén and Australian pianist David Fung, one that deserves a place in the violin sonata repertoire.

Sound quality is excellent, with little difference between the church and studio venue, save the atmospheric resonance and barely audible background traffic of the former. The booklet notes are fairly detailed and interesting, and all biographies present and correct. Quality music, quality performances, quality production.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2011

Despite loosing fifty-percent of his hearing in a childhood illness, Lawrence Dillon has created a major composing career in the States. With commissions from famous string quartets, that have included the Emerson, Mendelssohn and Borromeo quartets, he has become best known in the field of chamber music. Largely remaining in the world of tonality, his first disc is devoted to violin music, and shows a composer who can readily turn from the instantly pleasing Mister Blister to the formality of an extended three movement sonata for violin and piano. With the subtitle, Motion, it has the unusual format that the title of the second part of each movement becomes the genesis for the opening of the following movement. Composed originally for flute and piano, it was for this disc that Dillon wrote a new version for violin and piano, the nature of the music having moments of aggressive atonality. Jazz enters the finale, before we reach an easy relaxed conclusion. Fifteen Minutes—its title representing its playing time—is divided into sixteen short musical pictures ending with an adaptation of Chopin’s Minute Waltz. That picture offers the violinist scope to display virtuosity. A serious Bacchus Chaconne for violin and viola; the sound of the marimba providing colour to Spring Passing; and the final track, The Voice, being an adaptation of an operatic aria composed in 2001. The very fortunate Danielle Belen plays a gorgeous 1709 Alessandro Gagliano, its tonal beauty richly endowing her performances. Technically very assured, she has a very positive partner in the Australian-born David Fung, a major award winner who is creating a much acclaimed solo career. Superb sound quality from Naxos’s Canadian team.

Lawrence Dillon, April 2011

Back in the summer of 2008, Danielle Belén contacted me with a very attractive proposal: she wanted to record my complete (or complete up to that point) works for violin on Naxos. Having recently won the Sphinx Grand Prize, Danielle had been charged with tapping an American composer for her debut recording.

We all know the truism that careers are a matter of who you know. For the most part, this rule holds true, so it’s particularly gratifying to get this kind of opportunity from a complete stranger out of the blue.

Strangers at the outset, over the next two-plus years Danielle and I corresponded, met in Los Angeles and Winston-Salem, and talked through musical and nonmusical issues. I quickly discovered that I had a remarkable champion for my works: though our backgrounds are largely dissimilar, Danielle connected with my music on a very deep level. She got the humor and the emotional range immediately, and her attention to detail was really inspiring.

Now, in April 2011, the relationship Danielle developed with my music has finally come to fruition: Naxos has released the results in an attractive disk.

The recordings are pristine and her collaborators (David Fung, Juan-Miguel Hernandez and Stan Muncy) are outstanding. But the center that holds it all together is Danielle. She is the best kind of virtuoso: the kind who puts her considerable gifts in service of the music, rather than making the music kowtow to her own ego.

Her performance of Mister Blister is scorching, Façade mixes an old-world charm with alarming psychotic turns, Bacchus Chaconne is raunchy and Spring Passing is played like a wistful folk tune. The range of expression alone is impressive—and all of the above and more are on display in the other three works on the disk: Fifteen Minutes, The Voice and Sonata: Motion.

If you gather from this blog post that I’m pretty happy with the results, you don’t know the half of it.

Today, Danielle will be performing the first of several CD release events in a house concert in Santa Monica. More events are planned over the next 10 months—stay tuned., April 2011

Dillon connects his works in some ways with classical models…many of the connections are in titles (Bacchus Chaconne, 1991) rather than in musical content. The 2008 Violin Sonata, for example, does have three movements, as would be expected from traditional classical style, but the sonata is called “Motion” and the movements are labeled “Motion/Emotion,” “Emotion/Commotion” and “Commotion/Motion.” The other works here range from the lyrical to the slightly pointed (although never really sardonic). They are Mister Blister (2006), Façade (1983), Spring Passing (1997), The Voice (2008), and a piece called Fifteen Minutes (2006) that in fact runs about that long and contains such sections as “Runaway,” “Contained,” “Clubbed” and “Self Absorption.”

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