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Orchestra and Large Ensemble

Three Rivers
The tensions between controlled and uncontrolled musical elements . . . also added interest to Bermel's large-ensemble piece, Three Rivers (2001). Two spirited improvisations were set off by three distinct rhythmic currents, ranging from funky to flowing to frenetic. Everything is put together with a crafty imagination that constantly keeps the ear off-guard. This is one sonic knockout I'd love to hear again.
--John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 2010

Soul Garden for Solo Viola and String Orchestra
Nadia Sirota, viola; The New England String Orchestra conducted by Federico Cortese, December 5, 2010

Derek Bermel, whose work has only occasionally made it to Boston ears (in the last five years, BMOP, the Guarneri Quartet on tour, and Chameleon Ensemble have performed him), is a New York-based composer and clarinetist who has been drawn to ethno-musicological influences. His Soul Garden for viola and ensemble was written for Paul Neubauer and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 2000. The original instrumentation was for solo viola plus “cello quintet,” thus creating, in one implementation, a double string trio. The work, however, is clearly concerted; the viola takes the role, according to the composer’s conception, of an alto vocalist in a gospel-style church service. Much of the work involves call-and-response effects, with one of the cellos taking the latter part, with occasional commentary from a solo violin. The scaling up of the instrumentation was a result, we were told, of a request from an Australian performer, who made his own arrangement that Bermel then edited before approving it. Therefore, this represents a hybrid transcription process: it wasn’t the composer’s idea, but the realization had his participation and approval.

As to the result and substance, we can say that Soul Garden is a very attractive piece worth hearing again. The main tune, presented straightaway by the solo viola, is tonal, pentatonic and microtonal all at once, with gospel and klezmer vying for prominence. The opening, solemn and keening, moves up in pitch, intensity and volume to a big climax, followed by a cadenza, another climax, and a winding down. Most of the thematic material derives from the opening.

Nadia Sirota, whose day job is actually a night job, hosting the overnight program on WNYC, is the latest and by no means the least of a musical family that includes composer father Robert and violist brother Jonah of the Chiara Quartet (if you think your kids are overscheduled, consider this family dilemma: dad came to Boston to hear Nadia, while mom was in New York hearing the Chiara, on the same day). Ms. Sirota was a highly engaging and emotionally engaged soloist, with a rich big sound and impressive technique — microtones making exact change in cents — and a foot that wanted to stomp out the “amens.” Her calls were well answered by NESO principal cellist Joshua Gordon and concertmaster Heidi Braun-Hill. Cortese and the rest of the ensemble gave excellent support, notably where coordination of microtonal passages was required.
--Vance Koven, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, Dec. 10, 2010

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American composer Derek Bermel (very much alive and in attendance) composed his seductive culture-crossing “Soul Garden’’ in 2000 for solo viola, two violins, viola, and two cellos, and later expanded it for string ensemble. Inspired by gospel choir call-and-response, it bends pitches with jazzy style. The visiting viola soloist, Nadia Sirota, brought a funky downtown sensibility to her rhapsodic dialogue with cellist Joshua Gordon.
-- Harlow Robinson, The Boston Globe, Dec. 8, 2010

A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace
World Premiere May 1, 2009, American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall

The American Composers Orchestra practices truth in advertising. As its name implies, its mission is to perform new, recent and neglected works by American composers. On Friday night at Zankel Hall it offered a program of premieres by Lukas Ligeti and Derek Bermel and the New York premiere of the Guitar Concerto by Robert Beaser. A piece from 2007 by the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher was slipped in, proving that this open-minded orchestra is willing to reach beyond America for a worthy piece now and then.

But the other purpose of the evening was to honor artistic leaders who have been crucial to the orchestra’s success: Mr. Beaser, its artistic director; Mr. Bermel, just finishing his tenure as composer in residence; and Dennis Russell Davies, the conductor laureate, who founded the orchestra 32 years ago and looked elated to be back.

Mr. Bermel’s work, “A shout, a whisper, and a trace,” was particularly effective and often exhilarating. Mr. Bermel draws from myriad genres: jazz, rock, gospel, cerebral modernism, you name it. That his interests are so wide-ranging could prevent him from forging a distinctive voice were his ear not so keen and his technique so assured.

Mr. Bermel says that this 20-minute piece was inspired by his reflection on Bartok’s final five years, as a transplant to New York. Though relieved to have left Hungary, his homeland, under the Nazis, Bartok maintained a personal connection to his musical roots.

Mr. Bermel’s piece begins with earthy, foursquare tunes and rhythmic riffs that seem reminiscent of Bartok works that incorporate Eastern European folk music. The tunes alternate with clattering instrumental outbursts that could be frenzied ritornellos in a neo-Baroque concerto.

As the piece unfolds, it is fun to imagine what sources Mr. Bermel may have had in mind: brass chorale touched with tartly jazzy harmonies; Coplandesque modal musings; a ruminative middle movement with dense, blurry impressionistic string chords. But the allusions somehow enhance the voice that comes through. The music is strangely alluring and constantly surprising.
-- Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, May 3, 2009

Voices CD on BMOP/Sound, released March 2009

Staggering eclecticism from a true musical renaissance man

You might say that Derek Bermel (b1967) is the quintessential 21st-century musician. A composition student of Henri Dutilleux, Louis Andriessen and William Bolcom (among others), Bermel is also an accomplished jazz clarinettist, has travelled the world exploring folk traditions, and performs (singing and playing keyboards and percussion) in a rock band. This staggering eclecticism is apparent in all four works recorded here.

Dust Dances (1994) developed out of the composer's study of the gyil, a xylophone-like instrument from Ghana. Powered by a series of syncopated ostinatos, the music has a distinctive African flavour that's enhanced by vibrantly colourful orchestration.

Thracian Echoes
(2002) was inspired by an extended visit to Bulgaria. In the score's opening section, closely overlapping melodic lines create dark sonic pools that gradually swirl and deepen. Then, from what seems like the depths of despair, the mood seems to brighten, bringing the promise of a joyful conclusion. At the moment of truth, however, the music's resolve falters, sinking into quiet waves of uncertainty.

Elixir (2006) is a lush, pastoral tone-painting that seamlessly mixes orchestral and electronic sounds. Serene at first, its lulling atmosphere is soon disturbed by cries from a gathering chorus of instrumental birds and beasts.

In Voices (1997), both Bermel's solo clarinet and the orchestra make sounds that mimic human speech and song. It's a delightfully clever, often amusing concerto, yet a quite serious one too. The slow movement, based on an Irish folk tune, is gorgeous.

Given the very wide range of inspiration at work in these four pieces, the consistency and coherence of Bermel's musical language is particularly impressive. He's definitely a composer I'm eager to hear more from. I just hope that future performances are as authoritative as these by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The SACD recording is thrillingly vivid. World Premiere May 3, 2006, American Composers Orchestra, Carnegie Hall
-- Andrew Farach-Colton, Gramophone, July 2009

Elixir

After the break came Derek Bermel's Elixir, an appropriately titled magical concoction that opened with a shimmer of bowed metal, the elongated dry shush of a rain stick and a glistening sweep on a mark tree. Hushed strings and harp played a simple lullaby, which gained in microtonal complexity with each repetition. Ghostly voices soon sounded out from Bermel's orchestra; lacking a score, I craned my head this way and that, trying to figure out how this was accomplished. Wind sections perched in balconies left and right provided birdsong chirped from tree to tree. Bermel's vocabulary drew upon Ives and Messiaen, but in a strikingly original manner that yielded an utterly narcotic effect. All too soon, the percussionists ended the piece as it had begun -- a pity only in that this was a sound world I would have happily lived in for a much greater length of time.
-- Steve Smith, nightafternight.blogs.com

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Equally fresh and offbeat, Derek Bermel’s “Elixir” marked the beginning his three-year tenure as ACO’s composer-in-residence. Bermel is a musician of almost incredible breadth and productivity — a virtuoso clarinetist and apparent stylistic packrat who remembers and incubates everything he hears. While “Elixir” is informed by the shimmering “spectral music” that flourished in France in the 1970s, it also sounds distinctively American and decidedly maritime, with shore sounds and a constant rocking that outdoes Debussy’s “En Bateau” in its motility.
-- Michael Clive, The Villager, New York City

Thracian Echoes

... [an] exuberantly sprawling, ethnologically informed, labile, damn-it-all-I’ve-got-the-microphone piece (2002), the kind of dazzler that in a different age (say, Leopold Stokowski’s lifetime) might have borne a hokey title like “Bulgarian Rhapsody.”

But back then Bermel wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Would symphonic musicians then have been nearly as confident at “bending” notes as BMOP’s wind players were, or for that matter improvising, or barging their way through fierce metrical thickets, or playing out of phase, or abandoning themselves to an esthetic that knows what it is to go much too far and goes right ahead anyway?

“Thracian Echoes” is an exciting piece by a composer with what seems to be — on this single scrap of evidence — an extraordinary ear for translating his ethnological adventures into orchestral music that is itself adventurous and, in the doing, making it quite personal as well. Who else could have made all that up? “Thracian Echoes” was the hit of the concert.
--Richard Buell, Sequenza21, Nov. 2006.

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A world premiere work destined to lead a long, illustrious life. [Bermel] has lived in these Bulgarian rhythms and melodies, woven them far into the complex texture of his composition, and as a result, created a powerful work of art that speaks a language all its own and is built to last.
--John Aiello, The Journal News, Westchester County

Voices for clarinet and orchestra

Derek Bermel's Voices, a concerto for clarinet, with the composer laying the solo part brilliantly, was fun, music with brash humor, clever scoring, evocations of elegiac Irish bagpipes in the slow movement, and Led Zeppelin in the finale… A truly exceptional talent.
-- The New York Times

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Derek Bermel's Voices, a concerto for clarinet and orchestra, is a crowd-pleaser that is likely to enter the repertory of every orchestra that had a representative in the audience. Part of the appeal lies in the virtuosity and charisma of the composer, who was soloist . . . There doesn't seem to be anything Bermel can't do with the clarinet; at one point he took off the top, and played it like an ebony trumpet. But the appeal also lies in the music, which adds dimensions of wit and intelligence to melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements of immediate popular appeal. This is the kind of piece that makes your day.
-- The Boston Globe

Dust Dances for orchestra

[Resident conductor Vincent L.] Danner began his journey by dipping into the unknown with the local premiere of Dust Dances by young New York composer Derek Bermel, in attendance. The bold, brisk composition, based on the marimba-like gyil music of Ghana, was an invigorating, percussive delight; still, its true alliance felt less West African than American with nods to Bernstein, Ives and Copland. And for all its microtonal passages and motoric, Minimalist phrasing, Dust Dances had refreshing charm - hardly the unapproachable stuff so much modern classical music gets accused of being.
-- The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Continental Divide for large chamber ensemble

The high point of the evening was the premiere of Continental Divide, a clever, jazz-influenced confection by Derek Bermel - winner of PNME's 1996 Harvey Gaul Composition Contest. It was fun, fanciful, and brief.
-- The Pittsburgh Post Gazette
   
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Guest conductor Derek Bermel presided over appealing works in a number of styles. Bermel's Continental Divide makes no claims to monumentalism, instead shooting musical accents off long notes and exuding jazzy energy. Hints of lyricism peek through the textures, as do passages of gleeful cacophony. The composer led a crisp account of his inviting nine-minute piece.
-- The Cleveland Plain Dealer


Hot Zone for large chamber ensemble

The best works display a high level of craftsmanship while at the same time conveying the spirit of a given idiom....Derek Bermel's Hot Zone features virtuosic, dynamic orchestrations and colors via heavily syncopated tutti rhythms which contrast nicely with melismatic solo writing for English horn and cello. The use of 5/4 also keeps Bermel's African-inspired grooves from getting stale." (Review from a performance by The Dogs of Desire, David Alan Miller conducting).
-- New Music Connoisseur, New York

Tag Rag

"The snappy, pop inspired Tag Rag was good fun, full of merry percussion effects and playing around with a short riff that the composer lifted from an Amsterdam street musician." 
--Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times

 

Small Ensemble and Solo Works
A Short History of the Universe for clarinet and string quartet, Wolf Trap, January 11, 2013

"As artist-in-residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Bermel has been studying gravitational physics and string theory and applying them to music. Uh-oh, you might think; but in fact, “A Short History of the Universe” proved to be a surprisingly playful work, from the rubbery glissandos of the opening “multiverse” to the songlike “heart of space” (imagine a Schubert-inflected Middle Eastern bluesy dirge) and the jaunty dance and hymn-like close of “twistor scattering,” in which “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” seemed to echo faintly through a slightly demented cosmos. All that freewheeling postmodernism made for an engaging, extremely enjoyable listen — an intriguing new work from a very 21st-century composer."
--Stephen Brookes, The Washington Post, Jan. 2013

Music of Today concert, members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, April 4, 2006

"The earlier concert in the free Music of Today series focused on the American composer and clarinettist Derek Bermel, whose diverse output shows just how many types of music can impact on a contemporary musician,from classical to jazz, from R&B to hip-hop, as well as innumerable folk traditions. Thracian Games, which Bermel played himself, is a steadily rising crescendo of solo clarinet hyper-activity, drawn from folk songs he transcribed in a region of Bulgaria. If Bartok is the obvious model,there's something distinctive not only in the piece's use of indigenous rhythms and melodic shapes but also in its increasingly manic attitude. Even more striking was Soul Garden for viola and string quintet, whose origins lie in African-American gospel music. With soloist Rachel Roberts emulating the vocalism of an alto gospel singer answered by the church baritone represented by an ensemble cellist, the result lies in the tradition of Aaron Copland's popular Americana in its immediacy and sense of respectful parody."
-- George Hall, The Guardian, 4/06

Tied Shifts for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion


"Bermel, an important emerging New York composer, has his own brand of fusion. Jazz and the klezmer clarinet find their way into his music. In "Tied Shifts," he explored Bulgarian folk styles as a 21st-century Bartók might. One witnessed not so much folk tunes, but the comet's tail of folk tunes. Smeared rhythms, harmonies and instrumental combinations are left in tunes' wakes, and they light up the sky. It's exciting original music, and eighth blackbird gave it an exciting and original performance."
-- Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 10/05

"With a background in jazz and rock as well as classical music, the New York-based Bermel is an eclectic with wide-open ears. The first movement of his two-movement opus began with violin and cello playing the same phrases over and over but that deceptively simple beginning developed into a fast and energetic interplay of all six players, the music developing an engaging rhythm.

Like an increasing number of composers these days, influenced at least in part by the minimalists, Bermel doesn't resist giving his music a sequential logic that makes it easy to follow. But Tied Shifts turned out to be anything but slavishly predictable, with its second movement incorporating hymn-like material and echoes of Bulgarian folk music.

Like much of its repertoire, Tied Shifts was written specially for Eighth Blackbird and a sense of ownership characterized its performance. If performances of new music often suffer from a lack of apparent conviction, it is because players so often behave like renters rather than owners."

--The Toronto Star, 1/05

Coming Together for clarinet and cello

Meighan Stoops was clearly having a fantastic evening, particularly in Derek Bermel's unusual Coming Together. She and cellist André Emelianoff brought the piece to life with precision that had me chuckling. Constructed mostly of short, sighing glissandi, the piece had Stoops' clarinet in an almost sexual rapport with Emelianoff¹s cello. Bermel, like many of the composers on this program, is clearly fascinated by jazz, and this work benefited from its interpreters' clearly feeling the same.
-- Bruce Hodges, musicweb.uk, 7/03

This duet is genuinely strange -- and from me that 's a compliment. The two instruments moan and wail throughout, with extensive use of glissando. The result is a keening of two voices, truly human and something beyond at the same time, funny and eerie.

-- Robert Carl, Fanfare 2/03

A piece which is at times (surely intentionally) laugh-out-loud humorous, it is difficult to conceive this as anything other than a 'tour de force' of performance art, where the gestural vocabulary is write large in a musical equivalent of slapstick.

--  John Kersey, Tempo 4/03

Language Instruction for mixed quartet

“Language Instruction” (2003), Derek Bermel’s witty, entertaining and theatrical comedy, is based on his experience studying Brazilian Portuguese from tapes. The clarinet takes the role of a perky teacher patiently repeating with phrases that are first mauled, then mastered by his students, some bright and some dimwitted, represented by a violinist, a cellist and a pianist. The New Millennium musicians clearly enjoyed themselves.
-- Vivien Schweitzer, The New York Times

"The centerpiece was Derek Bermel's Language Instruction (2003), an amusing full ensemble work based on the rhythms and gestures of language tapes. The clarinet was, in effect, the voice on the tape, and the other instruments were the students -- variously willing or difficult, competent or bumbling -- who must repeat the phrases. Mr. Bermel spins this interaction into an increasingly chaotic fantasy that would have been perfectly at home on a program with Berio's Sequenza III."
--Allan Kozinn, The New York Times

Turning for solo piano

Turning is a major piano work, about 20 minutes long. On the surface it looks like another set of character pieces, but in fact it's also a set of variations on its little pseudo-hymn tune. And its grander dimensions allow Bermel to combine more diverse elements...which shows him off to greatest strength.
-- Robert Carl, Fanfare 2/03

Three Funk Studies for solo piano

"...propulsive, raw and damnably difficult: imagine Thelonious Monk crossed with Prokofiev."

-- Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

Mulatash Stomp for clarinet, violin, and piano

Hungary is at the heart of Mulatash Stomp for violin, clarinet, and piano, and early work and one of the most attractive on the disc. The 'mulatas' is an all-night Hungarian party, and to bring some American influence to the piece Bermel adds a techno rhythm. Clearly Mozart is also a guest, for a theme from the 'Jupiter' symphony makes much of the running as the piece goes on.

-- John Kersey, Tempo 4/03

Soul Garden for solo viola and string quintet

American composer Derek Bermel's Soul Garden, a 2000 work for solo viola and string quintet, represents the confluence of two mainstreams ‹ the romantic-modern waters that originated in Europe and the blues-jazz-gospel waters that flowed from African American communities. The most striking and pervasive effect in the piece is the use of sliding notes, or quarter-tones, to emulate the vocal inflections of African American music. But "effect" isn't quite the right term because these inflections are not separable, conceptually or compositionally, from the core musical ideas:  Bermel's highly complex but fully controlled approach to harmony and rhythmic structure. The piece might benefit from a little editing, but nearly every moment is both appealing and challenging, familiar and strange. It is music by a composer who thinks deeply about where music comes from, how it is made and what it is for. Viola soloist Kerri Ryan and her colleagues delivered a top-drawer, committed performance.

-- Mike Greenberg, San Antonio Express-News, 7/04

Like many of his pieces, this essay for solo viola and a string quintet (a quartet with an extra cello, in this configuration) draws freely from several musical worlds. The music's surfaces are painted in the coloration of blues and gospel. Glimpses of blues-based pop turn up as well: a fleeting violin passage, for example, quotes the introductory guitar line of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze."

The work's underpinnings, though, use rhythmic and harmonic techniques more germane to contemporary concert music, and the tensions between those languages give the music its poignancy. The bluesy turns of the solo viola line, played with a warm tone and an almost vocal inflection by Paul Neubauer, suggest a simple, direct approach to tonality. Yet the quartet writing, with its hazy, tonally ambiguous shimmer, pulls in the opposite direction. The piece moves quickly: its 13 minutes hardly overstay their welcome.

--Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 3/04

In Soul Garden Bermel shows a more serious side, and it is possible to detect a strong blues and gospel influence in the viola's opening lament, from which everything else in the piece is derived. There is much in the contrast between lyricism and activity here to interest the listener, with the 'rub' (as Bermel calls it) of combined European diatonicism and African pentatonicism - of course at the heart of the gospel tradition, with its heightened use of controlled dissonance.
-- John Kersey, Tempo 4/03

Theme and Absurdities for clarinet solo

"Most conspicuous was composer-clarinetist Derek Bermel. He played his Theme and Absurdities, flaunting its stubborn atonality and braying glisses that led finally to a tonal arpeggio broken off by an appoggiatura out of the introduction to 'Zarathustra.'. . Bermel, … with pianist Claudio Martinez-Mehner, emphasized both the lyricism and liveliness in his own 'SchiZm'."
-- The Village Voice

Wanderings for woodwind quintet

"Derek Bermel's Wanderings is keen in sonic imagination."

-- The Cleveland Plain Dealer