Jonathan Newmark: Making His Mark in Chamber Music

Composer Jonathan Newmark is a Colonel in the US Army, a consultant to the Surgeon General and an attending neurologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He is also an honorary US Army bandsman, performs with chamber ensembles in the Washington D.C. area and writes some amazing chamber music. Music Unlimited released a CD of Jonathan Newmark's music, Trios & Duos: Chamber Music 1993 - 2001 in 2008. This isn't a major label which is unfortunate because the music is extremely expressive - strong harmonies and striking sonorities create a new sound, the mark a fresh voice in classical chamber music.

Trios & Duos starts with somber string trio. The melodies are tragic with strong motivic development, almost fugue like. Many of the harmonies sound similar to Bartók, but with darker sense of foreboding. At no point is there confusion as to what voice is paramount, yet the active voice bounces easily through the trio. As the pace increases in the first movement, the tension mounts, until we come to the woeful coda.

The second movement has "attitude” - played with energy. Even though there is more excitement to the movement, the harmonies are still dark with an edge of danger lurking just around the corner. The tension is amp’d up from the first movement. Musically, we’re in a horror film, tense and exciting. Someone is going to die, we just don’t know who.

Compared to the third movement, the first two were practically celebrations. The killer is stalking us now; there is no escape. The false relations in the viola and cello double stops create a sense of anxiety which in turn creates this sense of tragedy. The music could be a lament and yet, as painful as the emotions are running through it, the lament is even more poignant in the movement ending far too soon.

A bassoon duet is not something you hear very often, which is a shame because the instrument is incredibly versatile. The sonorities Mr Newmark uses in his duet really capture the beauty of the instrument. While the first movement isn’t particularly fast, it is enjoyable listening to how the two instruments play off each other, slow and unexpected.

The second movement becomes a frolic for the two instrumentalists. Yet, in the midst of the play, there is a return to slower elements of the first movement. But the sense of play can’t be contained and quickly the rough and tumble between the two instruments returns.

The third movement starts almost as if written by Gershwin – jazz harmonies abound with a lovely melody that doesn’t get fully realized until the piece has progressed awhile. Eventually, the piece ends with the same sense of play as in the second movement, allowing the fourth movement to also pull in elements of the first and third movements. It then continues playing a slow, arresting melody over a bouncing accompaniment. It all ends with a nice crisp punch, not something we normally think of with bassoons, yet perfectly executed.

By the time we get to the oboe, bassoon and piano trio, the darker sense of Newmark’s harmonic color begins to get a bit heavy. As a stand alone piece, the oboe/ bassoon/piano trio is a wonderful piece. I particularly liked the beautiful (yet tragic) piano in the first movement. There are lots of false relations again which Newmark handles with precision. Overall, the first movement is so tragic there doesn’t seem to be anything to bring us out of the darkness.

The second movement is fast and frisky in nature. There is a great use of the tessitura of the instruments, with wonderful imitation running throughout the movement. Perhaps what this piece needs is a chance to slow down, maybe a third movement allowing the listener a chance to find a happy sense of harmony.

Far and away the most beautiful piece on the CD is the last, Chaconne and Fugue. It was written as a memoriam for Dr. John C. Wood, Jr. and conveys both a sense of loss and hope. It is the one piece where Mr Newmark really shows his ability to write optimism in music. Yet, the first part of the music is so grave it is difficult not to weep at the sense of loss he must have felt for his friend. I don’t know the technical level of the horn part, but I suspect it is a demanding piece. Yet, I highly recommend any serious horn player to consider adding this piece to their repertoire. It is, perhaps one of the most beautiful horn pieces I have ever heard.

Mr Newmark’s understanding of how to combine the various instruments is excellent. His use of harmonic shades in Trios & Duets is extremely interesting, albeit he tends to prefer the darker sonorities. The overall CD feels a bit tortured – perfect in each individual piece, and particularly for the final lament, but perhaps a bit much for an entire album. Yet, it continues to draw me back. His music has left its mark on me.

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