Canteloupe Records have released an all-Derek Bermel album, 'Canzonas Americanas', focussing on the US composer’s fascinating and diverse output of works for large ensemble including Three Rivers, Continental Divide, Hot Zone, and his Faber Music Millennium Series commission, Natural Selection. Performers are the crack US group, Alarm Will Sound under Alan Pierson:
‘American composer/clarinettist Derek Bermel and chamber band Alarm Will Sound show their classical music counterparts just how rich and diverse an orchestral musical palette can be and how fully it offers classically trained players the chance to show off not only their chops but their expressive skills as well.Gramophone (Laurence Vittes), February 2013
Hot Zone draws on Bermel's study of the West African gyil (a 14- to 18-key marimba-like instrument) with Ngmen Baaru, subverted by incongruously Western dance rhythms. The 11 minutes of Three Rivers bristle with Bernsteinian hip energy and feature extraordinary instrumental sound combinations such as low reed instruments honking in not-quite-unison or twinkling flutes and xylophones backing a massed string chorale, eventually buttressed by dark brass.
Inspired by Stephen Hawking, Continental Divide provocatively manipulates tune and tempo. At the End of the World, radiantly sung by Kiera Duffy, is a spiritual hymn. The theatrical delights of Natural Selection, a song-cycle in all but name, sung by Timothy Jones with full-hearted affection, golden-toned elegance and good-natured humour, embrace cabaret, singspiel and gospel before ending with a Native American paean to the dog.
The title track, Canzonas Americanas, which has the heart-grabbing melodies and Technicolour sound to become an overnight hit, was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel. Throughout, the musical experience is absorbing, eventful, involving and not above using cheeky references to favourites such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to score entertainment points…’
'"Ethnic composer" is a description John Adams uses to characterise his own brand of musical eclecticism, and it's one that could equally be applied to Derek Bermel, whose pieces gleefully rampage across traditional stylistic boundaries, appropriating what they need. In fact, the first of Bermel's four Canzonas Americanas is dedicated to Adams and refracts a folksy, rather Copland-like tune through a whole range of new-world prisms, from samba to jazz and funk. Bermel tends to build his music layer by layer, creating exhilaratingly complex instrumental textures, which Alarm Will Sound realise with great panache… there's no doubt about the wit of the song cycle Natural Selection (with baritone Timothy Jones as soloist), with its ironic glances at human behaviour, and vocal writing that runs the full gamut from speech to gospel.'
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), 3 January 2013
'It's hard to know what to be more dazzled by in the music of composer Derek Bermel - the range of stylistic voices he cultivates or the profusion of ingenuity, beauty and wit he brings to everything he touches. This superb new compilation by the New York ensemble Alarm Will Sound shows off the many sides of Bermel's musical personality, from the quick-change artistry of the Latin-infused title work to the witty, restless modernism of "Natural Selection," a setting of poems by Wendy Walters. In between come an unpredictable range of modes - multilayered big-band jazz in "Three Rivers," jittery metrical experimentation in "Continental Divide," African strains in "Hot Zone" and a stretch of tender, dreamy consonance in his lush setting of Nicole Krauss' "At the End of the World." Each of these pieces on its own is enough to thrill and enthrall a listener, especially in these vibrant and forthright performances led by the ensemble's music director, Alan Pierson. Taken together, they're nothing short of magnificent.'
San Francisco Chronicle (Joshua Kosman), 10 February 2013