Ghost Light Reviewed in Fanfare Magazine

Akropolis Reed Quintet has been playing together for almost 13 years and began as a humble student ensemble at the University of Michigan. With seven national chamber music awards and prizes and counting, the ensemble has taken the chamber music world by storm. The members of Akropolis aren’t just elite musicians, but spend active time working as commissioners, administrators, educators, and advocates, to name but a few activities.

Their fourth album, Ghost Light, features all new compositions by living composers. This is a concept that is deeply engrained in the fabric of what Akropolis represents as an ensemble. The common themes that are interwoven and heard and expressed throughout each piece are concepts of life-cycles revolving around the use of darkness, light, colors, instrumentation, and texture. Often times, death and rebirth are themes. The entire album is effectively able to balance a dark intrinsic battle with all the joy that life brings.

The first work on the album, Rites for the Afterlife, uniquely explores what ancient Egyptians believe happens after death. In four movements—“Inscriptions from the Book of the Dead,” “Passage through the Netherworld,” “The Hall of Judgement,” and “The Field of Reeds”—Stacy Garrop’s work allows the listener to follow a soul on the final journey from death to the afterworld. This work was commissioned in 2018 by the Barlow Endowment on behalf of Akropolis Reed Quintet, Calefax Reed Quintet, and the Brigham Young University Reed Quintet.

Kinds of Light by Michael Gilbertson explores light through the dimension of sound and texture, using a variety of contemporary compositional techniques. Elements of post-Minimalism are used by Gilbertson to help generate a sound that aligns with the type of light featured in each movement: “Flicker,” “Twilight,” “Fluorescent,” and “Ultraviolet.” Akropolis has mastered the compositional elements that Gilbertson uses and managed to perfectly balance the instrumentation and match articulation styles across the entire ensemble. This piece, as well as Firing Squad and Seed to Snag, was commissioned by Akropolis and the I-Park Foundation.

Firing Squad was written in 2018 by Iranian composer Niloufar Nourbakhsh. This deeply moving work was inspired by one sentence in the opening of the great literary novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This piece inspires the listener to go on an emotional journey of being forced to face certain death in front of the firing squad. Many humans will have a similar response when placed in this horrific situation and will quickly travel through an intense flood of memories, feelings, and experiences until their time is extinguished. This piece is unique because at certain times in the recording the composer overlaps a previous recording that Akropolis made to create a blurry or hazy sound, often creating an ethereal backdrop. Firing Squad is beautifully haunting. Feel free to exhale loudly with the ensemble at the end of this piece to release your frustration from the pandemic.

Theo Chandler’s Seed to Snag is another beautiful representation of the life cycle. This well-thought-out piece focuses on the life cycle of organic plant matter, and follows the life of a seed as it moves throughout its cyclical life from “seed to snag.” Chandler uniquely uses traditional Baroque compositional styles, mixed with contemporary elements, to express the journey of a seed to its ultimate rebirth. The first movement, “Sprout,” starts off unfolding and layering parts slowly, like a seed taking in water and sun light over time. Eventually, a root breaks out of the seed with a fast-growing vigor for life. Soon enough, roots are growing everywhere and bursting through the soil and growing towards the sun. The second movement, “Stretch,” features a gorgeous bassoon solo representing the seeds mature growth as a tree. Reaching up to the sky and growing old and majestic. The rest of the ensemble serves as atmospheric growth. In the final moment, “Sow,” the listener can hear seeds falling and spiraling off of the tree. This ultimately aids in the rebirth of a new tree, bringing the life cycle full circle. This uplifting last movement leaves the listener feeling invigorated and energetic.

The final piece on the album is Homage to Paradise Valley, composed by Jeff Scott, with poetry and narration by Detroit native Marsha Music. This piece was written after Scott was on tour with Imani Winds in Detroit. While in Michigan, he visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The composer was inspired by a museum exhibit that chronicles the lives and treatment of African Americans in the areas of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom. Three of the four movements start with a short reading of poetry written by Marsha Music. Each movement focuses on different aspects of Black Bottom: “Ghosts of Black Bottom,” “Hastings Street Blues,” “Roho, Pumzika Kwa Amani,” and “Paradise Theater Jump.” This piece was commissioned by Akropolis and Chamber Music America. Funding was provided by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with additional funding provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Akropolis Reed Quintet’s fourth studio album Ghost Light does not disappoint. The performance standards of Akropolis are award winning for a reason. The ensemble interprets each piece and brings it to life by fully enveloping the literal meaning and purpose the composer intended. No detail is ignored. The ensemble executes musical elements like balance, attacks, articulations, and phrasing flawlessly. This album took several years to complete, with the Akropolis members harnessing their core values and working with multiple nonprofit arts organizations and composers to commission all new works. Their commitment to the creation of new reed quintet repertoire and working with some of the best living composers is commendable. If you haven’t been listening to Akropolis Reed Quintet, now is the time to check out their new album. Natalie Szabo, September/October 2021

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