Why was this a big deal? The answer is simple: Contemporary classical music is hard to sell, and major labels such as Sony must usually make a handful of crossover discs or re-recordings of superfamiliar warhorses to finance a single project like this. One glitch -- be it a blizzard, a missed flight, or a case of the flu -- could persuade the label to shelve the project, sometimes permanently. But not this time; Sony had already invested too much. They had Ma, America's preeminent cellist and a powerful draw for aficionados. They had a date with the Philadelphia Orchestra (whom their predecessor, Columbia, had on contract 30 years ago and sadly lost). And they had all three composers in attendance, lending their advice to the recording sessions. This CD was going to get made, no matter what.

The music is challenging and well worth the effort; the playing, particularly Ma's transformation of the most forbidding forests of notes into melody, is exhilarating. Danielpour's concerto pits the soloist against the orchestra in a musical portrait of spiritual intolerance. Rouse's work alternately rages against and mourns the deaths of friends, mentors, and creative inspirations; the language is aggressive and exotic, with glimpses back at music of the Seventeenth Century. Music for Cello and Orchestra, a piece privately commissioned as a 40th anniversary present, is Leon Kirchner's concentrated journey from argument to agreement.

Zinman was right: this CD is a vic-tory -- but not just for American music.
-- Raymond Tuttle

Lazlo Bane
11 Transistor
(Almo Sounds)

Lazlo Bane is my favorite kind of band, and its debut is my favorite kind of album -- an absolute minimum in the bullshit department, great hooks, slinky beats, quirky lyrics. This is Weezer minus the posing.

11 Transistor bolts out of the gate with tunes like "Buttercup" and "1975," which wrap Tim Bright's extra-chunky guitar around the zesty thump provided by bassist Chris Link and drummer Chicken. Songwriter and vocalist Chad Fischer proves his lyrical mettle on the wonderfully vindictive "Wax Down Wings." Between gusts of power-pop guitar, and in a tenor more notable for its phrasing than power, he wails: "You'll never crack my marrow/You're just a fractured ego." "Flea Market Girl" is equally strange and wonderful, an eerie minor-key melody delivered in three-part harmony. This is what Seals & Crofts would have sounded like had they emerged during the grunge era.

Lazlo Bane's ballads are dependably entrancing, built around Fischer's mournful melodies and spiced with just enough rhythmic muscle to keep the proceedings from turning maudlin. "Sleep" and "Midday Train" both sway like delightful lullabies, Bright's acoustic strumming keeping time for Fischer's plaintive warble.

The gutsiest cut of the bunch is "Overkill," the old Men At Work hit from 1983, which is delightfully covered here with the help of that band's venerable frontman Colin Hay (something of a mentor to Fischer). Hay lends his unmistakable rasp to this energetic updating, trading refrains with his protege. The band's playful spirit is best captured on the exuberant opener (and first single) "I'll Do Everything," an irresistible slice of white-boy yearning that finds all four members of the band whistling the melody. "I've tried to learn from God," Fischer deadpans, "'cuz he knows not to make a scene."

Though the members of Lazlo Bane would be the last to press the point, this sentiment makes a perfect credo for the Boston quartet. They're far more interested in making thrilling pop than making any scene.

-- Steven Almond

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