Jack Gallagher: Diversions Overture; Berceuse; Sinfonietta; Symphony in One Movement—Threnody. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $8.99.
Michael Daugherty: Route 66; Ghost Ranch; Sunset Strip; Time Machine. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. Naxos. $8.99.
Thomas Bloch: Missa Cantate; Sancta Maria; Cold Song; Christ Hall Blues; Christ Hall Postlude. Jörg Waschinski, male soprano; Thomas Bloch, glass harmonica, cristal Baschet, keyboards, crystal bells, waterphone, bells, ondes Martenot; Jacques Duprez, viola; David Coulter, musical saw; Paderewski Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fernand Quattrocchi. Naxos. $8.99.
Leonardo Balada: Caprichos Nos. 2-4. Pittsburgh Sinfonietta conducted by Andrés Cárdenes and Lawrence Loh. Naxos. $8.99.
Wonder of wonders: some modern composers have come full circle, through the age of extreme dissonance, aleatoric composition and determinedly abstruse compositions, and emerged creating works that are no-holds-barred modern in terms of harmony, rhythm, and structure -- but that actually have clear visceral and emotional (not just intellectual) audience appeal (even for listeners outside the musical establishment and academic world). A number of the more brittle approaches of the 20th century still survive, and so do some of their strongest advocates, such as Pierre Boulez; but somewhere along the line, at least a few composers – including Jack Gallagher, Michael Daugherty, Thomas Bloch and Leonardo Balada – have discovered that being listened to with pleasure really does matter. The result is some works that are remarkably effective on their own terms, uncompromising in their modernity, yet rewarding to listeners in a way that many of the pieces of the mid-to-late 20th century were not.
Gallagher (born 1947) creates music that is warm, inventive, melodic and carefully structured. His Diversions Overture (1986) features an opening reminiscent of Mahler’s awakening of nature in his Symphony No. 1, followed by a brass-emphatic main section with especially attractive use of harp and percussion. Berceuse (1977) is a gently rocking piece with calm demeanor, pleasant winds and warm strings – a surprisingly sweet work, given the date of its composition. Gallagher’s five-movement Sinfonietta (1990, revised 2007) is an expansion of his Two Pieces for String Orchestra and is something of a mixed bag. The third movement, Malambo, has the most rhythmic and harmonic interest, while the fourth, Pavane, is a bit insipid and rhythmically flaccid – but the fifth, Rondo concertante, features some highly attractive pizzicato writing and in parts sounds a little like something by Britten. The largest-scale work here is Symphony in One Movement: Threnody, a 2008 revision of a piece that originally dates to 1991. It shows Gallagher’s mastery of more substantive forms, sounding at times a bit like the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra in its multi-instrumental virtuosity, featuring a number of very well-conceived scoring touches (a section playing harp against solo violin is especially effective), and turning very modernistic at the end. One of the most interesting things about Gallagher’s music is that, while it often sounds (at least briefly) like the works of others, it never seems imitative or reductive; nor does it use earlier works for sly or sarcastic purposes in the mode of Shostakovich. Everything sounds heartfelt and sincere – and is played that way by the London Symphony under JoAnn Falletta, a conductor who has shown herself especially adept in effectively communicating a great deal of modern music to audiences.
Marin Alsop also specializes in modern works, and she too often conducts them to good effect; in fact, she is better with moderns than with the classic repertoire. Alsop seems particularly well attuned to the works of Michael Daugherty (born 1954), whose music has a wry, often rather dry wit that sometimes bursts forth into genuine amusement. The works Alsop conducts with the Bournemouth Symphony constitute something of a travelogue, although they were conceived at different times and have only a few superficial elements in common. Route 66 (1998) is a short piece looking at an iconic American highway that has long since fallen victim to interstate-route progress but that still captivates a certain subset of drivers (it even inspired the Pixar movie Cars). Here, Daugherty is appropriately nostalgic. In Ghost Ranch (2006) he is more reverential, or as close to that as he ever gets: this is an extended tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted her wide-open-spaces works at the eponymous location. The second movement, “Above Clouds,” features an ensemble of five horns and an especially broad sonic canvas. Sunset Strip (1999) is another nostalgia-tinged work, tuneful in its outer movements (whimsically entitled “7 PM” and “7 AM”) and warm in its central Nocturne. Time Machine (2003) features travel of a different sort from that of the other works – and is the most rhythmically complex and overtly modern-sounding piece here. It justifies its full title, Time Machine for Three Conductors and Orchestra, through sheer complexity (Alsop is here joined by Mei-Ann Chen and Laura Jackson). But it is fair to ask to what extent the difficulties of the work are necessary for its effectiveness. Ives’ Fourth Symphony famously required two conductors until José Serebrier figured out how to manage it alone; Daugherty’s work seems designed to give a workout to everyone on and near the podium as well as to all the players – it is, in truth, a trifle overdone. But it also blares along just wonderfully, strictly from a sonic point of view, and provides an effective contrast between “Past” and “Future” (the titles of its two sections). Daugherty certainly knows how to please an audience.
So does Thomas Bloch (born 1962), but his music sounds quite different from that of Daugherty and Gallagher. Bloch plays and writes for a wide variety of unusual and obscure instruments, using them for emotional connection with audiences through the sheer peculiarity of their sound. Even listeners familiar with the ondes Martenot (which is played without actually touching anything) and the glass harmonica (or “armonica,” as this set of tuned glasses was sometimes called after Benjamin Franklin invented it and Mozart, among others, wrote for it) may never have heard the cristal Baschet (or crystal organ), which uses oscillating glass cylinders to produce sounds, or the waterphone (an assemblage of stainless steel, brass and sometimes water). Adept on these instruments as well as on keyboards and bells, Bloch uses the unusual sonorities of what he plays to produce works ranging from the warm to the distinctly icy. Bloch is what is usually called a “crossover” artist – he often performs film music and with rock groups – and his music crosses a number of lines, too. Missa Cantate (1999), which is an orchestral work rather than the choral one that might be expected from the title, is the length of a Romantic symphony and is filled with yearning, poignancy and emotive expressiveness. In contrast, Cold Song (2009) is even chillier than its title, using instrumental timbres to produce a thoroughly frigid effect. There is an ethereality to much of Bloch’s music, including Sancta Maria (1998), and there is a definite flavor of jazz, film, rock and what is loosely called “world music” in his compositions as well – notable in Christ Hall Blues (1990/2005) and Christ Hall Postlude (2008). Bloch is usually identified as a classical performer, and is indeed expert in works by Messiaen, Varèse and others, but his own music picks and chooses among genres with an eye (or an ear) toward sonic effectiveness for listeners. It will not be to all tastes, by any means, but it is unusual and frequently moving.
The Caprichos (Latin American dance suites) by Leonardo Balada (born 1933) are moving in a different way: they are bouncy, often jazz-inflected, using thoroughly modern techniques (including aleatory) to develop an underlying idiom that is foundationally tonal and participatory. The mixture of styles and sounds is sometimes an uneasy one but is more often fascinating – and it is worth remembering that Bach’s and Telemann’s suites often took the straightforward dance music of their time and deepened, enlarged and reharmonized it. Capricho No. 2 (2004) contains three freely interpreted dances and is the most straightforward of the three works played with strong commitment by the Pittsburgh Sinfonietta and soloists (conductor Andrés Cárdenes on violin; Jeffrey Turner on double bass). Capricho No. 3 (2005) is a more serious work, subtitled “Homage to the International Brigades” and devoted to the volunteers who fought during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. There are five short pieces within this work, loosely portraying different groups of volunteers. Capricho No. 4 (2007) is subtitled “Quasi Jazz” and is perhaps the most complex of these three works, including traditional jazz elements (harmonically and rhythmically) and mixing them with much more intense harmonic sections and a certain amount of “chance” music. Yet all three of Balada’s Caprichos recorded here retain their roots in dance forms, and all three preserve the rhythmic vitality of Latin American dance music in general: buried the original dances may be, but they keep peeking through to the surface from time to time. The result is an aural experience that engages the audience both through the underlying simplicity of the material and through the complexity with which it is developed – a very interesting combination indeed.