July 14, 2011


Christopher Theofanidis: Symphony No. 1; Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs. Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99.

Christopher Shultis: Openings; Songs of Love and Longing; “a little light, in darkness”; Devisadero. University of New Mexico Wind Symphony conducted by Eric Rombach-Kendall; Leslie Umphrey, soprano; Falko Steinbach, piano; Carrie Koffman, soprano saxophone. Navona. $16.99.

Big Bully (Best Foot Forward series). Big Round Records. $16.99.

Aaron Copland: Fanfare for America. A film by Andreas Skipis. Arthaus Musik DVD. $24.99.

Martha Argerich: Live at Verbier Festival. Martha Argerich, piano; David Guerrier, trumpet; Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

     When Peter Lieberson died in Israel in April at the age of 64, he was officially a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Few in the general public likely took note of his death from complications of lymphoma, but his passing reverberated in both the musical and Buddhist worlds. A longtime student of Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa, Lieberson brought Buddhist sensibilities to a considerable amount of his music once he began devoting himself full-time to composition in 1994. Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, written for his second wife, mezzo-soprano Hunt Lieberson, have an illustrious history, which includes performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra (which co-commissioned the work) and receipt of the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. The new Atlanta Symphony recording cannot feature Lieberson – she died in 2006 – but Kelley O’Connor handles the five songs with sensitivity and emotional directness, their many moods of love coming through clearly and effectively. The songs are paired on the Atlanta’s Symphony’s new CD with the world première recording of Symphony No. 1 by Christopher Theofanidis (born 1967), which Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony commissioned. Completed in 2009, the work is in the traditional four movements, is solidly structured within the form, and offers a well-considered mixture of accessibility and modernism, both of which Spano brings out effectively in this recording.

     Like Lieberson, Christopher Shultis (born 1969) has a connection to New Mexico – and his in fact stronger than Lieberson’s. Shultis writes music deliberately intended to evoke the landscapes of the state, much as Georgia O’Keeffe made those vistas and the details within them the subject of her art. Shultis reaches for emotional connection with the listener, and if he does not always find it or sometimes seeks it in over-obvious ways, he connects often enough and effectively enough to make his music interestingly different from that of many other contemporary composers. Hearing Shultis’ Songs of Love and Longing (2001-03) not long after listening to Lieberson’s Neruda Songs gives a listener quite a contrast in approach, with the Lieberson works timeless and without specific sense of place, focusing on interpersonal relationships, while the Shultis songs are about geography rather than people, their longing being for open space and the emotion evoked by New Mexico vistas rather than for a strong person-to-person connection. Leslie Umphrey and Falko Steinbach perform the Shultis cycle with sensitivity and involvement, which are also in evidence from the University of New Mexico Wind Symphony and Eric Rombach-Kendall in the four-movement Openings (2004-07), a suite whose focus is as personal as that of the songs is external: the four movements are “Mouth,” “Mind,” “Eye” and “Ear.” The whole work is, of course, heard with the ear, and Shultis’ woodwind writing is attractive, even if the relationship between the movements’ titles and the music itself is not always evident. Also on this Navona CD is “a little light, in darkness” (1995-2000), whose uncapitalized title includes the quotation marks. This is a work for soprano saxophone and winds, essentially a fantasia/concertino, and is well played here if perhaps a little over-long for what it has to say. The final work on the CD, the piano suite Devisadero (2002-07), includes six short descriptive movements that neatly and enjoyably (if not always very originally) portray such New Mexico scenes as the wind blowing, an ant running, a bird chirping and a rustling leaf. This is pleasant rather than challenging music – and that is just fine.

     Music meets challenges of a different kind in Big Bully, a very short (36-minute) CD intended to address a very big problem: bullying of children by other children. The 15 tracks here, ranging in length from a minute and a half to four minutes, are intended to help kids who are bullied understand that they are not alone, that it is possible to do something, and that they are important and valued even if a bully makes them feel small and insignificant. The CD’s intentions are unexceptionable, but the music itself is unexceptional, hitting all the expected angles (“Bully Bubba,” Vicious Vinnie,” “Don’t Bully Me,” and so on) but – perhaps inevitably – vastly oversimplifying a significant and complex societal issue. The disc may make some bullied children feel better simply by acknowledging their hurt and fear, but the ones whose behavior really needs to be changed – the bullies themselves – are unlikely ever to listen to it, much less alter their actions as a result of it. The first release in a series called “Best Foot Forward,” Big Bully has commendable aims and some pleasant songs that strike the right notes both musically and educationally. But the songs’ notions of how to deal with bullies are simplistic at best, and whatever reassurance the CD provides to bullied children is, unfortunately, unlikely to survive their next encounter with a real-life bully.

     Children might be more inspired if they could watch Andreas Skipis’ documentary, Aaron Copland: Fanfare for America, for this is the story of a Russian-Jewish New Yorker who overcame a whole set of challenges in life to become one of the best-known and most popular composers of Americana. Various compositions by Copland are heard (in excerpts) during the 60-minute film, which also includes an interview with the composer himself and comments by his biographer, Howard Pollack, and conductor Hugh Wolff. It is fun to see musical celebrities engaging with Copland’s works – Martha Graham dancing Appalachian Spring, Leonard Bernstein conducting A Lincoln Portrait, Benny Goodman playing the Clarinet Concerto (which he commissioned) – but the excerpts are too short to give the full effect of the music or of these particular performances. Nevertheless, the film has many attractive elements, even though (like so many works about Copland) it gives short shrift to his later, more difficult, less accessible works – focusing on pieces that have become iconic but beyond which Copland moved many years before his death in 1990. Intended for adults, Skipis’ film should also appeal to at least some children, who may enjoy the jazzy rhythms of the musical selections and the story of an unlikely purveyor of heartland Americana.

     There is a good deal to enjoy as well in Martha Argerich: Live at Verbier Festival, although there is little reason to have the Argentine pianist’s performances on this DVD rather than on CD. There are actually two Verbier Festivals here: Argerich plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Scarlatti’s D minor sonata, Kk. 141, at the 2009 festival, and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at the 2010 festival. The latter also includes Bizet’s Symphony in C, designated a “bonus” even though, without it, the DVD would barely last an hour (and even with it, it comes in at less than an hour and a half). Argerich (born 1941) is a fine performer who brings flair and understanding to everything she plays here, and the festival chamber orchestra backs her up well – although Gábor Takács-Nagy has nothing especially interesting to communicate in the Bizet. The performances are well done, the relaxed atmosphere of the festival comes through nicely, and the video direction (by Philippe Béziat in 2009 and Anaïs Spiro in 2010) is not overly intrusive. However, there is no particular rationale for owning these performances or this repertoire on DVD except as a souvenir, for those who attended the Verbier Festival in Switzerland or, perhaps, those who wished they were there.

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