March 07, 2013
(++++) TONE PAINTINGS, THEN AND NOW
Ignacio Jerusalem: Al Combate; Symphony in G; Gorjeos Trinando; Cristal Bello; Santiago Billoni: Mariposa Inadvertida; Celeste Aurora Hermosa. Eleanor Ranney-Mendoza, soprano; Elda Peralta, mezzo-soprano; Alexander Edgemon, countertenor; Sandro Naglia, tenor; Vince Wallace, bass; Chicago Arts Chorale and Chicago Arts Orchestra conducted by Javier José Mendoza. Navona. $12.99.
Marga Richter: Out of Shadows and Solitude; Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark; Spectral Chimes/Enshrouded Hills. Seattle Symphony and Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Ravello. $12.99.
Emma Lou Diemer: Santa Barbara Overture; Concerto in One Movement for Marimba; Concerto in One Movement for Piano. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brynmore Llewelyn Jones (Overture); Nathan Daughtrey, marimba; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joel Suben (Marimba); Betty Oberacker, piano; Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimír Válek (Piano). Navona. $16.99.
A fascinating exploration of Italian-born composers’ contributions to 18th-century New World music, Navona’s CD of works by Ignacio Jerusalem (1707-1769) and Santiago Billoni (ca. 1700-ca. 1763) provides a rare opportunity to hear the Baroque and galant styles in exported form – mixing with some of the folk tunes and colors of New Spain (Mexico). The provenance of these pieces and the excellent playing by the Chicago Arts Orchestra under Javier José Mendoza are the primary attractions here: the music is interesting and well-made, but if it were not identified with the Americas, most of the works would simply sound like respectable but not highly distinctive 18th-century creations. However, Al Combate, a nine-part instrumental, vocal and choral celebratory ode in honor of King Charles III of Spain (1716-1788, reigned 1759-1788), is worthy by any standards. Solos for countertenor and bass alternate with choral passages and purely instrumental ones celebrating the king, his conquests and his rule, and the work stands not only as a tribute to the monarch but also as one to Jerusalem’s powers of musical portrayal of conflict and praise. Alexander Edgemon and Vince Wallace sing well and are comfortable with period style, and the chorus and orchestra skillfully handle both the unsurprising bright elements of the score and its occasional unexpected portions (such as a sudden dip into the minor in the concluding section of the instrumental Overture). Jerusalem’s brief Symphony in G is also worth hearing: it is scarcely innovative, but it is stylish and has some flair. The four remaining works here, including the two by Billoni, are somewhat less interesting, because some of the soloists are not fully up to the pieces’ vocal demands: mezzo-soprano Elda Peralta sings and emotes well, but soprano Eleanor Ranney-Mendoza is distinctly rough in her lower range, and tenor Sandro Naglia is simply out of his depth in this music’s style – his sole contribution, Billoni’s Celeste Aurora Hermosa, is the one real disappointment on the disc. Everything else here, though, has value in itself and also for providing a window into the music of the California mission style, no longer well-known but important in its time for its transplantation of Old World models into fertile New World cultural soil.
More than two centuries after Jerusalem and Billoni, the forms of tone painting and musical celebration have changed, but the desire to portray extramusical events and to take notice of specific occasions, while still producing music that is worthy for a wider audience, remains – as new CDs of pieces by Marga Richter (born 1926) and Emma Lou Diemer (born 1927) show. The Richter CD, on the Ravello label, features Gerard Schwarz – a strong advocate of modern American music – leading three pieces intended to draw upon and evoke specific experiences. Out of Shadows and Solitude (1985) intends to portray, in its expansiveness, the flight of a condor over mist-shrouded mountains – an avian form of inspiration that has often influenced musicians (think of the flight of cranes that inspired the finale of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5) and that is effectively brought forth here. Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark (1991) has more substance that might be expected from its rather self-indulgent title: it is filled with swiftly changing dance rhythms drawn from earlier Richter works, and its verve is frequently infectious. Spectral Chimes/Enshrouded Hills (1978-80) requires more nonmusical knowledge than the other pieces and as a result is somewhat less successful. It is based on scenes from Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and although it is atmospheric enough and attractively enough orchestrated to be of some interest even to those unfamiliar with the book, it will be fully engaging primarily for those who know it. Richter does have a fine sense of orchestral balance and a willingness to combine Romantic with modern rhythmic and harmonic techniques, and both orchestras conducted by Schwarz handle her works well and with a strong sense of involvement in the music.
The tonal portraits in Diemer’s music on a new Navona CD are of a different type. Diemer is based in Santa Barbara, California, and was composer-in-residence with the Santa Barbara Symphony from 1990 to 1992; hence the Santa Barbara Overture, a work that draws on multinational influences to celebrate the diversity of California. First performed by the orchestra for which it is written, the piece sounds bright and involving as played by the London Symphony under Brynmore Llewelyn Jones – although the music is perhaps somewhat too obvious for its own good in its determined good will. The Santa Barbara Symphony also gave the première of Diemer’s Concerto in One Movement for Piano, featuring the same soloist heard on this CD, Betty Oberacker, who clearly knows the music inside-out. In this work and the Concerto in One Movement for Marimba, featuring Joel Suben, Diemer has moved outside the world of sound portraits and into – or back into – traditional classical-music models dating at least to Liszt’s two piano concertos. The piano concerto is a highly virtuosic work, alternating lyricism with vigorously rhythmic passages in a mixture that is mostly involving even though it seems a touch more stretched-out than it needs to be. The marimba concerto, commissioned by the Women’s Philharmonic of San Francisco and using a reduced orchestra, is more compressed and offers an interesting sonic blend as well as some attractive handling of multiple rhythms – evidence that many tools of composers today remain the same as those of the Baroque era, however differently those tools may now be employed.