August 14, 2014


Edward Gregson: Dream Song; Horn Concerto; Aztec Dances; Concerto for Orchestra. Richard Watkins, horn; Wissam Boustany, flute; BBC Philharmonic conducted by Bramwell Tovey. Chandos. $18.99.

Walter Ross: Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra; Piano Concerto, “Mosaics”; Clarinet Concerto. Artem Churkov, double bass; St. Petersburg State Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra); Marjorie Mitchell, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Black (Piano Concerto, “Mosaics”); Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Warsaw National Orchestra conducted by George Manahan (Clarinet Concerto). Ravello. $14.99.

Pendulum—Music of Doron Kima, Clifton Callender, Jorge Variego, Alex Freeman, Eric Nathan, Chris Arrell and Philip Carlsen. Navona. $16.99.

Spectra—Music of Michael K. Slayton, Ken Steen, Stephen Michael Gryc, Ryan Jesperson, Margaret Collins Stoop and Elizabeth R. Austin. Navona. $16.99.

     Contemporary composers are no different from earlier ones in drawing their ideas from multiple sources – whether the world of nature or the works of other composers. But modern compositional techniques take today’s composers down some unusual paths. Dream Song (2010) by Edward Gregson (born 1945) was inspired by and designed to share a concert program with Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, and it is an odd reinterpretation and tribute to that work. It is scored for essentially the same orchestral forces, but Mahler’s alpine cowbells have been replaced by, of all things, a steel band. And the gigantic canvas that Mahler created is reduced by Gregson into 20 minutes and three movements: two slow outer ones and a pounding central Scherzo. The world Gregson evokes is very different from that of Mahler, and the peculiarity is increased when Gregson, in addition to deriving thematic material from Mahler’s Sixth, suddenly pulls in a direct quote – incongruously, from the Adagietto of the Fifth. The result is a hybrid and not wholly satisfactory work, but an intriguing experiment in composer-to-composer inspiration. It is very well played on a new Chandos CD by the BBC Philharmonic under Bramwell Tovey – and the ensemble also handles the other Gregson works here with suavity and smooth skill. The Horn Concerto was written in 1971 for soloist with brass band. Gregson rearranged it for orchestra in 2013, and Richard Watkins plays it very well indeed. The concerto is in in the traditional three movements, each highlighting a different element of the solo instrument: serious, warmly lyrical, and playful (although the horn’s hunting origin gets short shrift). Aztec Dances, a concerto for flute and orchestra, was originally written for recorder and piano. Wissam Boustany asked Gregson to rework it for flute and piano, and Gregson in 2013 made another version – the one heard here – for flute and orchestra. Boustany fully explores the colors and ritual-like rhythms of a piece whose inspiration lies in the British Museum, which had an exhibition of Aztec culture that led Gregson to create the original work. Also on this disc is Concerto for Orchestra, which originally dates to 1983 and was revised in 1989 and again in 2001. At one point, Gregson called it “Contrasts,” and that is what it is all about: varieties of musical characteristics and orchestral sound. Neither as substantive nor as clever as similar works – the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra of 1945 remains the finest of its kind – Gregson’s concerto is nevertheless pleasantly listenable and far less thorny than much contemporary orchestral music.

    Contrasts of many kinds also pervade the three concertos by Walter Ross on a new Ravello CD. All follow the traditional fast-slow-fast concerto pattern, and all showcase specific elements of their featured solo instruments. The Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra is particularly intriguing for allowing the instrument a dramatic first movement and a surprisingly graceful second one – marked Grazioso – before a finale that is filled with more energy than one might expect from an instrument so large and apparently ungainly. Ross is scarcely the first composer to explore the capabilities of the double bass – for example, Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a virtuoso on the instrument, wrote quite a bit of delightful music for it. But unlike the viola, which attracted considerable attention in the 20th century, the double bass has never commanded much enthusiasm among more-recent composers, a fact that makes the Ross concerto all the more welcome. His Piano Concerto, “Mosaics,” is more ordinary, proceeding from a tuneful first movement through a Largo malincolico second to a genuinely interesting conclusion marked Allegro misterioso that features elements of devilish delight combined with concluding playfulness and brio. The Clarinet Concerto is filled with dance, too, in this case in both outer movements; they sandwich a dreamy and impressionistic Romanza that allows the clarinet to explore the warmth it can convey from its chalumeau register on up. The soloists and orchestras all handle these works skillfully; this is contemporary music that, like Gregson’s, is likely to be attractive even to people who tend to find modern compositions frequently off-putting and overly intellectualized.

    The audience will need to be strongly committed to musical modernity to appreciate two new Navona discs fully. Pendulum and Spectra are anthology releases offering mostly short pieces by composers united primarily by their commitment to the latest compositional techniques and to specific organizations that aim to promote today’s classical music. Pendulum is tied into the Society of Composers, Inc., and Spectra into Connecticut Composers, Inc. There is not exactly “corporate-ization” of music here, but there is little unity to either disc and little reason for listeners not already familiar with specific composers here to engage with either recording. Indeed, listeners who do know one or more of these composers may nevertheless hesitate to obtain a CD that is less than mix-and-match – mix, yes, but match, no. Pendulum includes Doron Kima’s As from a Dream, which focuses on textural variation; Clifton Callender’s Metamorphoses II, which employs techniques usually heard in folk fiddling; Jorge Variego’s Walls (flute nonet), whose title refers to the nine-note block around which it is built; Alex Freeman’s Night on the Prairies, a comparatively accessible work with a title from a Walt Whitman poem and tunes that would not be out of place around a campfire; Eric Nathan’s Wing Over Wing, a four-song cycle about flight that also uses Whitman as a source; Chris Arrell’s NARCISSUS/echo, which draws on Greek myth for a repetitive work intended to reflect both Narcissus’ image in the water and Echo’s plaintive responses; and Philip Carlsen’s October, one of those intellectually motivated works designed to make the audience question what it is hearing by using techniques that make a piano sound out of tune even though it is not. The variegated approaches and instrumentations of these pieces will be of interest mainly to listeners who simply want to hear what composers are doing these days.   

    The case is much the same where Spectra is concerned, except that here there are more works with self-consciously arty titles. In Michael K. Slayton’s Droyßiger Wald, a movement from his Sonate Droyßig, the pianist (Evan Mack) is supposed to reflect the simplicity of life in a small German town. Ken Steen’s re: Moon in the Afternoon features the Avery Ensemble (Annie Trépanier, violin; Hans Twitchell, cello; Adriana Jarvis, piano) in what is designed as a comment on a chapter from Italo Calvino’s novel, Mr. Palomar. Stephen Michael Gryc’s deep-diving loon, for solo violin (Gróa Margrét Valdimarsdóttir), is an elegy for the composer’s father based on a statement by a dervish named Yunus Emre – a rather heartfelt work, but not one whose derivation is particularly clear or meaningful. Ryan Jesperson’s BA(da)SS, for solo contrabass (Ryan Ford), is repetitive by intention – a fact that does not make this unduly cutely titled work easier to hear. Margaret Collins Stoop’s Time Piece for piano (Allen Brings) offers five movements intended to explore aspects of time – an interesting idea not fully communicated by the music itself. And Elizabeth R. Austin’s Rose Sonata, featuring the composer as reciter and pianist Jerome Reed, is a setting of poems about roses by Rainer Maria Rilke, William Carlos Williams and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – and includes a quotation from Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 whose relevance is not apparent, although the overall effect of the work is thoughtful and pleasantly warm. Here as in Pendulum, there is little to pull in listeners not already interested in specific composers or contemporary compositions in general – there are some more successful works here and some less successful ones, but nothing powerful or emotionally compelling enough to intrigue those who are not already intrigued by this type of material.

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