May 11, 2017


Alfred Janson: Variations over Variations over a Norwegian Folk Tune; Jan Erik Mikalsen: Songr for Orchestra; Knut Vaage: Mylder; Maja S.K. Ratkje: Paragraf 12. Tine Thing Helseth, trumpet; Norwegian Radio Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Aurora. $18.99.

Andrew Schultz: Falling Man/Dancing Man; John A. Carollo: Let Freedom Ring; The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino; R. Barry Ulrich: Russian Winter; J.A. Kawarsky: Episodes. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Navona. $14.99.

Splitting Adams. Alarm Will Sound conducted by Alan Pierson. Cantaloupe Music. $15.

     A characteristic of a great deal of contemporary sort-of-classical music is that it is determined not to be classical music. Composers want the gravitas associated with longstanding classical forms and methods, but do not want to be seen as old-fashioned through slavish adherence to anything that has stood the test of time but now seems stilted and out-of-date to – well, to whom, exactly? Much contemporary sort-of-classical music seems to be in a search of an audience – not sticking to the clichés of dull pop music made from the same set of repetitive chords, but not seeking or wanting comparison with the larger-scale and grander works for which classical music has been known for centuries. This creates a neither-here-nor-there idiom in which composers’ borrowings from earlier composers and from types of music acknowledged as non-classical (jazz, folk, “world,” electronic) become as much the point as anything within any individual piece. “The medium is the massage” may seem as hopelessly naïve now as it seemed revolutionary when Marshall McLuhan was alive, but in many pieces we are closer to the common misquotation of McLuhan’s formulation: “The medium is the message.”

     This approach, and the music that results from it, can be polarizing, but they do not have to be. It is entirely possible to understand what is going on in music assembled this way without getting into a love-it-or-hate-it dichotomy. The music may simply be interesting – as is all the music on these determined-to-be-“with-it” releases – without necessarily moving a listener to any sort of emotional extreme, or even any significant degree of emotional involvement. Thus, Variations over Variations by Alfred Janson, written for trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and performed by him on a new Aurora CD, is easy to admire: it takes Grieg’s Ballade in G minor, already a set of variations, and creates variations upon it (hence Janson’s work’s title) – using jazz techniques and others from outside the essentially classical idiom that Grieg employed even when utilizing folk music as a basic element of his work. Grieg’s ballade is on the melancholic side, and is worked with considerable subtlety; Janson’s variations on it are more forthright, warmer and more readily comprehensible – and thus perhaps more suitable for a musical age not particularly renowned for subtlety of expression. Helseth and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra under Miguel Harth-Bedoya handle the music quite well, allowing listeners drawn into it to experience Helseth’s considerable technical virtuosity in the context that Janson chooses to give it within a kind of “meta-Grieg” work. The other new Norwegian works on this release are for orchestra only. Songr by Jan Erik Mikalsen is a substantial piece – even longer than Janson’s concerto – that draws on folk music directly, not through the filter of an earlier composer. Its methods are fairly straightforward in contrasting big, full-orchestra sounds with delicate sonic pictures painted by individual instruments or small groups. It feels overextended but is often aurally interesting. Mylder by Knut Vaage also uses unsurprising techniques – here, speedy and slower sections – and some quicksilver quotations of other works to spin a multicolored piece that is ultimately less than the sum of its parts. And Paragraf 112 by Maja S.K. Ratkje refers in its title to a part of Norway’s constitution giving citizens rights to a carefully managed environment – a prescient item from 1814 or a hopelessly naïve one, depending on one’s viewpoint. In standard contemporary fashion, the music tries to make the orchestra sound different from the way it usually does in classical music, the apparent aim being to show the danger of ignoring environmental attentiveness. There is nothing especially compelling in any of these works, but listeners who would like to hear how Norwegian music has built on and moved beyond that of Grieg will find much of interest here.

     There is no unifying theme of nationality on a new Navona release featuring music by Andrew Schultz, John A. Carollo, R. Barry Ulrich and J.A. Kawarsky. Indeed, there is no unifying musical theme at all. To the extent to which this anthology has anything that unites it, it is a kind of philosophical underpinning in which composers try to represent, in music, elements of the difficulties of the human experience and methods of coping with such troubles. Thus, Falling Man/Dancing Man, for solo organ (Karel Martinek) and orchestra, is a work of musical contrasts reflecting the visual ones that inspired it: a photo of a man leaping from the burning World Trade Center in 2001 and one of a joyous celebration in Sydney, Australia, at the end of World War II. Let Freedom Ring by John A. Carollo is a celebration of American patriotism – one sounding quite different from Ratkje’s homage to Norway’s environmental concerns – but is written in a minor key, setting up an unsettling question as to just what is being celebrated and why. Carollo’s other work here, The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino, offers a series of quick mood changes reflecting the ups and downs, successes and failures inherent in everyday life. Russian Winter, an excerpt from R. Barry Ulrich’s G minor suite for strings, is directly evocative of Russia’s tundra and sounds a bit like a work of homage to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Dreams”), which is in the same key. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský handles all the works sensitively, and the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande does a fine job with the last offering on the CD, Episodes by J.A. Kawarsky. Here a central role is given to the piano (Peter Laul) in a work that, like The Transformation of Giovanni Baudino, draws on the overall theme of change and life’s unpredictability – in this case with a series of calls-and-responses between soloist and orchestra that collectively are intended to showcase life’s inevitable ups and downs, and the ways of coping with them. There is nothing really new in any of these works, but all use contemporary understanding of musical communicativeness to try to pull listeners experientially into a world of constant change and the necessity of ongoing adaptability.

     Lest there be any question about what John Adams was trying to do in his Chamber Symphony (1992) and Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), Cantaloupe Music offers extended commentary on the works as part of a new release called Splitting Adams and featuring the instrumental group Alarm Will Sound. Nadia Sirota, who hosts a podcast called Meet the Composer, supplies commentary on the works, as do Alarm Will Sound’s artistic director, Alan Pierson, and Adams himself. This recording is an especially clear example of the way sort-of-classical material is packaged and presented by many organizations today. The release has elements of a podcast, elements of a traditional concert (the chamber symphonies themselves), elements of a tribute to the composer, elements of sound display for its own sake – it is less about the music than about the way the particular creator of this music feels and thinks and thus (the argument goes) inevitably produced these specific works. Although no one involved in the production says so, this release thus becomes a new example of a very old form, in which interpreters try to integrate a creative person’s biographical reality with his or her artistic productions – the extent to which Shakespeare “appears” in his plays, for instance, or Edgar Allan Poe in his stories. There are longstanding and ultimately futile arguments, both literary and psychoanalytic, as to whether it “makes sense” to interpret artistic works with constant reference to biography. Certainly there are things in an individual’s life and intellectual/psychological/emotional makeup that lead the person to create certain things in a certain way – but whether the creations can in essence be mapped to the creator is by no means certain and by no means particularly useful. Those who find the premise intriguing will enjoy the discussion/podcast elements of this release. Those who simply want to hear well-performed versions of the two Adams works can skip the talk and just listen to the music. The aim of the whole production, however, is not strictly musical – that would smack of old-style approaches to classical works. The idea here is to use a well-known, influential modern composer (who himself has numerous supporters and detractors) as the centerpiece of an offering that tries, through both music and words, to explore the artistic experience itself. Those looking for such an exploration are those to whom this recording will be most attractive.

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