June 25, 2020
(+++) SOUNDS FOR OUR CENTURY
Aaron Jay Kernis: Color Wheel; Symphony No. 4, “Chromelodeon.” Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $11.99.
Sunny Knable: Song of the Redwood-Tree; Tango Boogie; Double Reed; The Busking Bassoonist. Scott Pool, bassoon; Natsuki Fukasawa, piano; Stefanie Izzo, soprano; Xelana Duo (Ana García, alto saxophone; Alex Davis, bassoon); Gina Cuffari, soprano and bassoon; Sunny Knable, accordion. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Whether composed for a large complement of instruments or a small one, 21st-century classical music has developed its own kind of sound, one in which tonal and atonal, consonant and dissonant, strident and lyrical elements mix and intermingle with apparent abandon. Different composers’ works come across quite differently, of course, but there is a pervasive overall willingness to combine disparate characteristics and techniques of classical music – and jazz, non-Western and other musical forms – for the sake of creating a kind of polyglot aural experience. This plays out in distinct ways depending on each composer’s sound-palette preference. A new Naxos recording of music by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960) offers two orchestral works whose titles relate them directly to color, and whose approach focuses on displaying both the massed sounds of a full orchestra and the comparative delicacy of individual sections and, at times, individual instruments. Color Wheel (2001) is a raucous and generally dissonant set of exclamations given in conjunction with periodic episodes of more-moderate expression. It is an orchestral showpiece, and at 22½ minutes a somewhat overextended but often very intriguing one. Giancarlo Guerrero has plenty of chances here to showcase the individual and collective strength of the Nashville Symphony, whose players balance exuberance with episodes of careful attentiveness to sections of the score that exhibit a degree of delicacy. Orchestra and conductor are equally adept with the three-movement Symphony No. 4, “Chromelodeon,” written in 2018 and bearing only a superficial resemblance to anything traditionally symphonic. It does have three movements, but the music and the movements’ titles combine to make the work seem a half-hour tone poem rather than a symphony in recognizable form. The first movement rises, as its title indicates, Out of Silence, and here Kernis uses exclamations from individual instruments and small groups to build to a larger sound. The second movement is oddly and rather puzzlingly titled Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel): certainly it is thorny enough in its dissonant denseness, and its overall somber mood comes through effectively, but any resemblance to Handel is so coincidental as to be thoroughly irrelevant. The work’s third and shortest movement, Fanfare Chromelodia, is its most accessible and structurally clearest, being built from and around a fanfare-like theme that somewhat recalls Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Listeners to this recording of two world premières are left at the disc’s end with a sense of having completed an extended melodic and rhythmic journey through some generally craggy environs.
The four chamber pieces by Sonny Knable (born 1983) on a new MSR Classics CD are also all world premières, with the emphasis here being on eliciting varying moods and experiences from modest, chamber-size instrumental groups. The bassoon is the anchor instrument throughout, even in the two works featuring vocals. Song of the Redwood-Tree (2012) is based on poetry by Walt Whitman: it opens soulfully with “A California Song,” continues with a distinct boogie-woogie rhythm for “Death-Chant,” and concludes in “Golden Pageant” with a rather uneasy mixture of the lyrical and passionate with the acerbic. The totality does not seem particularly Whitman-esque, but the cycle certainly explores multiple moods. Double Reed (2014) is based on To the World’s Bassoonists by Charles Wyatt and is written for soprano, bassoon and accordion – a striking and rather weird-sounding combination that produces surprising aural experiences in all three movements: “Noble Bassoon,” “Tragic Bassoon,” and “Impossible Bassoon.” The first movement is rather declamatory; the second is rather more whiny than tragic; and the third is rather pretentious (“it may be a new dawn will come”). But from the standpoint of sheer sound, the song cycle is interesting to hear. The other works here are instrumental. Tango Boogie (2017) is bright and upbeat, and the blend of alto saxophone and bassoon proves a surprisingly effective one. The work is clever, bouncy, and lies well on both instruments. The Busking Bassoonist (2013), in three movements called “Underground Blues,” “Park Bench Ballad,” and “Street Changes,” is notable for the way it explores the bassoon’s full compass both in terms of notes and as regards emotions. The first movement growls as well as sings, the piano insinuating itself into the bassoon’s lines here and there; the second movement has the bassoon sounding much like the accordion in Double Reed; and the finale features jazzlike riffs and considerable verve – as well as the only elements on this CD in which the bassoon’s often-heard propensity for humor is exploited to any significant degree. All the performers approach the works with enthusiasm (including the composer on accordion), and the CD as a whole does a fine job of exploring contemporary musical thinking not only about the sound of the bassoon but also about the way this instrument fits surprisingly effectively into several non-traditional, unusual and frequently very interesting-sounding chamber groupings.