March 03, 2011


Gershwin: Cuban Overture; Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2; Wagner: “Tristan und Isolde”—Prelude and Liebestod. Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Warner. $18.99.

Charles Coleman: Streetscape; Deep Woods; Jennifer Higdon: Fanfare Ritmico; Carter Panin: Slalom; Jonathan Bailey Holland: Halcyon Sun; Kevin Puts: Network. Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi. CSO Media. $16.99.

Paul Lansky: Threads. Sō Percussion (Eric Beach, Jason Treuting, Josh Quillen and Adam Sliwinski). Cantaloupe Music. $9.99.

     While there is no universally accepted definition of “American music,” there are some characteristics that composers from the United States tend to bring to their works more often than not: a certain directness of expression, willingness to experiment with rhythms and instrumental timbres, frequent jazz-influenced inflections, and a degree of openness that is not to be confused with simplification but that does result in directness of communication between composer and listener. These are by no means universal characteristics, but they are all in evidence in the American works heard on these recent releases. Gershwin’s well-known Cuban Overture, with its extensive use of maracas, bongos, gourd and Cuban sticks, is filled with effective coloristic elements and is structured primarily as a rumba, but there is something brashly American about the ebullience with which Gershwin pulls all the elements together. Daniel Barenboim’s performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a touch too restrained and serious – a bit more sheer exuberance would serve the music better – but the playing is certainly first-class. Barenboim also emphasizes the “symphonic” element in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” dwelling on the slower and more expansive elements. The brighter, faster, jazzier dances get their due but, again, with something less than abandon; this is a well-managed performance that could have benefited from a somewhat less controlled feeling. Barenboim actually does better with the non-American works on this CD (whose musical mixture is, in truth, rather odd). The Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 sounds lovely, with especially fine flute playing, and its concluding Danse générale brims with high spirits. And Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde music is just gorgeous, the Prelude filled with yearning that is beautifully communicated by the strings – although the Liebestod is a trifle on the cool side.

     The new Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra CD, on the orchestra’s own label, contains 100% American music, and it is all program music of one sort or another, as indicated by the album title, “American Portraits.” Half the CD is taken up by two well-made works by Charles Coleman (born 1968). Streetscape, a city portrait in the mode of Gershwin’s An American in Paris – whose sonic landscape it periodically recalls – actually uses Respighi’s The Pines of Rome as a “role model,” according to the composer; but this urban portrayal sounds distinctly American in its contrast of brashness with a periodic quiet that merely anticipates the next burst of sound. Deep Woods, based on a painting by Charles Yoder, is somewhat less effective: it is atmospheric enough but not especially distinctive. Nor is Fanfare Ritmico by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962) a particularly striking work: its rhythms are clear and its orchestration well done, but it goes on too long for what it has to say, and comes across as rather repetitious even though the notes themselves are not repeated. Slalom by Carter Pann (born 1972), on the other hand, works very well: longer than Higdon’s work, it seems shorter, perhaps because it is structured in multiple brief segments that are intended to represent stages of a downhill ski run. A sense of zipping along combines with one of appreciation of the landscape through which the skier moves, and the final glide has just the right sound of skis on powdery snow. Halcyon Sun by Jonathan Bailey Holland (born 1974) is a more ambitious work, a tribute to the Underground Railroad and the freedom that escaped slaves found at the end of their journey. But there is little sense of struggle here – only of triumph – and as a result, the piece comes across as rather unidimensional. So does Network by Kevin Puts (born 1972), but the Puts work is shorter and more successful in its combination of rhythmic drive with interesting orchestration that produces some attractive sonic combinations and an overall sense of forward motion – although to no particular end. Paavo Järvi conducts the pieces with enthusiasm and understanding, and the CD has a number of attractive moments, although none of the works on it comes across as being so distinctive that it is likely to become an American classic.

     Paul Lansky’s Threads does not seem to be looking for any sort of “classic” status – it is just fun, and undoubtedly very enjoyable for percussionists to perform. Written in 2005 for the four-member ensemble called Sō Percussion, it is a half-hour compendium of 10 movements, played without interruption, in which Baroque titles (prelude, recitative, chorus, aria, chorale prelude) are placed at the service of vibraphone and glockenspiel sections that alternate with drumming-dominated segments that give way to what can only be called “noise interludes” – which feature bottles, flower pots and crotales (small tuned cymbals). Lansky (born 1944) weaves these “threads” into a sonic tapestry that is filled with fascinating touches, even if it does not produce an especially meaningful whole or seem to build to any particular conclusion. Threads does showcase the very wide range of qualities of which percussion instruments are capable: there are genuinely tender and lyrical moments in contrast to the punchier ones. But it is the forceful sections, for which percussion has a natural affinity, that are the most effective here – and, in their sheer brashness, the most “American” in feeling. Threads does leave a lingering sense that it is probably more fun to perform than to hear – a full half hour of these sounds is a bit much. But there are certainly some intriguingly crafted elements in Lansky’s work.

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