June 27, 2013


Jan Van der Roost: Sirius; Sinfonia per Orchestra; Manhattan Pictures. St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande (Sirius; Sinfonia); Philharmonic Orchestra of the Belgian Radio conducted by Fernand Terby (Manhattan). Navona. $16.99.

NOVA: Society of Composers, Inc.—Music by Phillip Schroeder, Vera Ivanova, Mark Engebretson, Chan Ji Kim, Leonard Mark Lewis, Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, Piotr Szewczyk and Alan Chan. Navona. $16.99.

     There is a great deal of contemporary classical music that is well-made and professionally structured, and that sounds perfectly fine in performances by any number of orchestras, chamber groups and soloists, but that remains more a specialty item than a general-interest one for the simple reason that it is not strikingly original and tends to sound like a great deal of other well-crafted contemporary music. This is by no means a unique modern phenomenon: the vast majority of composers in any age may be perfectly competent without offering the striking insights and skilled communicativeness of each era’s giants. So just as fanciers of 19th-century opera may enjoy the pre-Romantic works of Franz Ignaz Danzi or the avowedly Romantic ones of Heinrich Marschner – without regarding either composer as a towering figure – so listeners who enjoy contemporary compositions in general may find themselves attracted to music by some good but not highly distinguished composers. Jan Van der Roost (born 1956), for example, writes in a number of forms and seems comfortable with several styles, without ever quite evolving a style of his own – at least on the basis of the three works on a new Navona CD. Sirius (2003) is an attractive and largely upbeat concert overture that shows some influence of Shostakovich and contrasts a pleasantly lyrical central section with more-energetic, nicely scored ones.  Sinfonia per Orchestra (1989) is a four-movement work – some elements of the first three movements recur in the fourth – and is written largely in traditional forms: modified sonata in the first movement, a second movement marked “Funebre” and containing a children’s song, a contrapuntal scherzo in the third movement, and a finale that includes a canon and fugue before ending in the same mysterious atmosphere with which the whole work began. This is an effective piece that is worth hearing more than once, even though it is not especially distinctive in style. Manhattan Pictures was written for symphonic wind band and is also a four-movement work. Like many other pieces about New York City, it is intended to showcase the urban area’s energy, vitality and variety, and it does so well enough but without bringing any particular new musical insights to the portrayal. Its most interesting movement is its third, slow one, which is marked “Mesto” (“sad”) and is very quiet throughout – with a focus on flute, clarinet and oboe. All these Van der Roost pieces are pleasant and well-made enough to be worthwhile experiences, but none has sufficient distinction to raise the composer to the first rank among moderns.

     As for Navona’s new CD called NOVA: Society of Composers, Inc., it is simply an opportunity for listeners who generally like contemporary classical compositions to sample a variety of short works by composers with whom they may or may not be familiar. Nothing here is substantial enough to make the disc worth buying for the sake of that one piece or that specific composer. The whole CD runs just 53 minutes, with the longest work on it – if you regard it as a single piece rather than three – being the 12-minute Three Etudes for Piano by Leonard Mark Lewis. This work does indeed show off various pianistic techniques. Somewhat similarly, Vera Ivanova’s Aftertouch explores what the piano can do, although here the study is of different amounts of pressure applied to the keys. Some of the other works have programmatic elements: Piotr Szewczyk’s Apparitions is supposed to suggest ghostly beings floating in a forest; Alan Chan’s Daughter’s Lullaby is a rather affecting setting of Nicky’s Schildkraut’s story of a Korean child adopted by Western parents; and Phillip Schroeder’s Metaphors is a somewhat drier adaptation of the poetry of Marck L. Beggs. The remaining works are Mark Engebretson’s well-put-together Two Duos, which explores old-fashioned and newfangled harmonic approaches;  Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, which also uses and contrasts traditional and modern musical language; and Chan Ji Kim’s 9 Years, intended as a homage to musical mentorship but not communicating that objective in any particularly clear way. This CD is essentially a sampler of compositions and a sampler of contemporary composers, reaching out in only a limited way: to people so interested in modern classical chamber music that they would like to hear various composers’ ways of handling it.

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