December 12, 2013


John Adams: Harmonielehre; Doctor Atomic Symphony; Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Philip Glass: Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz); Mohammed Fairouz: Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers.” Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani; Jänis Porietis, trumpet; University of Kansas Wind Ensemble conducted by Paul W. Popiel. Naxos. $9.99.

Cindy McTee: Symphony No. 1—Ballet for Orchestra; Circuits; Einstein’s Dream; Double Play. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Roberto Sierra: Sinfonía No. 4; Fandangos; Carnaval. Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $9.99.

     All composers build on those who have gone before, sometimes acknowledging the debt overtly and sometimes not. The distinct elements of the style of John Adams (born 1947) should not obscure the building blocks of which many of his works consist – certainly not in the case of Harmonielehre (1984-85). The title itself, meaning “study of harmony,” is a throwback to Schoenberg’s 1911 music-theory text as well as several others. And Adams has freely acknowledged the debt to Schoenberg here. Adams’ Harmonielehre is less important for its antecedents, though, than for the way it helped the composer break through an 18-month arid period. Adams says a dream inspired the work, but that information is scarcely necessary to appreciate the music. Nor is understanding of Adams’ minimalist leanings particularly important, since minimalism is only one of his techniques here, along with repetitive rhythms, bits of melody, and a final strong and rather unexpected assertion of tonality (E-flat major). Harmonielehre contains elements derived directly from Schoenberg, and also ones that come straight from Mahler (the Tenth Symphony) and in sound from Sibelius. Although not to all tastes – Adams’ music never is – Harmonielehre is attractive for the way it melds its various influences into a recognizable style of Adams’ own, all while encompassing a variety of emotionally resonant approaches (such as the inability of the second movement to find resolution). Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra give Harmonielehre a strong, well-balanced and thoroughly effective performance. And they do a fine job as well with the Dr. Atomic Symphony (2007), derived by Adams from his opera and showcasing the stage work’s overture, interludes and some of its arias. Here the influence of prior composers is less strongly evident than in Harmonielehre, although the opera’s libretto (by Peter Sellars) is pervaded by John Donne, the Bhagavad Gita and other works. Like other symphonies inspired by stage works, such as the two versions of Prokofiev’s Fourth, the Dr. Atomic Symphony is more effective for listeners familiar with the source of its music, but it does stand well enough on its own. Also on this very well-recorded Chandos SACD is one of Adams’ most overtly appealing works, Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), which succeeds in part because it is short and its repetitiveness therefore has no chance to become wearisome. Oundjian brings to it the same enthusiasm and style that he provides to the other, longer pieces here.

     The world première Naxos recording of Mark Lortz’ transcription of the Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra by Philip Glass (born 1937) shows this work to lie firmly within Glass’ minimalist and post-minimalist stylistic leanings as well as, very broadly, within the concerto tradition as a whole. The large percussion section is played against as well as with the timpani solos, and the work’s very strong rhythmic emphases are crucial building blocks for music that ebbs and flows quite effectively. The work dates to 2000-01 and was transcribed by Lortz in 2004. Its martial elements and strong insistence on percussive themes fit well into this wind-band version, which is handled quite well by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under Paul W. Popiel. The players also do a fine job with Symphony No. 4, “In the Shadow of No Towers” by Mohammed Fairouz (born 1985). This work, Fairouz’s first major composition for wind instruments, was finished as recently as 2012 and is, as the title makes clear, one of the many homages paid by composers to the terrorist murders at the World Trade Center in 2001. But that event is only one inspiration, and actually an indirect one: the symphony is primarily influenced by Art Spiegelman’s 2001 comic book about the mass murders. The comic, perhaps unsurprisingly, has led Fairouz to produce a somewhat surface-level, heart-on-its-sleeve work, its four movements titled in ways that quite directly convey what the composer intends with the music: “The New Normal,” “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist,” “One Nation under Two Flags,” and “Anniversaries.” There are moving elements in the symphony as well as some highly superficial ones; Spiegelman himself has described Fairouz’ work as “high-brow cartoon music,” and while that is intended as a compliment, it may not seem so to all listeners who hear this rather brash and frequently obvious work. Nevertheless, both the Glass and Fairouz pieces merit considerable attention for the way they integrate elements of the past with ones of the present to produce impacts that, if not always innovative, are nevertheless moving and well conveyed.

     The music of Cindy McTee (born 1953) is less distinctive than that of Adams or Glass, for all that it is well made, equally adept at integrating a variety of influences, and very well played by the Detroit Symphony under Leonard Slatkin. The most salient characteristic of McTee’s First Symphony is color: the composer has a fine sense of orchestration and employs it fully here, producing a sonic environment that is always attractive and constantly changing. The symphony, written in 2002 and entitled “Ballet for Orchestra” by the composer, is somewhat less impressive as a whole than in parts of its four movements, which are called “On with the Dance,” “Till a Silence Fell,” “Light Fantastic” and “Where Time Plays the Fiddle.” McTee is more impressive and emotionally engaging in the shorter pieces on this new Naxos CD. Circuits (1990), a fine curtain raiser, is jazzy, bright and upbeat throughout, and the two movements of Double Play (2010) offer a series of influences from the past that zoom by and are presented within McTee’s own style. Indeed, the titles of the movements recall matters from the past in a very clever way: “Unquestioned Answer” (think of Ives’ Unanswered Question) and “Tempus Fugit” (in which time certainly does seem to fly). As for Einstein’s Dream (2004), its influences are as disparate as quantum physics and electronic music, with McTee using computer-generated sounds to portray and comment upon Einstein’s findings in theoretical physics. McTee is if anything a touch too clever for her own good, or her audience’s good: her works gain a lot with an understanding of what they are supposed to be about and how they are made, but they are not always wholly convincing in and of themselves. Still, this (+++) CD has a great deal to recommend it.

     So does another (+++) Naxos disc featuring music of another composer born in 1953, Roberto Sierra. Only one work on this CD, Fandangos (2000), has been recorded before. It is a well-constructed orchestral fantasy using a very specific influence as its core: a harpsichord piece attributed to Padre Antonio Soler (1729-1783). Sierra, who is Puerto Rican, is influenced by Spanish music in general as well as, in this case, Soler’s in particular, and in Fandangos he shows himself able to start with 18th-century material and produce a carefully constructed, freewheeling fantasy that sustains nicely. The Spanish influence is also evident in Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 4, which is in the traditional four movements (but with Spanish tempo indications rather than ones in Italian or German) and uses more-or-less-traditional symphonic structure. The harmonies and rhythms of this work are contemporary – it dates to 2008-09 – but its form shows the clear influence of the past. In truth, though, the music does not have a great deal to say; the structure and assembly are impressive enough, but the work does not really stay with a listener after it ends. Carnaval (2007) is less ambitious but on the whole more successful. Here the influence adapted, quite clearly in the title and also to an extent in the five movements, is that of Schumann; but Sierra makes his miniatures into evocations of the mythical rather than of the everyday and celebratory. The five movements are “Gargoyles,” “Sphinxes,” “Unicorns,” “Dragons” and “The Phoenix,” and Sierra’s tone-painting showcases both the wonder of the imaginary creatures and their occasional air of menace. Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony handle Sierra’s music skillfully and with grace, and the CD as a whole offers a fine opportunity to become acquainted with yet another contemporary composer who has found ways to reach into the past for inspiration that he can then transform into his own expressions.

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