March 20, 2014

(+++) BLENDS

Douglas Detrick: The Bright and Rushing World. AnyWhen Ensemble. Navona. $14.99.

Polarities: Music by Mathew Fuerst, Katherine Saxon, Chi-hin Leung and Alex Freeman. Navona. $16.99.

Michael G. Cunningham: Violin Concerto; Dialogue for Orchestra and Wind Trio; Diaphony for Orchestra and Wind Trio; Wakefield Autumn; Kaleidoscope; Venus & Adonis. Ondrey Lebr, violin (Concerto); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor (Concerto, Diaphony, Kaleidoscope, Venus); Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vít Micka (Dialogue, Wakefield). Navona. $14.99.

     It is commonplace for contemporary composers to reach well beyond traditional classical-music models to create works that incorporate music from other forms (jazz, pop, rock) and other cultures. It is less common for a modern composer to include multiple influences in a single, very extended, 10-movement work, and less common still to title each of the work’s movements with a line of a poem that, taken as a whole, expresses to the audience what the music is about. The whole arrangement smacks of rather too much cleverness and manipulativeness, but in fact Douglas Detrick says that he did not think of the title of The Bright and Rushing World until after he had finished the hour-long suite. Whether the work’s many moods and movements sustain successfully for 64 minutes will be a matter for each listener to decide, likely depending on how successfully the listener thinks Detrick has produced a piece for his chamber-jazz group, AnyWhen Ensemble, while drawing on an unusually wide variety of influences. There are five members of the group: Detrick on trumpet, Hashem Assadullahi on saxophone, Shirley Hunt on cello, Steve Vacci on bassoon, and Ryan Biesack on percussion. The unusual instrumental combination is just one of the many unexpected blendings in The Bright and Rushing World. The music itself incorporates influences from classical composers as different as Britten and Stravinsky, and jazz musicians ranging from Duke Ellington to arranger Gil Evans (whose work with Miles Davis on Porgy and Bess and other music was trailblazing and distinctive). The poem connecting the 10 movements seems to speak to the musical work itself as well as to an imagined human going out on his own “into the bright and rushing world” (the line of the poem that gives the fourth movement and work as a whole its title). Like all written words intended to help an audience focus on and follow the music, though, the poem is extraneous to the musical experience, which is interesting and often scored inventively, although not really strong enough to sustain throughout its length; indeed, the ninth and longest movement of the suite, “A question so weightless it floats away,” itself carries more than it can comfortably bear. Certainly not classical but also not a pure jazz piece, The Bright and Rushing World contains blended elements that are well-considered and well-assembled, played with verve and spirit, but ultimately not sustainable as a pure listening experience for such a lengthy presentation.

     The blending on a Navona CD called Polarities is of two types. For one thing, the disc blends five pieces by four different composers, each of whom creates a different type of modern music that is essentially classical (loosely defining what that means). For another thing, the composers themselves showcase a blending of influences and approaches within their individual works. Thus, the programmatic three-movement Symphony by Mathew Fuerst, performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský, is at its heart a storytelling piece about unrequited love, its opening Variations proceeding to a movement marked Scherzo Agitato and then to a final Nocturne, the movement titles themselves indicative of the emotions underlying the music. Vox Dilecti Mei by Katherine Saxon is about love and emotion as well, attempting to portray in chamber music the feelings elicited by the arrival of a lover. It is performed by soprano Amanda Kohl with Jessica Lizak on flute, Michael Norsworthy on clarinet and Jing Li on cello. A different chamber-music group – Lizak on flute, Peter Sulski on viola and Karolina Rojahn on piano – presents Saxon’s East of the Sun/West of the Moon, a musical interpretation of the Norwegian folk tale that attempts, in 11 short movements (one lasting just four seconds), to reproduce some of the complexities of a love story that is also a fantasy quest. Saxon’s skilled handling of the moods of the tale through well-managed use of the instruments’ capabilities makes this work more attractive than the comparatively straightforward Vox Dilecti Mei. Instrumentation is also key to the effectiveness of Chi-hin Leung’s Afterimage: The Dreamy Butterfly, based on a folk tale of a different sort – from ancient China – and performed by the Hong Kong Cantabile Winds under Sit Hok-chuen, with Sezto Kin on gaohu, a Chinese bowed string instrument with a quiet and delicate sound. The fifth work on this CD blends astrology – make that astronomy – with chamber music: Blueshift by Alex Freeman is performed by Lisa Hennessy on flute, Jan Halloran on clarinet, Sulski on violin, Leo Eguchim on cello, and Rojahn on piano. Here too the mixture of instruments is a primary attraction of the work, although its celestial connection is not particularly clear from the music itself. Like other anthology CDs, Polarities has elements that some listeners will find attractive, but works that are somewhat too disparate to blend into a satisfying whole.

     The new disc of Michael Cunningham’s music is more fully integrated, if only because all the pieces on it were written by the same person – and Cunningham does have his own musical style. This CD is a reissue of one from 2008, and it shows Cunningham producing works in a variety of forms. Venus & Adonis is the longest piece here and is an intermittently effective tone poem that nicely contrasts lyricism with intensity. The paired and contrasted Dialogue and Diaphony are more interestingly creative, thanks to use of a wind trio placed in balance and opposition to full orchestra and providing its own coloristic sonic blend to go with that of the ensemble as a whole. Opposition is central to the Violin Concerto as well: Cunningham sets the solo instrument against the orchestra rather than blending it in. The work is primarily lyrical, but the final Cirroscuro is certainly peppy enough. Wakefield Autumn offers some evocative tone painting with some pleasantly coloristic percussion touches. And Kaleidoscope tosses a variety of concepts and musical motifs around, scattering them in a way at least vaguely reminiscent of its title, then eventually pulling them together – that is, blending them – into a more-cohesive whole than might be expected. Cunningham is a good craftsman and is clearly comfortable working in large orchestral forms. His musical ideas are on the thin side, but they are developed and worked through well, and it is a plus that he does not eschew lyrical content in favor of the sort of abstract angularity to which so many contemporary composers gravitate.


  1. Thank you so much for listening and reviewing our recording! If I may, my work, Blueshift, was inspired by an _astronomical_ concept, not an astrological one. It's worth mentioning, even though the musical work was merely sparked by the idea, and that science, not mythology is at its source. Thank you again for listening to and writing about new music!

  2. Correct! We missed this in editing and have modified the review accordingly...see above. Thank you!

  3. Thanks so much for the quick fix!

    All best,