Frank Ticheli: Clarinet Concerto; Brad Warnaar: Horn Concerto; Behzad Ranjbaran: Flute Concerto. James Zimmermann, clarinet; Leslie Norton, horn; Érik Gratton, flute; Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $12.99.
Timothy Lee Miller: Sebastian’s Day Off; Ruby in the Rough; Dear Della Mae; Inky & Marie; Stellee & Jack; Boo’s Bolero; Poochie’s Waltz; Something More. Ansonica. $14.99.
Alejandro Rutty: Exhaling Space; Transparent Sun; As You Say; Martian Milonga; More Music for Examining and Buying Merchandise; Guitars; Cantabile Hop; Qualia. Navona. $14.99.
It was Mozart who first established a significant degree of independence for wind instruments in a larger ensemble, picking up on some moves in that direction by Haydn. Centuries later, it was jazz that placed wind instruments – certain ones, anyway – in the forefront of mixed instrumental groups. Today, composers often draw on both the classical tradition and the jazz world in creating works in which winds are highly prominent, even front-and-center, but remain within the context of instruments of other types. Some contemporary composers do this with a conscious nod to the past. Frank Ticheli (born 1958) quite overtly ties the first movement of his Clarinet Concerto (2010) to Gershwin, calling the movement “Rhapsody for George” and quoting Gershwin’s own famous clarinet solo at the start – then moving onward from it into a distinctly jazzy, highly syncopated movement that is speedy and high-spirited. The second and third movements of Ticheli’s work also look backward: “Song for Aaron” is distinctly Coplandesque, while the concluding “Riffs for Lenny” focuses on the multifaceted Leonard Bernstein through additional jazz-inflected music that merges underlying seriousness with bright, dancelike elements. Brad Warnaar (born 1950) looks to the past as well in his Horn Concerto (2015) – specifically, in the final movement, which is the work’s cleverest and most interesting. Here Warnaar takes the soloist-vs.-orchestra concept to an amusing level by having the ensemble quoting horn works by Brahms and Mozart, the soloist responding with quotations from Richard Strauss, and everyone eventually reconciling for a happy ending. This concerto is interestingly constructed from a technical standpoint, using only the piano’s white keys (the diatonic scale) for its notes; but it is a bit too intricate for its own good, introducing “bell” motifs as place markers, pushing the horn to the extremes of its range, and having a generally disjointed feeling. In contrast, Iranian native Behzad Ranjbaran (born 1955) looks for a Persian feeling in his Flute Concerto (2013), seeking sensuousness and warmth through a three-movement work in which 21 of the 27 minutes are slow. The piece does not actually sound especially “Persian” or otherwise exotic, and although there is lyricism and even poetry here, there is rather too much of both, with the result that the bright and distinctly bouncy finale comes across as a real relief. The three wind soloists heard on the CD are Nashville Symphony principals, and the orchestra backs them up in very fine style under principal conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. No music here really breaks new ground, but all the works have elements that players of the solo instruments – and listeners who enjoy those instruments’ sounds – will appreciate.
The eight works on an Ansonica CD of the music of Timothy Lee Miller, although written for a variety of different instruments, all share a focus on winds and a very strong jazz orientation. They also share important personal elements, being based on people and events in the composer’s life – an arrangement that gives them highly personal meaning for him and those who know him, but that requires listeners unacquainted with Miller to do some homework if they are to understand what he is trying to evoke in the various pieces. Several of the works memorialize specific individuals: Miller’s Aunt Ruby (Ruby in the Rough), his Aunt Della Mae (Dear Della Mae), his Aunt Marie and her dog (Inky & Marie), his Aunt Estelle and the stories she told (Stellee & Jack), and his Aunt Mary Lou and her nickname (Boo’s Bolero). The other pieces are tributes to people still living, including Miller’s son (Sebastian’s Day Off), his mother (Poochie’s Waltz), and his wife (Something More). So the CD as a whole is a musical family album – an attractive concept that is of necessity highly personal, which means it is rather insular: nothing in any of this music reaches out in any especially distinctive way to people who are not Miller’s family members or close friends. That does not mean the music is poorly constructed, because it is not: the quick shifts in Sebastian’s Day Off, the unusual 13-8 meter of Dear Della Mae, the gentleness of three-quarter time in Poochie’s Waltz, and various other elements of these works are effective and involving. And the various blendings of saxophones (at least one in every work) with instruments including trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, bass and drums are nicely managed. However, in the absence of familiarity with the individuals for or about whom the works were written, a listener ends up with a feeling of comparative sameness of sound from one piece to the next, rather than a sense that a specific work here somehow limns a particular personality.
The type of music written by Alejandro Rutty and heard on a new Navona CD is far more varied, and so are the instruments Rutty uses. Not all his works here include winds, and indeed not all include traditional acoustic instruments: More Music for Examining and Buying Merchandise is for soprano saxophone, yes, but also for electronics, while Guitars is for two clarinets and electronics and conflates the acoustic instruments with those of the work’s title, to rather odd effect. Rutty does not always go for the obvious: Exhaling Space deals with celestial bodies but uses a string quartet rather than the electronics commonly employed in “space music,” and although Martian Milonga – an imaginary “future of tango” work – does include electric bass and does have some of the feelings of electronic music, it is really a blend of tango with world music and rock. The four other works here are Transparent Sun, for violin and piano; As You Say, for two violins and soprano saxophone; Cantabile Hop, for piano, viola, bass (played by Rutty), percussion and electronics; and Qualia, a solo-piano work and another piece performed by Rutty himself. Rutty’s stylistic variety can be jarring – he packs a great deal into a short time – and although his work is mainly jazz-permeated, it also has elements of Latin music (tango and otherwise), straightforward electronica, and some classical elements (albeit often stretched almost into unrecognizability). Rutty does tend to let his own cleverness run away with itself from time to time, and several tracks on the disc are less interesting to hear than their titles and instrumentation would indicate. But the sheer variety of material on the disc means that many listeners who enjoy contemporary music will find at least a few pieces here worth hearing, and may even enjoy choosing works based partly on whether their focus is winds, strings, percussion, electronics or some combination of these instruments and their varied sounds.
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