October 18, 2018
(+++) CONTEMPORARY ORCHESTRAL THINKING
Michael G. Cunningham: Silhouettes; Clarinet Concerto; Symphonette; Bach Diadem. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský; Bruno Philipp, clarinet; Croatian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
Mark John McEncroe: Symphonic Poems. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore. Navona. $14.99 (2 CDs).
Hans Bakker: Canzona III Hidden in Her Light; Jan Järvlepp: Suite for Strings; Clive Muncaster: Redcliffe Gardens Suite for Strings; Shirley Mier: Of Lakes and Legends. Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Vronský and Stanislav Vavřínek; Croatian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Miran Vaupotić. Navona. $14.99.
John A. Carollo: Awakenings for String Orchestra; Romantica Passione Suite; Metamorphosis No. 3 for Solo Violin; Guitar Prelude No. 3—The Tai Chi Set; Guitar Etudes Nos. 7 and 9; Music for Choir; Metamorphosis No. 13 for Solo Flute; Bright Stillness (You Are My Desire) for String Orchestra. Navona. $14.99.
Modern composers of orchestral music are well aware that they are building on a rich legacy from which to extract what is most meaningful to them while still placing their own imprimatur on works for large ensemble. Michael G. Cunningham is particularly attuned to what has come before, to the point of sometimes offering direct tributes to and interpretations of earlier music. Notably, Cunningham’s Bach Diadem arranges three of Bach’s works for full orchestra in a way that certainly acknowledges the earlier composer’s influence even though the arrangements do not add any particular insight to the originals – and are performed rather ploddingly by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronský. The playing is more successful elsewhere on a new Navona CD, for example in Silhouettes, whose nine short movements include genuflections to Gershwin and Mozart even though those pieces sound little like the works of either composer. Cunningham’s use of the orchestra is actually more attractive in his charming and charmingly titled Symphonette, whose three straightforwardly labeled movements (“Con Spirito,” “Calmato” and “Gioviale”) are neatly packaged and effectively evocative of the intended moods. Cunningham simply seems more comfortable here than in some of the works tied more directly to earlier times: the good-humored finale, in particular, is a gem. Cunningham also shows sure command of orchestral forces in his Clarinet Concerto, as much through what he omits as through what he includes: the work uses no strings, placing the clarinet against winds, brass and percussion in a way that produces an unusual sonic world that leaves most of the expressiveness to the soloist (Bruno Philipp is quite adept with the material) while keeping the instrumental complement in a somewhat staid role. The result is a work that bespeaks Cunningham’s personal style more effectively than do those in which he pays closer conscious attention to prior composers.
All 10 of the symphonic poems by Mark John McEncroe heard on a two-CD Navona release show the composer’s ability to craft effective music for a large instrumental group, and all look to the past in the sense in which they are emotionally evocative rather than mired in compositional fads or techniques of the moment. They are nevertheless quite contemporary in their aims, with some speaking of a natural world that McEncroe regards as being systematically destroyed and deserving of much greater respect, while others express internal struggles and attempts to come to terms with them. The nature-focused symphonic poems are generally longer and include two that are Romantic-era substantial: An Early Autumn Morning, which lasts more than 21 minutes, and A Celebration of the Natural World, which runs more than 17. In truth, both of these suffer somewhat from bloat: McEncroe makes his musical points effectively enough but then tends to re-make them again and again. The somewhat shorter “nature” symphonic poems handle their expressiveness more modestly and, as a result, actually become more involving than the longest two. The less-extended ones include Summer’s Last Hurrah, That Old Indian Summer, Mid Autumn’s Deep Colours, Movements in the Night, and Deep in the Wilderness. As the titles indicate, McEncroe does take up the same topic repeatedly, and several of the symphonic poems’ titles could be switched around without doing any damage to the way they evoke their scenes: McEncroe’s fondness for grand string themes and lyricism is everywhere apparent. The three pieces here that are more inward-looking are also more readily differentiable. The Passing is a work of initial discomfort that leads to a working-through of ideas and eventual emergence of something more affirming. Echoes from a Haunted Past has a somewhat similar “story arc,” beginning in what sounds like uncertainty and eventually succeeding in producing a satisfactory conclusion. A Pageant at the County Fair, on the other hand, is lighter and more straightforward, with little outbursts of pleasure amid a soundscape that is essentially peaceful and pastoral. Two full CDs of McEncroe’s symphonic poems are a bit much: an hour and three-quarters is a very generous musical helping, but the works are insufficiently varied for straight-through listening. Heard one or two at a time, though, they are quite satisfying.
On the basis of another Navona release, skilled handling of orchestral forms by contemporary composers is widespread: all four composers on this CD show evidence of it. The most intriguing-sounding is Hans Bakker’s Canzona III Hidden in Her Light, a hymn to the sun, which is a three-movement work with some genuinely interesting orchestral touches. The intermingling of the non-string portions of the orchestra with the string sections is unusual, and the work has the feeling of a personal expression of delight in or admiration of the sun and all it stands for: this is not a work about actual sunrise so much as it is about an inward response to the sun’s existence. It expresses nothing specific, but constantly hints at a meaning beyond its musical phrases. Jan Järvlepp’s Suite for Strings is a far more modest work, written for youth string orchestra as a training piece, but it is attractive in ways that go well beyond its pedagogical purpose. The first movement’s frequent changes of time signature produce a pleasantly angular and not-quite-danceable forward motion; the position shifts of the second movement and the expressive bowing required in the third produce striking (if scarcely deep) emotional contrasts; and the finale, “Dance of the Monkey Man,” with its finger snaps and persistent syncopation, is just plain enjoyable. Clive Muncaster’s Redcliffe Gardens Suite for Strings, so called because Muncaster composed its parts while living at Redcliffe Gardens in London, also offers pleasant contrasts among its five movements, although it is not a particularly well-unified work: the third and fifth movements were originally for violin and piano, the fourth originally for full orchestra. The bright and lively concluding “Girandole” is a highlight. Shirley Mier’s Of Lakes and Legends is a full-orchestra piece, a suite with a specific focus on the city of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The work opens with a recounting of a local legend, continues with a pleasant depiction of an early railroad trip, next offers a moodily intimate portrayal of in-home music making, and concludes by displaying the spirit of sailboat races held on the lake. Listeners not familiar with the specifics underlying the movements will get less from the suite than will ones who look into the work’s background, but any audience will appreciate the sureness with which Mier handles the orchestra and uses varying instruments for a series of effective tone paintings.
Like Järvlepp and Muncaster, John A. Carollo favors a string orchestra rather than a full one on a new Navona release, using it for the first and last pieces. The Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavřínek handles these bookends of the CD with warmth and sensitivity, although the works themselves are on the superficial side: Awakenings emerges from the depths in largely predictable ways and could swap titles with Bright Stillness, which is also slow-paced and filled with the usual somnolent swells and rhythms designed to stand in for profundity. Carollo is much given to gestural rather than sincere and heartfelt communication, but actually comes across better on this recording in chamber or solo works than in the string-orchestra ones. The lightly scored pieces here include Romantica Passione Suite for guitar and violin, Metamorphosis No. 3 for solo violin, Guitar Prelude No. 3 and Guitar Etudes for solo guitar, and Metamorphosis No. 13 for solo flute. None of these works is especially distinctive, although all show Carollo’s ability to write for the instruments involved. The most intriguing piece here, though, is Music for Choir, which includes four nicely balanced settings of Carollo’s own poems, sung sensitively and with very fine enunciation by The Composer’s Choir conducted by Daniel Shaw. The poetry has a uniformly outdoorsy feeling, and the words are not especially revelatory, but each of the poems is set to bring out its words with clarity. The four are “Little Gems,” “She Saw the Rainbow,” “Moon Dust,” and “Crafted Stardust,” and if none of them packs a significant emotional punch, all show Carollo to be among the contemporary composers who have found ways to communicate their musical ideas not only in large instrumental ensembles and small ones, but also in vocal works.