February 20, 2020
(+++) ORCHESTRAL PORTRAITS
Mark John McEncroe: Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra—Reflections & Recollections, Vol. 2. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armoré. Navona. $14.99.
Ahmed Alabaca: Ascension for Solo Clarinet and String Orchestra; Sarah Wallin Huff: The Dark Glass Sinfonia; Noam Faingold: The Defiant Poet—Elegy in Memory of Yevgeny Yevtushenko; Raisa Orshansky: Spring Fantasy; Craig Morris: Songs of the Seasons; Scott Brickman: Restoration; Audun G. Vassdal: Prelude & Fugue for Orchestra. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Robert Kružík and Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.
Like the first Navona release titled Musical Images for Chamber Orchestra by Mark John McEncroe, the second is a series of chamber-music arrangements by Mark J. Saliba of pieces that McEncroe originally wrote for piano. Also like the first volume, which was a two-CD offering, this single-disc followup presents works that are quite similar from one to the next – inspired by different life experiences, according to the composer, but expressed in a way that makes it difficult (and perhaps unnecessary) to try to figure out exactly why a particular title goes with a particular musical offering. The 11 pieces here constitute, in totality, a kind of portrait of McEncroe’s impressions of various scenes and events in his life, all of them seen – if the music itself is a fair indicator – with a great deal of equanimity. The titles of the pieces are Daybreak, Cindy’s Song, A Rainy Summer’s Day, A Penny for Your Thoughts, Dance of the Pagans, Fleeting Images, Natalie’s Theme, Nocturnal Images, Fading Memories, Floating Lilies, and Shimmering Lights. All the works are similarly paced at moderate speed and produced at soft-to-moderate volume. They are primarily consonant, their mild dissonances used for periodic emphasis but quickly subsumed within what is generally a kind of “easy listening.” For example, a listener might expect a piece called Dance of the Pagans to have at least a slight Stravinskian tinge to it, but in fact this is a pleasantly upbeat and rather delicate dance with a few percussive elements that presumably point to “paganism” in the same way that drums and cymbals were considered to produce “Turkish” music in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time. And if the “pagans” are gentle, the other people and scenes here are equally so. Indeed, the titles Fleeting Images, Fading Memories, and Shimmering Lights neatly encapsulate the entire worldview created by this material: this is the sort of unchallenging aural material suitable for listeners to have on in the background as they go about their everyday lives. Like its predecessor release, this one offers mood music in a single mood, pleasantly soporific and engagingly undistinguished. There is nothing challenging or portentous here, nothing to make one’s ears perk up or one’s mind pay attention, but a great deal that can be used as an aid to meditation or to sleep. Indeed, the titles Nocturnal Images and Floating Lilies give a good sense of the kind of contemplative quietude within which all these pieces float, and into which they invite listeners who are disposed to enter McEncroe’s memory world with him and dwell therein for a time.
The portraiture is considerably more varied on a Navona release called “Prisma, Vol. 3,” on which seven composers try to offer insights into themselves and, in some cases, into their views of other people. Ahmed Alabaca’s Ascension for Solo Clarinet and String Orchestra features soloist Karel Dohnal in a heartfelt, warm, rather cinematic piece created as a memorial tribute to a friend. Sarah Wallin Huff’s The Dark Glass Sinfonia juxtaposes harmonic and atonal sections and frequent contrasts of loud and soft passages. Noam Faingold’s The Defiant Poet is a memorial for Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko – it is a work that sounds heartfelt but meanders rather too much and for rather too long. Raisa Orshansky’s Spring Fantasy was inspired by a different Russian poet, Alexander Blok, and is suitably evocative of the notion of birth and rebirth; but its pleasant, straightforwardly melodic communication gives the impression of having been heard in many other works by many other composers. Craig Morris includes springtime as the second of the four movements of Songs of the Seasons, after opening with “Winter Snowfall.” He next seeks to evoke “Spring Raindrops,” then “Summer Waves,” and finally “Fall Colors.” As the titles indicate, this piece, like Orshansky’s, does not reach for any particularly new imagery; also like Orshansky’s music, Morris’ does not really explore new melodic or rhythmic territory. Indeed, there is a sameness of pacing and expression among Morris’ four movements that makes the four seasons less distinguishable than they actually are. The impressionism here is mild, the music easy to listen to and comfortable enough, but it is all curiously uninvolving and far less descriptive of the times of year than the titles of the piece and its individual elements would lead listeners to expect. Scott Brickman’s Restoration is more aurally challenging, although it is scarcely “difficult” music. Brickman considers it a one-movement symphony, but it sounds more like a fantasia or concert overture, paying tribute to Eastern European folk material although not directly quoting any of it, and lapsing into occasional sort-of-minimalist, percussive sections among a series of more-melodic ones featuring longer lines. This very mixed compilation CD concludes with Audun G. Vassdal’s Prelude & Fugue for Orchestra, which is not quite what its title indicates: the first portion is slow and undramatic almost to the point of dullness, although its volume and tempo slowly increase to a climactic, somewhat overdone dramatic outburst; as for the fugue, it is more a sort-of-fugue, stretching the form’s structure and turning at one point into something closer to a waltz. Formally intriguing and with some interesting uses of the orchestra, this is the most intellectually engaging work on the disc, but it is not especially emotionally involving and comes across as more clever than meaningful. As is generally the case with anthology discs of contemporary music, there is much well-crafted material here but little chance that listeners will find more than a small portion of the total presentation congenial and worth returning to repeatedly.