May 06, 2021

(+++) THINKING ORCHESTRALLY

Marius Constant: Turner; Brevissima; 103 Regards dans l’eau. Riverside Symphony conducted by George Rothman. Divine Art. $18.99.

Robert Pollock: Romance-Fantasy; Cygnature Piece; Entertwined; Metaphor for guitar; Chamber Setting #2; Revolution; Metaphor for vibraphone. Furious Artisans. $16.99.

Prisma, Volume 5: Music for Orchestra by Lawrence Mumford, Kevin McCarter, Samantha Sack, Alexis Alrich, Anthony Wilson, Katherine Saxon, and William Copper. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jiří Petrdlík and Stanislav Vavřínek. Navona. $14.99.

      The symphony orchestra remains the ne plus ultra for tonal color and communicative potential using the widest variety of sound worlds and combinations. As a result, composers continue to search for new ways to use symphonic forces for a large variety of expressive purposes – and to make a great number of points with, to and for listeners. Those points are not necessarily made in traditional concert halls: some very fine and classically trained composers are known primarily for their contributions to popular culture – Dimitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrmann for films, for example, and Marius Constant (1925-2004) for a single work for television: the theme for The Twilight Zone. But there is considerably more to Constant than that: his ballets still garner occasional performances, and his symphonic works, on the basis of a new Divine Art release, are certainly worth the occasional hearing. The three pieces performed by the Riverside Symphony under George Rothman have very different intentions. Turner (1961), as its title is intended to indicate, is inspired by the paintings of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). The first movement reacts to Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) with a suitably atmospheric portrayal; the second to Self-Portrait (1799) with a focus on drama; and the third to works including Windsor Castle from the Thames (1805) and Windsor Castle from the River (c. 1807) in a style mixing the impressionistic with the suitably magisterial. Listeners unfamiliar with the specific Turner works to which Constant is reacting will hear well-proportioned music whose connections to particular topics are less than obvious. Brevissima (1992) is a more-interesting work: an entire four-movement symphony boiled down to a mere 10 minutes. The rather scattered-sounding Scherzo, placed second, is the most unusual movement; the concluding Passacaglia funèbre is the most intriguingly structured. The piece is, in truth, somewhat too compressed, hinting at the symphonic rather than actively seeking it. But, like Constant’s music in general, it shows a fine command of orchestral forces. The longest work on this disc is a four-movement violin concerto from 1981 called 103 Regards dans l’eau (“103 Poetic Celebrations of Water”), featuring violinist Olivier Charlier. Two slow movements frame two faster ones here, the violin making its primary points mainly in its top register and the work as a whole coming across as rather self-indulgent and self-consciously “modern” in sound. It is an interesting piece but not a particularly engaging one, although, again, the writing for orchestra – and for the solo instrument – is impressively self-assured. The CD offers more insight into the composer than audio recordings usually do, because it also contains video material: a discussion of the music with Rothman and archival footage of Constant, with all the video formatted for computer playback. This additional quarter-hour of material certainly broadens the scope of the almost-hour-long audio portion of the disc, although really, the music needs to speak for itself rather than through the video – and it does so, telling listeners that Constant was a skilled if perhaps not highly innovative composer who handled orchestration with considerable ability even though the underlying ideas and sounds of the works heard here are not particularly original.

     Robert Pollock (born 1946) is more determined than Constant was to evoke a highly personal sonic world, doing so not only in ensemble pieces but also in material for two performers or just one. A new CD on the Furious Artisans label makes this point through seven works created by Pollock from the mid-1970s through 2007. The most-recent piece, written for guitarist William Anderson and pianist Joan Forsyth and performed by them, is Romance-Fantasy, which features highly complex rhythms and some typically contemporary attempts to extend the sound of the participating instruments (including making the guitar into more of a percussion instrument than it actually is). Cygnature Piece (1997), played by the Cygnus Ensemble (flute, oboe, violin, cello, guitar and mandolin), consists of two movements labeled “Mysteriously” and “Dance,” the first not particularly mysterious and the second not really dancelike despite some passes at fluidity. Entertwined (2001) for two guitars (Anderson and Oren Fader) juxtaposes the instruments in some interesting ways and creates a more-varied sound palette than might be expected, although it does not sustain well enough to justify its 12-minute duration. Metaphor is offered two ways, for guitar (Anderson) in a 1995 version and for vibraphone (Nathaniel Lee) in a 1996 setting. Aside from the obvious differences of sonority between the pieces, the guitar version has greater forward momentum, the vibraphone one a greater sense of stasis, featuring extensive use of overtones. The longest work here is the three-movement Chamber Setting #2 (1980), played by the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble (xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, and enough percussion to keep two players busy). The actual sounds of the instruments are pleasant enough and are often well-combined, and there are some interesting effects (such as the use of drums at the start of the second movement); there are also some ho-hum and overdone modernistic elements (such as the spoken words and groaning sounds in that movement and elsewhere). The earliest piece here is Revolution (1976), featuring the Cygnus Ensemble in a different configuration from the one used in Cygnature Piece: here there are violin, contrabass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, marimba, guitar and percussion. The instrumental mixture gives this work the greatest opportunity for aural variation and interesting combinations, but Pollock does not take any particular advantage of the very wide variety of available sounds, instead producing a thoroughly typical-for-its-time-period work that stops and starts intermittently, goes nowhere in particular, and never quite goes anywhere in particular. Certainly Pollock, like Constant, is adept at scoring; but unlike Constant, Pollock never seems, at least in these pieces, to have any real point to make or to give any potential audience a specific reason to engage with the material.

     Listeners interested in how various contemporary composers try to reach out to audiences may want to consider Prisma, Volume 5, from Navona. Like anthology disks in general, this one showcases multiple ideas and approaches and is likely to offer some material that will appeal to fans of modern orchestral works – but is unlikely to proffer a full CD of enjoyment, simply because the works differ from each other in so many ways. Lawrence Mumford’s Adagio: Of Times and Seasons is actually paced a bit quickly by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavřínek; it sounds a bit like music accompanying scene changes in a movie. Kevin McCarter’s All Along is mostly a series of contrasting sounds, speeds and moods – a bit disorganized, but often pleasant. Samantha Sack’s A Kiss in the Dark is not particularly reflective of its title, but does employ the instruments for a sense of emotional striving. Alexis Alrich’s Bell and Drum Tower, a tone poem exploring the towers built in ancient China and used for those instruments as a method of time keeping, goes beyond the strictly imitative to convey impressions of the varied circumstances that could have occurred within cities as the bells and drums marked the hours and days. Anthony Wilson’s 3 Flights of the Condor is a stages-of-life piece intended to parallel the bird’s flights during its lifetime with human experiences of growth and maturity over time – and it is the most-effective work on the disc in using the full orchestra for its warmth and lyrical potential. Katherine Saxon’s Nunatak is lyrical as well in its tonal description of ice fields and rocky outcrops. William Copper’s This Full Bowl of Roses, Part III, based on a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, is an interesting combination of Baroque form (the fugue) with a modern compositional technique created by the composer – a technique, interestingly enough, that listeners do not have to know or understand in order to make a connection with the music (a very good thing, and one all too often missing in contemporary composition). The orchestra handles all the music adeptly, with Vavřínek conducting the McCarter, Saxon and Copper works as well as Mumford’s, and Jiří Petrdlík leading the ensemble in the pieces by Sack, Alrich and Wilson. All the pieces on the CD show considerable compositional skill in terms of the handling of a large ensemble, with the effectiveness of musical narrative by Alrich, lyricism by Wilson and Saxon, and the mixing of old forms and new techniques by Copper being particularly noteworthy.

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