December 15, 2022


Debra Kaye: Rising Up; Lawrence Mumford: Hope and a Future; Dinah Bianchi: Chasse Noir; Bruce Reiprich: When Quiet Comes; William Copper: Gold Lights in Blue; Richard E. Brown: Paisano Suite. Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Jan Kučera, Stanislav Vavřínek and Jiří Petrdlík. Navona. $14.99.

Greg McLean: The ’Twain Have Met; Guillermo Klein: Solar Return Suite; James Stephenson: It’s About Time; Dave Rivello—arrangements; Mildred J. Hill: Happy Birthday. Charles Schlueter and Marvin Stamm, trumpets; Mark Weissman, saxophone; Ryan Devlin, tenor saxophone; New England Conservatory Symphonic Winds conducted by William Drury and Gene Young. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Michael Murray: Passage to Nod; Genevieve’s Cats; Penny Whistles; The Last Invocation. Genevieve Fulks, soprano; Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Vavřínek; Minju Choi Witte, piano; Allison Storochuk, clarinet. Navona. $14.99.

     Contemporary composers’ explorations of varying themes, topics and musical approaches often continue to involve turning to full symphony orchestras – but equally often focus on specific orchestral sections or even smaller groups. The second release in a Navona series called “Inviting Worlds” features five single-movement orchestral works and one eight-movement suite, all connected only by the six composers’ interest in exploring orchestral totality and tonality. Debra Kaye’s Rising Up is the longest of the single-movement pieces, at around 11 minutes, and is intended to portray resilience through and after difficulty – it was written early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but works much better as a general piece about living through and reaching beyond adversity. Its restrained positivity is far more effective than outright triumphalism would be. And it has something of the sound of Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture – although the “rising” for Kaye is emotional and psychological rather than astronomical. Lawrence Mumford’s Hope and a Future is cut from similar proclamatory cloth. It is a movement from Mumford’s Symphony No. 4, but the composer says it can also be used as a concert overture, in which guise it works well as an optimistic look beyond, yes, the COVID-19 pandemic. Dinah Bianchi’s Chasse Noir is a cinematic-feeling theme and variations that excels in use of orchestral color and a feeling of constant, speedy onward propulsion toward an unknown destination. Bruce Reiprich’s When Quiet Comes, on the other hand, is a reserved work for piano (Lucie Kaucká) and orchestra, simple and restrained in sound – although cinematic in its own way in speaking of sorrow. William Copper’s Gold Lights in Blue is a pleasantly foursquare work that contrasts sedate neo-Baroque backgrounds with periodic bursts of enthusiasm. Richard E. Brown’s Paisano Suite, in eight short movements that hark back stylistically – although not harmonically – to the Baroque era, is more tightly knit than suites usually are, and provides pleasant contrasts among the movements without having any of them overstay their welcome. All six composers’ works are very well-served by the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava, whose conductors seem thoroughly comfortable with these contemporary pieces that, by and large, stretch tonality instead of breaking with it altogether, and that use the full orchestra skillfully and to good effect.

     It is the winds rather than a full orchestra that get the attention on a new MSR Classics release of live recordings that mixes celebratory and bright elements with quieter and more-reserved ones. Filled with jazz and jazz-like material, this CD, like Navona’s “Inviting Worlds” entry, includes one suite (in seven movements) and five single-movement pieces. The disc features the smooth-sounding New England Conservatory Symphonic Winds. Interestingly, this American ensemble, playing American music, is neither more nor less adept with the repertoire than is the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava with the pieces it plays – a sure indication of the internationalization both of modern classical music and of the groups that perform it. The New England ensemble’s disc features two works in which trumpeters Charles Schlueter and Marvin Stamm play together with tremendous verve, style and enthusiasm: The ’Twain Have Met by Greg McLean (born 1956) and It’s About Time by James Stephenson (born 1969). McLean’s piece is more dissonant than is usual for a jazz-inflected work, and makes considerable use of drum set; but it has plenty of upbeat moments in which the trumpets get the chance to hold forth. Stephenson’s work is more melodic and has more of a symphonic sound, along with touches of humor to go with the considerable virtuosity required of the soloists. The other major work on this disc is Solar Return Suite by Guillermo Klein (born 1969), featuring a solo saxophone (Mark Weissman) and having a very mellow, laid-back sound throughout. Klein treats the jazz ensemble as a collection of individual instruments most of the time, so the saxophone always stands out and never seems in competition with the group as a whole. The suite has something of the feeling of “mood” or “background” music in its mixture of warmth and mostly straightforward harmonies. The feeling is somewhat similar in arrangements by Dave Rivello (born 1962) of Some Other Time, from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, and Henry Mancini’s Dreamsville, both featuring tenor saxophone (Ryan Devlin). The Bernstein work is about as relaxing as can be, and Mancini’s quiet mood piece floats softly and delicately along as if written in the first place for tenor sax. The CD ends with an amusing 22-second performance by Schlueter on a piccolo trumpet, playing Happy Birthday via telephone as a musical gift for conductor William Drury – a conclusion emblematic of the feeling of pleasant camaraderie among gifted musicians that pervades the entire disc.

     A Navona release featuring soprano Genevieve Fulks returns to the full-orchestra realm – but also showcases some songs accompanied by clarinet and piano, and others with piano alone. Michael Murray’s Passage to Nod includes six pieces to texts by Robert Louis Stevenson, each of them set atmospherically but rather similarly despite their differences of topic. Fulks has no trouble projecting her voice above the orchestra, which mostly creates an aural backdrop instead of commenting on or adding to Stevenson’s words. The work as a whole is somewhat placid and static, the words sensitively set but the instruments painting less in the way of musical scenes than might be hoped. The Last Invocation, to words by Walt Whitman, is also for soprano and full orchestra, and here too Murray (born 1943) is mostly concerned with setting a quiet, reserved mood with the instruments while giving the voice a foreground role that does not seem to have a great need for its accompaniment except as a fairly generic sonic backdrop. The six-song Penny Whistles for soprano, clarinet and piano, which again has words by Stevenson, is more interesting: here Murray appears more concerned than in the orchestral settings with the coloristic possibilities of the two accompanying instruments, and allows himself some jocularity from time to time – notably in the 55-second Singing, the shortest piece here. There are also bits of effective tone-painting in this cycle, especially in Windy Nights. However, the cleverest piece on the disc turns out to be the most modestly scored: Genevieve’s Cats, whose three songs have words by, respectively, William Wordsworth, William Butler Yeats, and John Keats. This work is only for soprano and piano, and here Minju Choi Witte gets to participate fully in the word paintings, which Fulks presents with aptly varying levels of warmth, sensitivity, and emotional engagement – showing that the resources of a full orchestra are not always necessary when today’s composers seek to convey a wide variety of thoughts and feelings.

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