A Potpourri of Pieces for Orchestra and Large Ensembles

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TOMORROW’S AIR / TANN: Anecdote / Ovidiu Marinescu, cellist; State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mureş; Ovidiu Balan, conductor / BAKKER: Cantus for String Orchestra.1 PERTTU: To Spring – An Overture.2 JÄRVLEPP: In Memoriam 2 / Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra; 1Vit Micka, 2Petr Vronský, conductors / SCHROEDER: Late Harvest / Sarita Uranovsky, Zola Bologovsky, Colleen Brannen, Ethan Wood, Julia Okrusko, violinists; Peter Sulsky, Joanna Cyrus, Emily Rome, violists; Leo Eguchi, Dorothy Braker, cellists; Charles Clements, bassist; Yhasmin Valenzuela, bass clarinetist; Karolina Rojahn, pianist; John Page, conductor / OSTERFIELD: Silver Fantasy / Moravian Philharmonic Wind & Percussion Ensemble; Lindsey Goodman, flautist/piccolo; Petr Vronský, conductor / Navona 6108

This is one of those albums I almost dread reviewing: a potpourri of works by several different composers, all contemporary, of which I only know the music of one of them (Hilary Tann). Fortunately, the overall quality of the music herein was better than I had anticipated.

Tann’s Anecdote, written for solo cello and orchestra, is clearly one of her loveliest and most interesting compositions, using broad but interesting melodic lines in bold strokes against an insistent “knocking” rhythm on woodblocks. The solo cello seems to be more of a commentator on the ongoing musical discourse, playing serrated figures against the lush orchestral backdrop. Our soloist, Marinescu, has a rich, lovely tone and full command of the instrument, playing with considerable feeling once the music “opens up.” Eventually the orchestra, too, plays the same sort of fluttering eighths along with the cellist, the music sounding almost like leaves bobbing on choppy water. Eventually the orchestra waxes dramatic, transforming the eighth-note motif into something quite powerful, underscored by pounding tympani, which leads to a cello cadenza before the final section. This is a great opener to this collection, inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” and the longest piece in this collection at 14:39.

Next up is Dutch composer Hans Bakker’s Cantus for string orchestra. Like Tann, his music is tonal but in his case even more pungent in sound thanks to his constant harmonic shifting, beginning in the minor but then moving into the major. A nice sort of syncopated bounce is set up by the strings, the violins and violas playing a repeated rhythmic motif against the “bouncy” cellos. This eventually relaxes as Bakker develops his simple theme and introduces a contrasting “B” section.

Daniel Perttu, currently an Associate Professor at Westminster College, sets up swirling figures in To Spring – An Overture. This is a more conventionally tonal piece than the first two, and in fact almost has the sound of film score music except for its more interesting use of counterpoint (the cellos playing one theme while the upper strings play another) and richer texture of scoring. The only drawback I felt in this piece was that the harmony stayed pretty much in one place for a bit too long.

Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp follows with In Memoriam, written in memory of his late brother. For a memorial work of evidently strong emotion, it struck me as too tonal and melodic, with little feeling of pain to reflect his loss. Were one to hear this piece without knowing its title or inspiration, one would think it a nicely-penned musical interlude, sort of a modern counterpart to that of Cavalleria Rusticana. In short, it’s not a bad piece but not a particularly great one.

French-American Pierre Schroeder’s Late Harvest is described in the notes as “a lush, emotional work for strings, clarinet, and piano that forms a part of his eleven-movement magnum opus Voyage.” Ironically, I felt more emotion in this music than in the previous piece, despite its tonal structure. Schroeder cleverly works his small body of strings—five violins, three violas, two cellos and a bass—with bass clarinet and piano through a melodic structure that is coherent and interesting. Written in D minor, it has an interesting development section and grabs the listener with its emotional appeal. There is also some well-conceived tonal modulation at the 3:35 mark which, when combined with an increase in dynamics, makes the piece sound quite dramatic. Schroeder has an excellent sense of pacing, which holds the listener’s interest throughout.

We end our brief journey with Silver Fantasy by Paul Osterfield, a moody and somewhat mysterious-sounding work for wind ensemble. I’m so happy to finally hear, in recent years, really creative and interesting music written for winds to offset the banal stuff such groups played with regularity in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Osterfield mixes in some unusual timbral blends, using the tuba, horns and trombones to create a dark texture on the bottom over which the flute and piccolo play. To a certain extent, this sounds a bit like the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony in microcosm, although Osterfield is not copying Mahler in style. Suddenly, around 4:45, the music doubles in tempo and becomes quite angst-filled, with spiky harmonies, rolling tympani and occasional tone clusters. Then, surprisungly, the music lightens up a bit in tone as we get a quirky but somewhat jolly piccolo tune played above staccato brass figures. It’s just weird enough that I really like it! After this section, the tempo doubles yet again, riding us out in a whirlwind of sound.

Despite one or two moments where one’s attention drifts, then, this is a surprisingly good collection of contemporary works in contrasting styles and a disc you will return to again and again.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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