Carlos Kalmar Presents “Aspects of America”

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ASPECTS OF AMERICA / SHEPHERD: Magiya. CURRIER: Microsymph. ROUSE: Supplica. BUNCH: Aspects of an Elephant. BARBER: Souvenirs / Oregon Symphony; Carlos Kalmar, cond / Pentatone Classics 5186 727

Well, if it’s modern American music you’re after, this is a CD for you. With the exception of Samuel Barber, who died in 1981, none of these composers are in the classical mainstream, and of the others the only name I recognized was that of Sebastian Currier, whose music I have been singing the praises of for the past decade. Sadly, none of the modern American composers represented here are women—part for the course, sadly. We doesn’t write nothin’ gud.

The concert opens on a highly dramatic note with Sean Shepherd’s Magiya or Magic. Like close to 80% of modern classical music nowadays, it’s spiky and edgy, with brilliant brass and biting winds playing atonal, serrated figures. It might be nice if, once in a while, some of these modern composers would display a little individuality. (It reminds me of that scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Brian tells his unwanted band of groupies to think for themselves and be individuals, to which they all chant, in unison, “YES. WE’RE ALL INDIVIDUALS.”) That being said, young (b. 1979) Shepherd clearly understands musical construction and thus gives us a fine piece of music with development that also includes the juxtaposition of different rhythmic elements. It’s an interesting opener if a bit of a cliché.

Currier, whose music (I feel) sort of initiated this style (he’s 20 years older than Shepherd), presents a Microsymph in the same vein but with even more stringent classical form beneath his sharp, jagged lines. The slow movement of this work also has a somewhat lyrical quality about it that I found attractive, almost sounding like Viennese operetta music of the 1920s. This clearly shows how he is able to re-use older styles (although this tune seems to me wholly original) within his own aesthetic. He also has a sense of humor, which I appreciate, often ending phrases or movements in the “middle of nowhere.”

By contrast, Christopher Rouse’s Supplica is a well-written lyric piece in the tradition of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, beautifully conceived and contrasting the styles of the first two composers. The Oregon Symphony plays this, and indeed all of the pieces on this disc, with outstanding feeling and style.

Aspects of an Elephant, by 45-year-old Portland composer Kenji Bunch, struck me as the most original piece on this CD. At least, it is clearly the most different. Bunch writes in a style that seems to combine elements of Stravinsky, Barrtók and Ligeti in his melodic and harmonic arsenal. This unusual five-part suite traces elephantine “aspects” such as a whip, a spear, a silk cloth, a tree, a snake and a throne. In the liner notes, Bunch explains that he drew his inspiration from “the timeless parable of the so-called Blind Men and the Elephant, of which various versions have appeared throughout Asia and Europe since the 13th century.” Much of this suite is lyrical, though using lean, Stravinskian textures and melodic themes that play against the occasional rhythmic aspects of the score. It is clearly the work of a fine composer. In “The Elephant is a Tree,” he does a fine job of simulating the lumbering gait of a pachyderm, and in “The Elephant is a Snake” he uses rapid string and xylophone figures played against bongo drums. This is very clever and imaginative music!

Although I am not normally a fan of Samuel Barber’s extended orchestral music, which I find derivative and overly melodic in a syrupy sort of way, I found his 1952 ballet suite Souvenirs charming in its own way if overlong.

In toto, then, an interesting album, particularly recommended for the Currier and Bunch pieces.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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