The UM Symphony Plays Modern Music

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KAIROS / KUSTER: Rain On It. RUSH: Interior Castle (of St. Theresa). CHAMBERS: Kairos. BOLCOM: Lyric Concerto* / *Amy Porter, fl; University of Michigan Symphony Orch.; Kenneth Kiesler, cond / Centaur CRC 3793

This unusual disc features first recordings (although the Bolcom was previously released) of four works by modern American composers, of whom only William Bolcom is well known. Kristen Kuster (b. 1973) was born in North Carolina but grew up in Colorado. She was a pupil of Bolcom’s as well as of Evan Chambers and Michael Daugherty at the University of Michigan. Chambers (b. 1963), a Louisiana native, is also a Irish fiddler, He too studied at UM, with William Albright, Leslie Bassett and Nicholas Thorne. Stephen Rush (b.1958) is a Professor at UM who studied with Gunther Schuller, David Liptak and Samuel Adler, He has recently authored a book on the “harmolodics” method of jazz musician and composer Ornette Coleman.

Kuster’s Rain is a fast, edgy piece using rapid eighth-note figures interspersed with percussion to create a somewhat atmospheric piece. My complaint, at least at the outset, was that it tended to stay on one chord for too long a time, not presenting any modulation until about 1:20. It’s a nice, solid piece showing Kuster’s knowledge of how to put music together, and entertaining for the most part, but to my ears it didn’t say anything much, being more of an “atmosphere” sort of piece. It goes on too long and says very little.

Rush describes Interior Castle as his third symphony, based on the “eightfold path” of St. Theresa of Avila. Only a little over 18 minutes long, it is divided into seven movements, each with a title: “”Moats with Lizards,” “Rats and Lizards” (I detect an attraction to lizards?), “Humility,” “Bhakti Joy,” Caterpillar…to…Butterfly,” “…that still small voice…” and “Celestial Marriage.” This is far more substantial music, opening with a fast introduction but quickly settling down to slower, more atmospheric themes, well constructed and, interestingly, including some jazz-styled syncopations (played well by the orchestra but lacking a true jazz feel). There are, in the first movement, also brief spot solos for different instruments including the cello, flute and piano. In the second movement, the rats and lizards skip merrily along to peppy, uptempo music with the rhythm accentuated in the background by woodblocks. Here, Rush makes the most of short motifs, often scored with open harmony in the manner of Aaron Copland. This moves with only the shortest of breaks into “Humility,” a slow movement well constructed on broad string themes. Once again, Rush leans on the “Americana” sound in his music but, to his credit, does not ape Copland. What he writes is wholly original. The music comes to a loud climax at around the 2:08 mark with high strings, brass and percussion, before falling away to a more atmospheric, softer section featuring the high winds and celesta.

“Bhakti Joy” is a peppy little piece in asymmetric rhythm featuring clarinets and brass which also includes a slow interlude with soft string tremolos. Here the rhythm, despite its odd meter, has a certain connection to American folk music but with a twist. It’s a fascinating piece with other slow interludes, one featuring the brass section and another featuring the basses and celli which leads directly into the next section, “Caterpillar…to…Butterfly.” Although I liked this music very much, I am loath to call it a symphony as it is not really constructed along symphonic lines, not even those symphonies in one movement with several distinct sections, yet it is clearly more complex than a suite. I’d describe it more as a symphonic fantasia. “…that still small voice…” is, appropriately enough, a relatively quiet movement with a surprising swell of volume featuring the trombone section before leading into the full orchestra, followed by a jaunty ragtime-type theme that slightly resembles They Called the Wind Maria in a minor key. One thing you have to say for Rush is that is music is surprising and eclectic! The ragtime theme slows down near the end of the movement, followed by “Celestial Marriage,” a surprisingly explosive movement albeit not very fast, featuring the brass section, then the winds. Kielser’s performance is excellent.

Chambers’ Kairos is a very dramatic piece, opening with loud brass, string and percussion figures. The composer describes the composition thus:

This piece is about time, from a presentation in the first movement of a nightmare vision of time out of synch (which is our post-modern condition), to the evocation of seasonal time embodied in a dark spring evening which follows, and time as marked by the free and energized physical energy of youth in the last movement.

Kairos is an ancient Greek word for time; there is a god of the same name in Greek mythology. In contrast to Chronos (the more commonly used quantitative word for measured ordinary time), Kairos refers to a qualitative sense of ripeness, a liminal period of opportunity during which transformation is possible. In Christian practice the word Kairos is associated both with eternity and with social justice movements; the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich uses the term to refer to points of existential crisis that demand the choice of a new way.

I begin to think that one of our primary contemporary ailments is that we are all time-sick, trapped bouncing without resolution between the colliding temporal dimensions imposed on us by our media, our technologies, our society, our conscious selves, and our environments. The title of first movement comes from one of my favorite diary entries of Franz Kafka in which he presents this kind of unreconcilable temporal dislocation in terms of an inner-outer duality: “The clocks are not in unison; the inner one runs crazily on at a devilish or demoniac or in any case inhuman pace, the outer one limps along at its usual speed. What else can happen but that the two worlds split apart, and they do split apart, or at least clash in a fearful manner.”

Written in three movements of which the first two are linked, the second “offers a refuge from clashing timescapes, and is envisioned as a brief nocturne. The title The Queen of Spring references both a more animistic ritual relationship between self and season as well as an anecdote that was related to me about the work’s dedicatee: she once winkingly introduced herself to a group as ‘The Queen’ (Elizabeth) ‘of Spring’ (Green).” This is tremendously interesting music which has an excellent flow (something that Interior Castle, for all its wonderful things, did not) that sweeps the listener along. I could not find any indication that Chambers considers this piece a symphony, yet it is built much more along symphonic lines. The third movement, “Being-Time,” is almost in a different style and sounds quite jolly compared to the first two, with a strong rhythmic base and the occasional use of open fifths in its harmony. Once again, the U Mich Orchestra plays with exceptional commitment and fervor.

Bolcom’s Lyric Concerto for flute and orchestra is typical of the composer, written in an appealing style albeit here with considerable chromatic movement in the harmony. The flute part in the first movement, however, is only partly lyrical; in places, the flautist buzzes on her instrument and plays a series of fast-paced serrated figures that seemingly expand without always finding resolution. Yet Bolcom finds a way to develop these odd little figures in an interesting and engaging manner. In the second movement, “Waltz Song,” Bolcom creates a sort of oom-pah feel to his waltz that makes it almost sound like a German Schuhplattler. Here, the flute soloist sounds much more whimsical as the orchestra waltzes rather slowly and stompily beneath it, occasionally taking matters into her own hands with fast, flighty figures in 4/4, though the flute later gives in and joins in the oom-pah waltz.

The third movement, “Memory,” begins mysteriously with soft, high string tremolos, the solo flute playing a strong yet quirky melodic line above them. This, in turn, leads to the fourth movement, a happy little piece in F major titled “A Bespoke Rondo.” Once again, the movements don’t really seem to have much correlation to one another, but it is a very interesting and enjoyable piece.

Overall, I liked this CD very much. Only the Kuster piece sounded rather uninteresting to me.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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