The City of Tomorrow Plays Modern Works


DONATONI: Blow. LASH: Leander and Hero. SALONEN: Memoria / The City of Tomorrow: Elise Blatchford, fl/pic; Stuart Breczinski, ob/E-hn; Rane Moore, cl/Eb-cl; Nanci Belmont, bsn/contrabsn; Leander Star, Fr-hn / New Focus Recordings FCR294

It’s rather sad that the name of this modern-music chamber ensemble is The City of Tomorrow, because it is already 2021 and playing modern classical music on a regular basis is still not the wave of the present. I fear, in fact, that it shall forever be “tomorrow,” a tomorrow that never comes…sort of like the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. “It’s always jam yesterday and jam tomorrow,” she said, “but never jam today.” The classical establishment here in the 21st century is still running on a 75-yeear-model in which “modern” works means Debussy, Ravel, Koechlin, Nielsen, Prokofiev, Bartók, Enescu and their contemporaries but only a very little Stravinsky and even less Schoenberg. Getting up to speed with a composer as strange as Franco Donatoni, who died 21 years ago at the age of 73, is still an uphill battle.

And yes, Donatoni’s Blow is just as strange as his other music: fragmented into little bits and shards of music, edgy but also with a sense of humor which most modern music does not have. The liner notes indicate that “the horn seems to be the arbiter of disputes between various solo instruments versus the rest of the group.” The music moves quickly, with stiff rhythms played in an asymmetrical meter; tonality is out of the question except, strangely enough, for a few brief moments when the ensemble is playing as a unit. Although Donatoni doesn’t really develop the music conventionally (he seldom did), things tend to become a bit more cohesive as the piece goes on…until the 9:45 mark, where the entire chamber group seems to be having a free-for-all knockdown, drag-out fight to the finish. And nobody wins.

Hannah Lash (b. 1981) wrote Leander and Hero on a commission from The City of Tomorrow. You can ignore the fact that the group asked her to write something apocalyptic based on Climate Change; the piece is actually based on the Greek myth in which the besotted Leander swims across the Hellespont every night to be with his sweetie Hero, only to be drowned by Poseidon in a vicious storm. (You see? They even had Climate Change back in the pre-Industrial Age!) Lash’s music uses some techniques that are similar to Donatoni but her music is generally more lyrical and somewhat more rooted in tonality, or at least bitonality rather than atonality. Personally, I don’t hear much relationship between the music and the story; there are, however, a lot of little fluttering wind passages which may possibly represent Leander swimming his little heart out.

Rather than being presented in one continuous movement, Leander and Hero is divided into nine sections, the first and last being titled “The Cliffs.” The others are titled “Courting Dance: Slow and Ancient,” which struck me as boring and of very little interest; “Flocking,” “First Storm,” “Hero and Leander,” “Interlude: away from the rocks,” “The Storm; Leander does not return to the nest,” and “Hero Finds Leander’s Body and Will Not Leave His Side.” By and large, it’s a nice piece. pleasant to listen to while it’s being played but nothing much to write home about. Even in “Flocking,” Lash’s music overstays its welcome, repeating identical or similar figures over and over and over again. In “Hero Finds Leander’s Body,” Lash beats her sad little musical lick to death; the effect is neither sad nor touching, merely annoying.

Fortunately, the CD ends with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Memoria, a piece written for the 20th anniversary of the Avanti Chamber Orchestra in 2003. This is a fine piece, well-structured and musically interesting, very bitonal throughout but not trying to be purposely abrasive. Yet the music is constantly in flux, both thematically and harmonically. There’s a wonderfully complex canon in the middle and, according to the notes, “Memoria ends in memory of Berio with a homophonic chorale featuring the darker grain of alto flute, English horn and contrabassoon.” An excellent piece.

So there you have it: two excellent pieces sandwiched around a very inferior one, but all are played superbly by the group and, after all, you never know what you’ll come up with when you commission new music. That’s the risk you take; fortunately, more than half the time you come up with gems.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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