November 29, 2012

(+++) AMERICAN AND OTHER MODERNS


Gershwin: Fantasy on “Porgy and Bess”; Bernstein: Serenade after Plato’s Symposium; Waxman: Carmen Fantasie. Rachel Kolly d’Alba, violin; Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire conducted by John Axelrod. Warner. $18.99.

The American Trumpet: Music of Leo Eylar, Steven Rouse, Robert Starer, Stephen Sondheim, John Carbon, William Thomas McKinley and David Froom. Jeffrey Silberschlag, trumpet; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Mark-Anthony Turnage: On Opened Ground; Texan Tenebrae; Lullaby for Hans; Riffs and Refrains; Mambo, Blues and Tarantella. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Lawrence Power, violin; Markus Stenz, conductor (Ground); Marin Alsop, conductor (Texan); Vladimir Jurowski, conductor (Lullaby); Michael Collins, clarinet; Marin Alsop, conductor (Riffs); Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Vladimir Jurowski, conductor (Mambo). LPO. $16.99.

Tan Dun: Concerto for Orchestra; Symphonic Poem on Three Notes; Orchestral Theatre. Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tan Dun. Naxos. $9.99.

      A fantasy, a serenade and a fantasie add up to “American Serenade,” apparently, since that is the title of the new Warner CD featuring violinist Rachel Kolly d’Alba.  However you mix them together, the works are a study in contrasts, and are very well played – although the three are somewhat out of keeping with each other thematically and expressively.  The Gershwin fantasy is actually an arrangement by Alexander Courage (1919-2008), and it includes a number of the “greatest hits” themes of Porgy and Bess, just as the very well-known Carmen Fantasy by Franz Waxman (1906-1967) contains quite a bit of instantly recognizable music from Bizet’s last and greatest opera.  These two works are virtuosic and on the “popularizing” side of things, giving Kolly d’Alba plenty of display opportunities while also allowing her to dip into a sort of swooning emotionalism – a surface-level thing, true, but affectingly communicated.  Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium (1954) is made of sterner stuff, or at any rate more-serious stuff.  A five-movement work that seems to call for three soloists – on violin, harp and percussion – in reality it uses the violin most prominently and has the effect of a violin concerto. But this is a concerto with narrative purpose, based on the varied statements in praise of love made by different characters in Plato’s work: Phaedrus, Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades.  The philosophical underpinning makes this a deeper work than the other two here, and in fact it helps to know Plato’s dialogue to get the full flavor of Bernstein’s music.  Kolly d’Alba and conductor John Axelrod do not treat the piece with any particular depth, but it is well-played and comes across as an interesting contrast to the two lighter works here – and lasts as long as both of them put together.

      The works on a Naxos CD called The American Trumpet are mostly short, and they are varied enough so the disc will be of interest primarily to lovers of the instrument’s sound and of modern American classical composers – or sort-of-classical ones, such as Stephen Sondheim. He is heard here in two Sweeney Todd excerpts from 1979, arranged by Jeffrey Silberschlag and orchestrated by William Thomas McKinley, himself represented by the interesting and witty Miniature Portraits (1988), the longest work on the CD.  Silberschlag is not only the soloist but also the dedicatee of a number of these pieces, and the fact that conductor Gerard Schwarz is himself a trumpeter guarantees idiomatic and ebullient performances throughout.  One of the Naxos re-releases of music originally heard on Delos, this CD was recorded in 1994; thus, nothing here is later than that date, but several pieces were brand-new when the recording was made. They include Leo Eylar’s bright Dance Suite, David Froom’s Serenade, and the revised version of Steven Rouse’s Enigma-Release from The Avatar (originally written in 1951).  Also here are Invocation (1962) by Robert Starer and the warm and attractive Notturno (1944) by John Carbon.  This is a mixed bag of music, to be sure, but it is all very well played and constitutes an enjoyable survey of some American composers’ recent thinking about the trumpet.

      The prolific Mark-Anthony Turnage thinks in multiple directions and multiple forms, and as Composer in Residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (2005-2010) created a wide variety of works for orchestra with and without soloists.  Five of his pieces are collected on a new LPO disc featuring various soloists and conductors – “variety” seems to fit pretty much everything Turnage does.  On Opened Ground (2000-2001) is a viola concerto, Riffs and Refrains (2003) is a concerto for clarinet, and Mambo, Blues and Tarantella (2007) is one for violin – and the only one of the three written while Turnage was in residence with the LPO.  So this CD is really built around the concerto format, with Turnage handling each of the works differently and to different effect.  The two non-concerto pieces here do both date to Turnage’s residency: Lullaby for Hans (for string orchestra) was written in 2005 and Texan Tenebrae in 2009.  There is a certain facility and slickness to Turnage’s music that keeps it approachable at the cost of a degree of superficiality.  Most of it is strongly influenced by jazz, which is scarcely unusual in classical compositions nowadays but in Turnage’s case is more apparent than in many other composers’. Marin Alsop, a strong advocate of modern American music and therefore quite familiar with jazz inflections, does a particularly good job in the two works she conducts, but Markus Stenz and Vladimir Jurowski also handle their contributions very well. All the soloists do a fine job, and the orchestra is clearly very comfortable with Turnage’s style and handles all the works very admirably indeed.  Turnage’s music does not tend to stay with a listener long after it ends, but much of it is quite pleasant while actually being performed.

      The music of Tan Dun tends to have more aural staying power. Still best known to many listeners for his score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Tan is far more than a film composer, and continues to explore new sonic worlds that combine such influences as John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich with classical training and frequent reminiscences of his upbringing in Hunan, China.  The earliest work on Naxos’ new CD, Orchestral Theatre (1990), is the most closely connected to that upbringing, including considerable amounts of folk music and the folk-music sound along with Western-style orchestration and forays into atonality.  The other two works here are both new, written in 2012. Symphonic Poem on Three Notes has a fairly ordinary musical arc – nature to industry and back to nature – but some intriguing aural effects, thanks to Tan’s well-known fondness for sonic sources not usually considered instrumental. In this case, he uses wind, stones and the brake drums of cars to contrast the natural world with the industrialized one. Concerto for Orchestra is a tribute of sorts to Marco Polo, its four movements recalling elements of his journey to the East while also trying to reflect his imagined spiritual progress: “Light of Timespace,” “Scent of Bazaar,” “The Raga of Desert” and “The Forbidden City.”  It is “Raga,” the third and longest movement, that is most effective at scene-painting, but Tan manages to convey exoticism and the spirit of exploration throughout.  He is also an effective interpreter of his own work, which the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra plays quite well. After a while, Tan’s music starts to pale a bit, and the works on this CD are of more interest when listened to one at a time than when heard straight through. But they will certainly be attractive to listeners interested in a composer who manages to meld Eastern and Western influences with an unusual degree of facility and, often, felicity.

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