American Orchestral Works
Barbara Kolb: All in Good Time
Cedille's latest issue offers five world-premiere recordings of contemporary American works. All of the pieces have moments of sheer sonic spectacle, and are well suited to the bright, brash, youthful Grant Park Orchestra. Actually, the John Corigliano fanfare was commissioned by the orchestra and played at the 2004 opening concert in their new home, the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion in the northwest corner of Chicago's Grant Park (in the section now named Millennium Park). The pavilion is stunning enough, even without the more stunning spectacle of the towers of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago Loop rising above it. In short, the Grant Park Orchestra occupies one of the world's most spectacular outdoor performing spaces, and Cedille is helping to promote them and their leader, Carlos Kalmar, with recordings of unusual repertoire. (This is their fourth CD for the label.)
Three of the composers on the program — Kolb, Corigliano and Harbison — are exact contemporaries, now in their later 60s, while Kernis is a couple of decades younger and Hersch the junior, born in 1971. But the works were all written between 1994 and 2004 and seem to inhabit a similar sound world despite great differences in affect — lamentation vs. celebration, for example — not to mention in compositional strategies.
Barbara Kolb's All in Good Time may offer the most sheer fun of anything on the program. Cedille's program notes inform us of games being played with rhythm; let us simply say that the 10-minute piece, after a quick opening outburst, has an ABA structure, with the A sections having a nervous rhythmic pattern as the orchestra starts very quietly and builds to a noisy climax, while the B section, marked "Relaxed, as in an improvisation: Bluesy," features a saxophone and vibraphone duet. It sounds too much like cool "modern jazz" to seem "bluesy" to me, but it's certainly a huge contrast to the agitated A sections. The return of A, by the way, is differently orchestrated and has some new rhythmic figures, so it's far from mere repetition.
Aaron Jay Kernis's Sarabanda in Memoriam is a 2003 string-orchestra version of the slow movement of his 1998 Pulitzer-Prize-winning Second String Quartet. The orchestral version was created in response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001: as the composer has written, "Though the music in this new version is virtually the same as in the original, [it] is more public in its sonic mass and scope, now a memorial for far too many lives." For this listener, the piece is perhaps too "public" in the sense that it makes too conventional a statement of grief. Parts of the 17-minute work sound anguished, other parts despondent, sometimes featuring massed strings and other times solo voices, but all of it sounds like what one might expect of a contemporary string-orchestra lamentation. Possibly some listeners would find the piece more involving in its quartet version, with each instrument expressing its individual voice.
The title of Michael Hersch's two-movement piece, Ashes of Memory, implies a program, but the composer's description in Cedille's notes is quite abstract, mostly about structure and orchestration. What the listener will encounter in the first movement is a brooding opening, nearly inaudible at first, that rises in intensity to become a frantic march; it's reminiscent of Shostakovich in places, then suddenly the march ceases and we are left with wistful solo wind, string and harp figures that gradually drift into silence. The longer second movement, marked Molto grave, has a slow, steady pulse throughout — except for a brief return of the frantic march tempo. The slow pulse is supplied by the lower strings, though other instruments provide splashes of sound or fragments of melody, and after the march outburst the piece steadily subsides into silence once again. Hersch uses a large orchestra with prominent percussion at times and extremes of dynamics. Whether or not the intricacies of thematic relations indicated by the composer's notes will reveal themselves and enrich the piece after many hearings, each listener will have to determine.
Corigliano's 6-minute Midsummer Fanfare is more precisely a fanfare embedded within a larger structure. The piece opens quietly with fragments of the fanfare to come swirling about in an ether of sound: the effect is like an animation of a nebula coalescing into bits of solid matter. Even after we get the quite festive fanfare itself about halfway through the piece, jauntily articulated by the brass, the orchestra dissolves back into fragments until its final reiterations of the fanfare. In short, this is more a piece about a fanfare than a simple fanfare, but it's an excellent calling card for the orchestra.
To conclude the program, John Harbison's four-movement Partita for Orchestra takes quite a different tack from the other works, in that it's the one work that doesn't feature nebulous driftings or coalescings at some point. Rather, it borrows from baroque dance rhythms, though with thoroughly modern sound — no neoclassical homages here, even if the movements are titled Prelude-Fantasia, Rondo-Capriccio, Aria-Sarabande, and Courante-Gigue. I find the Partita an appealing work, but difficult to characterize in terms of mood, except that the scherzo-like Rondo-Capriccio is certainly playful, with Stravinskian touches, and the Aria-Sarabande slow movement is curiously both lyrical and halting (the composer says it tries to sing but can't quite). The outer movements have angular rhythms and many unpredictable moments. Overall, this is not "light" music, though it never claims to be profound: it is quirky and deft, and a fascinating way to end the CD program.