Robert Spano Conducting
SACD Number: Telarc SACD-60620
Few recent symphonic works have received as much favorable attention as Jennifer Higdon's 2002 Concerto for Orchestra. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and extremely well received at its premiere by that body under Wolfgang Sawallisch, it was quickly picked up by other conductors. Andreas Delfs, for example, opened the Milwaukee Symphony 2003-04 season with it (following it with the Brahms Violin Concerto with Midori; Sawallisch had chosen Ein Heldenleben). Now Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, who had already recorded the composer's blue cathedral for Telarc, devote a whole disc to Higdon's music, supplementing the Concerto with a work the orchestra commissioned, a musical portrait of Atlanta called City Scape.
Telarc's program note points out that the Concerto has the same five-movement structure as Bartok's (by far) more famous concerto for orchestra, but neglects to mention that Higdon's piece opens with an outburst of rapid string figures that seem directly to quote the finale of Bartok's masterpiece. One assumes it is an homage — the piece seems almost to announce itself as a sequel, starting where the original left off. Like Bartok's finale, Higdon's 8-minute movement is breathtakingly energetic. Much of it is scored for full orchestra, with prominent percussion — notably chime s— used as much for color as for rhythmic emphasis. Even the few quieter moments with woodwind solos have a certain agitation. Here, as throughout most of the Concerto, Higdon uses ostinato figures to keep things on the move. Only at the end of the movement, following a mellower passage for brass and a few more woodwind contributions, does the music slow down and fade into silence.
Movement II, scored for strings only, is a scherzo — not in formal structure, but in its predominant 6/8 rhythms, its overall playfulness, and its brief slower middle section, with delicate scoring for violins in high register serving as a trio of sorts. The third and longest movement has the instruction "Mystical" in the score and serves as a slow movement, but it is utterly unlike Bartok's "Elegy" in the same position. Higdon's scoring at the opening is again delicate, with a number of pitched percussion providing a wash of background color. An especially lovely passage with flute solo reminds me of Britten's "Sunday Morning" Interlude from Peter Grimes, though doubtless other listeners will have their own associations for Higdon's basically tonal, often American-sounding palette. Another flute and the piccolo join in; an oboe solo follows, accompanied by somber brass chords; then a perkier clarinet passage, followed — as we now expect — by the bassoons. At this point, however, Higdon abandons a methodical survey of the orchestra. After brass and strings vie for attention, a double bass solo introduces more solos by other strings. Trumpet music leads to a loud, vigorous, rather William Schumanesque duel of strings and brass before subsiding to a quiet conclusion.
The fourth movement, counterbalancing the all-strings second movement, is for percussion alone (plus harp). One might expect a second scherzo, and in a way we do get one, with glittering ostinato patterns. But the opening is altogether hushed; it features what sounds like a glass harmonica, but the timbres are achieved by the players bowing cymbals or other percussion. Nick Jones' program note suggests that the movement is playful in other ways, with parodies of typical percussion music: "pseudo-oriental chinoiserie" and "a 'battle' between opposing drummers." As strings join the increasingly raucous percussion, the movement leads without pause into the finale. What is most impressive about this last movement, besides its rhythmic drive, is the transparent scoring, which allows solos from every section of the orchestra to be heard. A great deal is going on, but the sound is never thick, the mood never frantic.
The Concerto is essentially an abstract work, its movements simply labeled I-V. City Scape, in contrast, is directly programmatic, aiming to portray Atlanta in three movements entitled "SkyLine," "river sings a song to trees," and "Peachtree Street." Such a piece poses special challenges for a contemporary composer.
First, the skylines and business districts of most American cities are becoming increasingly similar, whether in their predominantly cookie-cutter modernist and postmodernist high-rise designs or in the Starbucks and McDonalds on most corners. Second, it currently seems old-fashioned to mark a city by means of folksy quotations or sound effects: snatches of Dixieland for New Orleans, or maybe a cable-car clang for San Francisco. (Or to take a real example, the distant sound of Big Ben in Vaughan Williams' London Symphony.) So how does one render in music a city like Atlanta, one that to the world at large has few if any unique features? Surely not via reminiscences of Max Steiner's Gone With the Wind theme?
The first and third movements of Higdon's suite have the bright, brash sounds of "big-city music," but — at least to one listener unfamiliar with the burg at hand — they sound like something that might accompany a promotional documentary for almost any American city. Since Higdon's notes on the piece proclaim that Atlanta has "its own identifiable shape….a powerful, distinctively metropolitan image, recognizable around the world," I wish I could make more of a connection between the city and the music. The breezy, jaunty quality of much of "SkyLine" is certainly appealing, and the rondo-finale suggests some vigorous traffic patterns on Peachtree Street.
Another statement in Jones' program note, a broad one about Higdon's musical style, gives one pause: "The listener's ear is not drawn to themes and their development, but to bright patches of color, exuberant rhythms, and fascinating shifts of texture." This is an apt description, but while each of the movements of her Concerto for Orchestra seems magically to cohere (are there perhaps subtle thematic developments?), those of City Scape do ramble on a bit long, at least for this reviewer.
Meandering, to be sure, is the point of the second movement, which follows the course of Peachtree Creek through the parklands of the city. At almost 18", this movement is more than twice the combined length of the others, and if it doesn't make its stream as unforgettable as Smetana's Moldau and a few other musical rivers, it does have a pleasing succession of sounds. This stream shimmers more than flows, and oddly for a creek it reaches a couple of Mississippian climaxes; most pleasing are some gentle passages that suggest English pastoral music.
The Milwaukee Symphony's performance of the Concerto under Delfs was dazzling, and received a hugely enthusiastic response the night I attended. Spano's studio recording with Atlanta matches it very well, and one assumes that City Scape gets a definitive reading. Telarc's sound on the Super Audio CD (I heard it on a standard CD player) is superb, with clear and vivid placement of every instrument in these very complex scores.
Editor's note: the multi-channel SACD sound is even more vividly colored and dynamic than the very good Redbook CD sound. I would rate the SACD sound quality at 5 Notes, the CD layer at 4.5 Notes. -WD)