Friday, January 07, 2011

"American Portraits" on new CSO Media Label Historic

Mary Ellyn Hutton
January 6, 2011

Paavo Järvi: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “American Portraits.” Charles Coleman, “Streetscape”; Jennifer Higdon, “Fanfare Ritmico”; Carter Pann, “Slalom”; Jonathan Bailey Holland, “Halcyon Sun”; Charles Coleman, “Deep Woods”; Kevin Puts, “Network.” Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media.

Brand new label. Brand new music. What could be more appropriate?

But that’s not all:

Every selection on this inaugural release on the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s new in-house label, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media, is by a living American composer and all but one is appearing for the first time on disc (Pann’s “Slalom” has been recorded by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble).

All of the composers are under 50 and represent the best American compositional talent today. One of them, Jennifer Higdon, is a Pulitzer Prize-winner. Three of the six pieces were given their world premieres by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony.

It is Jarvi’s 17th recording with the CSO, which he leaves this season after 10 years as music director. It is his first with the CSO of American repertoire.

“American Portraits” is much more than a historical document, however. The icing on the cake is that it is a stunning recording. All of the performances were recorded at CSO concerts in Music Hall, a marvelous acoustic space, and both the sound and the performances are of exceptional quality.

History pervades this album in yet another way. The first selection, Coleman’s “Streetscape,” was commissioned by the CSO for Jarvi’s inaugural concert as music director in 2001. The premiere took place three days after 9/11. Coleman was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked – his apartment was right across the street – and he barely made it to the concert, having jumped into a car and driven to Ohio before the city closed down. What’s more, “Streetscape” is about New York, Coleman’s home town, which gave the premiere a timely, if poignant, air.

Longest of the six pieces at 20 minutes, “Streetscape” is vibrant and exciting, just like the city it celebrates, from the opening rap of anvil to the closing hail of B-flats. It is modeled on Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” with a similar four-part configuration: a pounding Agitato with a big cutoff, followed by a soft, introspective Largo, a salsa-infused Andante and a crescendo-like, Allegro finale, with punchy trombone glissandi and a pile-on of exuberant percussion. Järvi and the CSO send it up with glory.

Percussion is what Higdon’s seven-minute “Fanfare Ritmico” is all about. Written for the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, where it was premiered led by Apo Hsu in 2000, it calls for four percussionists playing 26 instruments. A celebration of “the rhythmic motion of man and machine” (Higdon), it contains myriad colors and effects, from ethereal to explosive, threaded by a four-note motive. The episode clocked by “cricket callers” (split bamboo) was particularly charming.

Carter Pann’s “Slalom” blends downhill skiing and music, which is where Pann got the idea in the first place (he was on skis with a cassette and headphones, listening to Rachmaninoff, he says). Premiered in 2000 by Daniel Hege and the Haddonfield Symphony, it is nine minutes of non-stop schussing and gyrating, set off by the opening motive of the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Pann provides programmatic road signs to demarcate sections, and it is fun to follow the music along with them from “First Run” to “Snaking the terrain,” “Jumps!” “Open Meadow” and so on, to the final”Gliding All the Way in,” which arrives smoothly on the keys of the piano.

Holland’s “Halycon Sun” (18 minutes) is the beauty of the set. Commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Underground Railroad Freedom Museum in Cincinnati, it was premiered by Järvi and the CSO in April, 2004. Holland’s metaphor is light, soft and distant at first, emerging in the lower strings with pinpoints of harp, followed by yearning rhythms and scales. Holland calls the second movement “a dance of light,” as jagged rhythms gradually coalesce. The final movement, hymn-like in its warmth, evokes peace before returning whence it came. Like slaves traveling the Underground Railroad, it suggest that the journey is an uncertain one.

Co-commissioned by the CSO and the New Jersey Symphony, Coleman’s “Deep Woods” (15 minutes) was inspired by a painting by New York artist Charles Yoder of a stand of dark trees barely penetrated by the sunlight. The world premiere by Järvi and the CSO was in May, 2007. A kind of sylvan “Streetscape,” it opens forcefully (anvil again), perhaps with a hint of menace, before expanding into layers of dense undergrowth. The writing is extremely colorful, and a tangle of obsessive scales works itself through the texture. After thinning out at one point on a big unison, the journey continues and the work ends joyfully, as if light has conquered the darkness.

Kevin Puts’ history with Järvi and the CSO goes back to the world premiere of his Symphony No. 2 in March, 2002. That work, subtitled “Island of Innocence,” is a kind of “before and after 9/11” in America and had a huge emotional impact. A seven-minute fanfare, “Network” dates from 1997, when it was premiered by the California Symphony led by Barry Jekowsky. The CSO performance was in March, 2005. The ebullient work conjures a hi-tech sparkler, with different colors repeatedly emerging from the core of motivic material, bringing the album to a zesty conclusion.

The CSO is a virtuoso orchestra, which should be put at the service of new music more often. The musicians shine in this rewarding traversal of Americana, and Järvi shows a flair for the contemporary that he should have greater opportunity to exercise.

Due to be released worldwide January 25 under the CSO’s new partnership for manufacturing and distribution with Naxos of America, “American Portraits” is available for digital downloading on the web at

The CD may also be purchased at the CSO Bravo Shop at Music Hall.

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