Wednesday, March 09, 2011

American Portraits
by James Manheim
American Portraits
Paavo Järvi

With the demise of its longtime home, the Telarc label, the Cincinnati Symphony has decided to go it alone with its own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media label. On Telarc the orchestra was known for splashy audiophile recordings of symphonic favorites, and the graphics here, with American flag and the American Portraits title, might lead you expect a group of patriotic favorites, perhaps including Copland's Lincoln Portrait. But look more closely: this is an innovative release by the orchestra and outgoing music director Paavo Järvi, featuring contemporary music. The only composer who is anything close to a household name is Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, represented by a vigorous Fanfare Ritmico. All the music has been previously performed; this represents Järvi's effort to identify music that might stand up to repeat performances. Much of it is programmatic, and perhaps the most pleasing of the bunch in Michigan composer Carter Pann's Slalom, explicitly designated as "a taste of the thrill of downhill skiing." It opens with the tympani strokes of the Scherzo of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, and, according to the composer, lasts "precisely the amount of time I need to get from Storm Peak (the peak of Mount Werner, Steamboat Springs) to the mountain base." The two works by Cincinnati Symphony--associated composer Charles Coleman are both representational; Deep Woods is inspired and closely connected to a painting by Charles Yoder. Jonathan Bailey Holland's Halcyon Sun is a mood piece commissioned for the opening of Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Only Higdon's piece and Kevin Puts' lightly minimalist Network are more abstract. Will releases like this stimulate the creation of an established repertoire of contemporary American works? There are promising signs here, and Järvi and the CSO are to be commended for realizing that you'll never know until you try.

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