Wednesday, November 02, 2011

"American Portraits"
May 2011

COLEMAN: Streetscape. Deep Woods. HIGDON: Fanfare Ritmico. PANN: Slalom. HOLLAND: Halcyon Sun. PUTS: Network.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra MEDIA CSOM-845 TT: 76:18.

Music from mainly the easier wing of contemporary American music. As the erstwhile "major labels" cut back to strictly the tried and true, more and more orchestras are putting out their own line of CDs, including the Cincinnati Symphony. Presenting grab-bag of composers, most with some Cincinnati connection, the CD offers a program of lighter stuff.

New Yorker Charles Coleman, at one time composer-in-residence with the orchestra, contributes two works. Streetscape is the kind of piece I like in theory -- giving back the energy of city streets, going back at least to the "Hawthorne" movement of Ives's "Concord" Sonata and continuing through such things as Gershwin's An American in Paris, Michael Daugherty's Motor City Triptych, and Jennifer Higdon's City Scape. Deep Woods is the kind of piece that makes me stop short with misgiving before even hearing it. Too often, you get rather New-Age-y doodles. I can say that Streetscape meets my expectations. It even updates some Gershwinisms (particularly the very opening of Porgy and Bess) as it erupts in jazz and Latin rhythms. For contrast, we get an impressive lyrical section, arising from a duet between solo violin and cello and building over a long span, reminding me, at any rate, of the lonely, Romantic yearning big cities inspire. It ends with a punch.
Deep Woods, on the other hand, lashes about without much point. Despite a very busy surface, it comes over as mainly static, much of its fifteen minutes hovering around the same tonal center. Although I could distinguish motives, I felt no argument, no purposeful impulse forward -- rather one vamp after another. Although not a minimalist work, it shares some of the inertia of minimalism badly done.

For me, Carter Pann stands out from other composers for his great sense of humor and wit. Slalom, as you might guess, takes you on a wild ride. The opening timpani-and-orchestra strokes of the Beethoven Ninth scherzo, and we're off! Brilliantly scored, it shimmers and crackles. That Pann carries this off for nine minutes without the piece becoming stale probably impresses me the most. Even when the piece comes to relative breathing points, the momentum keeps going, like a skier's lift-off and hang time. The piece doesn't end, so much as you watch the skier receding further down the hill.

A student of Ned Rorem, Bernard Rands, and Robert Saxton, among others, Jonathan Bailey Holland teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Commissioned by the Cincinnati for the opening of the National Underground Railroad Center in 2004, Halcyon Sun is a substantial work. I'd love to know how its first audience received it. Instead of a vivacious, festive curtain-raiser, Holland provided a long, mainly sober meditation on the occasion. Like Deep Woods, Halcyon courts stasis. Unlike Deep Woods, it casts a closely-argued line. You really do have to pay attention, and the slow tempo doesn't push you along in spite of yourself. Rhetorically, we move from darkness to light, ending up with a sober chorale. "Halcyon" means calm or happy or even prosperous, but Holland gives us something more emotionally ambiguous. Amid the prayers of "free at last," he doesn't rest there. One senses a uneasy sub-current -- like mourning past wrongs or apprehending future struggle. Halcyon Sun stakes out richer territory than I, for one, expected.

The work of Kevin Puts (as in, "he puts down his briefcase on the table," rather than what you were probably thinking) has changed over the years. His new music sounds little like his early stuff, and prior to this disc, I knew only the most recent. Network, from the Nineties, shows Puts's then-attraction to Minimalism and shares with such works a fondness for scintillating textures and ostinato, but not the rigorous working-out of process of composers like Reich. Puts has already moved into the post-Minimalist world of John Adams, on his way to something almost neo-Romantic. Network is an accomplished, shiny score, but I don't think all that memorable or, for that matter, all that different from Michael Torke. I much prefer what the composer does now.

I have no idea what greatness in music is, other than an expression of how much I like a particular piece. I don't claim to be able to predict what will last. Nevertheless, when I hear something by Jennifer Higdon, I usually find myself thinking of things like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra or perhaps a Stravinsky ballet. Fanfare Ritmico (2000), a festive curtain-raiser, nevertheless has that sort of star quality for me. Higdon has mastered the orchestra, in this case producing a "big-shoulder" sound over a rhythmic beehive. Furthermore, it sounds like nobody else. She's a prodigious inventor of riffs and even viewpoints. She achieves great variety even between works. She may end up as one of those composers you can program an entire concert from. I have trouble waiting around for more.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra predates by a few decades the Cleveland Orchestra, its powerful neighbor to the northeast. Indeed, it's the oldest professional orchestra in Ohio. However, it has more in common with an orchestra like the St. Louis, both in its approach to music-making and in what it plays. It may not reach the level of the Cleveland, but I can think only of two American symphonic ensembles that do, and then only occasionally (incidentally, I'm from Cleveland). It's not a matter of mere precision, as previous writers (for and against) have proposed, but more the sensitivity of ensemble and the apparent ability of each player to know exactly where they are along the arc of music and the path ahead.

Nevertheless, the Cincinnati -- what's more in essentially new music -- does display precision, a fiery tone, and a grasp of the architecture as Järvi communicates it to them. I enjoyed this disc.

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