I love American music! American composers have contributed some of the most energetic, buoyant, and socially significant compositions of all time. It was a marvelous event, then, to be introduced to two composers I’d not known prior to hearing the two discs of their music that arrived within three days of each other.
Walter Saul (b. 1954) has written two compositions that are extremely relevant this November. One is Kiev 2014: Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra, which goes right along with today’s headline that terrorists have destroyed electrical equipment that put Crimea in the dark. Saul’s piece portrays the strife of current events in Ukraine’s largest city and it is fittingly played in virtuoso style by oboist Ron-Huey Liu and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar, an American maestro who was the orchestra’s music director from 1994-2004. Christmas is almost upon us again, and the Naxos disc also contains Saul’s 1992 Christmas Symphony. This is a charming enough work, using no familiar holiday tunes, but for my money the “hit” of this disc is the blazing Overture for the Jubilee from 1997. It’s virtuoso trumpet fanfares would start any concert off with a convincing and satisfying bang.
Cedille, the Chicago based record label, sent a disc of orchestral music by American composer Stacy Garrop, played with amazing conviction and finesse by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, conducted respectively by Alondra de la Parra and Markand Thakar. The main piece is the Mythology Symphony, a five movement work that depicts Medusa, Penelope, the Sirens, the Fates, and Pandora. I loved its post romantic sweep and dramatic lyricism but was even more impressed by the shorter Thunderwalker, which depicts the ritual, invocation, and summoning, of a mythic god. Garrop’s orchestration is stunning. She really understands all the instruments of the orchestra. The writing for percussion and brass instruments stands withe the best ever written.
The Naxos recording is excellent, the Cedille recording of demonstration caliber.
Stephen Paulus, who died suddenly weeks after this album was recorded in May of 2013, was one of America’s foremost composers. He was commissioned to write a tribute to 9/11 victims by True Concord Voices and Orchestra, Eric Holtan, Music Director, and Mrs. Dorothy Vanek, a staunch supporter of the performers. The resultant piece, Prayers and Remembrances, received its premiere in Centennial Hall at the University of Arizona on September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. The same forces perform on this new recording on Reference Recordings Fresh! series, which also contains other recent choral works by Paulus – Nunc dimittis, The Incomprehensible, I Have Called you By Name, Little Elegy, and When Music Sounds.
Prayers and Remembrances was written for chorus and orchestra, with a quartet of vocal soloists. It is in seven movements, with texts that were chosen from writings by Henry Vaughan, St. Francis of Assisi, Shelley, Williams Blake, and translations of Native American and Hebrew texts as well as one from Mohammed. Paulus set the texts with directness and care, often achieving transcendental moments of great beauty. The overall spirit is conciliatory, espousing hope through remembrance across many spiritual paths. I was especially moved by the setting of The Prayer of St. Francis and the a Capella anthem When Music Sounds to the verse of Walter de la Mare (“When music sounds, all that I was I am”). The performances are excellent and the recorded sound quite good. This disc is a must for every library of American music or for anyone who delights in hearing great verse beautifully set to music.
I saw the first episode of Mr. Robot (USA) last night and was pretty blown away by it. But then I’ve always had a little rabble rousing in my DNA. One of my best friends when i was in Jr. High School in Chapel Hill was against the establishment and wanted to hire an airplane to drop anti government fliers over the UNC Campus. I sort of like the idea. The hero of Mr. Robot is Elliot (Rami Malek) a young man hired by E Corporation to protect its server systems. Only Elliot by night is a cyber vigilante who hacks accounts, ferrets out evil, and confronts the perpetrators with their own files.
Anti Corporation Elliot is recruited by anti corporation Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, in a role ideally suited to him) who has elaborate plans to do a karate chop to E Corp and others by de-funding all corporate entities. Elliot is supposed to defend E Corp but in the essential voice overs that run in his brain, we find out he really calls it Evil Corp. Some of the language against corporations is tough (one might even think Michael Moore was hired as a consultant), and the pacing is brisk. Through all is Rami Malek, who mesmerizes. You won’t be able to take your eyes off him just like you won’t be able to drop Mr. Robot once you’ve started viewing. You’ve been warned.
Naxos has become the largest classical music label in the world, as well as the largest distributor of other classical music labels. Rather than coast along on tried and true titles, the label has been adventurous, recording little known works of all periods. Contemporary music is no exception, and with catalog number 8.573298, they’ ve added to the discography of Leonardo Balada, a Barcelona born composer who has lived in Pittsburgh, PA since 1970, where he teaches at Carnegie Mellon University. His most famous composition, Steel Symphony, receives just its second recording here with Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting the Barcelona Symphony. In this piece, Balada used his romantic avant-gard style to convey musical impressions of the Pittsburgh steel mills. Lopez-Cobos leads a dramatic and taut performance that I prefer to Maazel.
Steel Symphony was written in 1972, The other works on the disc are of the 21st century, the Symphony No. 6 “Symphony of Sorrows,” (2005) and the Concerto for Three Cellos and Orchestra ‘a German Concerto’ (2006). The sixth symphony, also conducted by Lopez-Cobos, is “Dedicated to the Innocent Victims of the Spanish Civil War,” and moves from craggy dissonance at its beginning to something like consonance and melody near the end. It’s a very powerful composition that gains stature with every repeated listening. The concerto is a virtuoso odyssey for the three cellists, who must command every register of the instrument with ease. Hans-Jakob Eschenburg, Michael Sanderling, and Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt are the able soloists and for this piece Elvind Gullberg Jensen conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony. All of the recordings are excellent yet have different perspectives, the symphonies being up close and resonant and the concerto more distant.