This is a marvelous survey of music written for string orchestra by contemporary composers and a disc I have been listening to a lot lately. Christopher Theofanidis's "Visions and Miracles" is an energetic and exciting piece and a great disc opener. I predict many listeners hitting "repeat" here. It is Paul Moravec and Lisa Bielawa that will be the most familiar names here I would think, however all four composers here deserve a closer look by anyone interested in contemporary music - and it's quite accessible at that. Michael Gatonska's "Tranformation of the Hummingbird" is the most "challenging" piece here however most listeners will find it agreeable. If you find say Penderecki listenable (and you should!) your ears won't shy away here. Needless to say I'm not comparing the substance of Gatonska's piece to those penned by the Polish master (and fellow countryman, as it happens). Oh and Gatonska studied with Penderecki among others - I just stopped by his website. So there you go. This album is all-around a knock-out for lovers of sumptuous strings - and the impressive ensemble from NYC deliver all of the perfect punches.
|You guessed it...the String Orchestra of New York City.|
Here is a review by the always authoritative Walter Simmons:
"The Albany disc presents the leaderless String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC) in impeccable performances of a varied program of recent works. The most recent—and most impressive—is Moravec’s Morph (2005), which reveals a rather different sort of expression from that reflected in the works just discussed. Associated in his mind with both the myth of Apollo and Daphne and with Morpheus, the god of dreams (Moravec is fond of mythological and literary references), this through-composed 17-minute work “morphs” continuously and with great subtlety through a variety of moods, attitudes, and activities, from an abrasively dissonant opening to a sensitive and delicate final conclusion. With its broader range of expression and more consistently serious demeanor, not to mention some brilliantly intricate counterpoint, I find it to be a somewhat “meatier” work than most of the Moravec I have heard, and one that invites repeated audition.
The other works on the Albany disc warrant attention as well. The three other composers—Christopher Theofanidis, Lisa Bielawa, and Michael Gatonska—are each about 10 years younger than Moravec. Although I am not as familiar with his music, Theofanidis seems to be another of the post-modern neo-tonalists. Born in Dallas, he studied at Yale, Eastman, and the University of Houston, and is currently on the faculties of both the Peabody and Juilliard Schools, and has enjoyed many awards, commissions, and performances. His Visions and Miracles was originally composed for string quartet in 1997. The first movement, “all joy wills eternity,” is high-spirited and jubilant, with an interestingly non-toxic use of dissonance. With its modal, dance-like melodies, in its recasting for string orchestra it almost suggests the familiar and much-beloved genre of English string music, although I suspect that this is far from the composer’s own conception. The second movement, inspired by a quotation from Timothy Leary, explores the implications of a major scale through fragmentation and modal mixtures. But it is the last movement, entitled “I add brilliance to the sun” that I find most interesting, with its middle-Eastern-sounding heterophony, and some novel and very effective techniques of ensemble writing. As a whole, this intriguing piece is likely to be enjoyed by a wide range of listeners, especially those receptive to tonal string music that gently pushes the conventional limits of the genre.
Lisa Bielawa is the daughter of composer Herbert Bielawa, and was associated for some time with the Philip Glass Ensemble, although she has been engendering considerable interest in her own work. The Trojan Women also began as a work for string quartet, based on music originally written in 1999 for a theatrical production of Euripides’s tragedy. Each of the work’s three sections seeks to convey an expression of grief associated with the three respective tragic heroines. As with Theofanidis’s work, the musical means used in the first two sections remain largely within the general vocabulary of early/mid-20th-century tonal string music: the first is dolorous and lugubrious; the second draws upon lively, irregular rhythmic patterns. The third section, however, dispenses with audible rhythmic pulse and displays much use of slow portamentos and other microtonal techniques, creating a very eerie effect, and giving the entire work a broader compass.
The final piece is Transformation of the Hummingbird, by Michael Gatonska. Gatonska, who appears to have been born in Poland, is another figure on the scene who has received a variety of auspicious grants and commissions. Though not an invariable guide, pretentious and deceptively meaningless program notes so often signal pretentious and meaningless music that I approached this work with a strong negative bias, which was initially confirmed by my listening experience. However, further immersion changed my impression considerably. Showing some influence of the leading Polish composers of the late 20th century, the 14-minute piece unfolds as an extremely varied and imaginative series of brief episodes that embrace a wide range of musical vocabularies. Some of these episodes are not terribly appealing, and I wasn’t always sure I detected an over-arching aesthetic meaning to the work, but the more I listened to it, the more convinced I became. It is certainly a much better piece than the program notes suggest; he should do himself a favor and junk them.
This is my first exposure to the ensemble SONYC, and I am extremely impressed by their vigorous, committed, and incisive playing, as well as by their flawless precision. The CD is an excellent overview of some of the intriguing and appealing music composed in America during the past few years, in this case highlighting repertoire for string orchestra. It provides a most encouraging impression of an especially fertile creative period."
FANFARE: Walter Simmons
I have include a pdf of the booklet.