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Sleeper: Symphony No. 1, Xenia, Six Arias / Phillips, Meadows Symphony Orchestra

Sleeper / Garritson / Russian Nat'l Orchestra
Release Date: 09/14/2010 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1212   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Thomas M. Sleeper
Performer:  John DuykersAshley Garritson
Conductor:  Paul C. PhillipsZoe ZeniodiThomas M. Sleeper
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Meadows Symphony OrchestraFrost Symphony OrchestraRussian National Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SLEEPER Symphony No. 1 1. Xenia 2. 6 Arias for Cello and Orchestra 3 1 Paul Phillips, 2 Zoe Zeniodi, 3 Thomas Sleeper, cond; 2 John Duykers (ten); 3 Ashley Garritson (vc); Read more class="SUPER12">1 Meadows SO; 2 Frost SO; 3 Russian Natl O ALBANY TROY 1212 (60:00)

To be honest, my first impression of this CD was a little lukewarm. I couldn’t quite find the portal of entry, if you will, to these three works. Returning to it after having heard all of the previous releases, however, I found it much more enjoyable. This is just further proof that no one should judge a piece of music until one has given it time and (preferably) more than a few listens. (Unfortunately, most music critics are not afforded that luxury.)

I think it was Leonard Bernstein who once asked the question, “What makes music American?” Like obscenity, I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I hear it. Sleeper’s language is more contemporary, but he is continuing an American symphonic tradition that, earlier in the century, was associated with the likes of Walter Piston and William Schuman. The First Symphony, premiered in 2007, is like a hard-boiled detective story, or a mystery that doesn’t quite allow itself to be solved. The writing is nothing if not atmospheric, and the language, while not “easy,” draws the listener in through its imaginative qualities. The symphony is in four movements, and the second of these, a moody Adagio, is longer than the other three combined. One could ask, then, if this really is a symphony in the traditional sense. Sleeper describes it as “an architectural structure with strong individual units that work together to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts,” and I think this is a very fair description. This, then, is not a work that impresses one through the development of its themes, but through a series of striking episodes that are brought forward one after another. The Meadows Symphony Orchestra is, I assume, the student orchestra of Southern Methodist University, and it does great work here. (If professional orchestras are largely too expensive to record in the United States, what about the many student orchestras of merit?) This orchestra and conductor Phillips were the symphony’s premiere performers.

Sleeper’s skill as a composer of vocal music comes to the fore in Xenia . The text to this orchestral song cycle is taken from the work of the composer’s University of Miami colleague Jane Alison—specifically, her novel The Love-Artist . The poet Ovid has been exiled from Rome and grapples with whether his work will be remembered. Xenia is a clairvoyant girl who can answer this question, and others, but will she? The song cycle, then, has three “characters”: Ovid, Xenia, and a narrator. I have not heard Sleeper’s operas, but I sense from hearing Xenia (and his non-vocal works as well) that he is gifted with a vivid dramatic sense. If Xenia , like the Symphony No. 1, contains little that strikes one as groundbreaking, it treads relatively familiar territory with confidence and with welcome showmanship. Sleeper’s “home” ensemble plays well here, under the direction of colleague Zoe Zeniodi. The fly in the ointment (a small one) is tenor John Duykers, who made his professional debut some 45 years ago. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is, if not weak, then at least a little well seasoned. Still, this is not a love story (not in the usual sense, anyway), so if Duykers is more a character tenor than a romantic lead at this point, it doesn’t ruin the music. Some of his high notes are nevertheless more penetrating than appealing.

The Six Arias for Cello and Orchestra are based on an earlier work, a song cycle for tenor. The traditional “soloist vs. orchestra” power dynamic of the romantic concerto is set aside in favor of a more cooperative structure, with the cello “functioning within the world of the orchestra rather than as a protagonist or a truly separate entity,” in the composer’s words. If the orchestra truly has a “world,” in this work it is a dream world, and the cellist is the (pardon the pun) sleeper within it, although like all sleepers, at times it drifts towards consciousness. The composer’s solo writing is centered on all that makes a cello sound good, and soloist Ashley Garritson (also affiliated with Miami) has a lovely sound. If anything, at around 12 minutes, this work is too short. At any rate it is over too soon.

The recordings were made between 2006 and 2010. Two separate dates and recording venues for the Six Arias suggest that Garritson and the orchestra were recorded separately and mixed together. If they were, the results are anything but piecemeal. Despite the diversity of dates and venues, the sound is good and consistent throughout the CD, and Albany has given us not only helpful booklet notes but also texts in Xenia.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 by Thomas M. Sleeper
Conductor:  Paul C. Phillips
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Meadows Symphony Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Xenia by Thomas M. Sleeper
Performer:  John Duykers (Tenor)
Conductor:  Zoe Zeniodi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Frost Symphony Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Six Arias for Cello and Orchestra by Thomas M. Sleeper
Performer:  Ashley Garritson (Cello)
Conductor:  Thomas M. Sleeper
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Russian National Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

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