TO THE POINT • James Freeman1, Gunther Schuller2, cond; Dorothy Freeman (Eng hn);3 Diane Monroe (vn);4Read more Maria Bachmann (vn); 5 Orchestra 2001 • INNOVA 745 (73:42)
1HIGDON To the Point. 1,4RUDIN Canto di Ritorno. 2SCHULLER Concerto da Camera. 1,3CASCARINO Blades of Grass. 1,5REISE The River Within
A very diverse disc that collects works all written, except the Cascarino, in the last 10 years. Andrew Rudin’s concerto for violin and small orchestra, titled Canto di Ritorno, is a development of an earlier sonata in one movement for violin and piano. At no point does it betray this, sounding entirely thought-out as an orchestral work. As Rudin explains in the interview above, a major preoccupation for him these days is to write music that is melodic, that communicates itself to the listener and yet is couched within formal serial structures. There are some listeners who, as soon as they hear the phrases “12-tone” or “serial,” reach for their gun, yet Rudin’s concerto could not be less deserving of such a response. Rather, we have a piece whose lyricism, somewhat wistful at times, can become ravishing and is effectively contrasted with sections of energy and, starting around eight minutes in, real passion. I am reminded of the Henze of the ’50s and ’60s (the early symphonies, Ondine, and the Double Concerto) listening to this. Not that it sounds at all like a pastiche, but it breathes the same air. Diane Monroe, who has also performed the earlier sonata, is a fine soloist, both on top of and inside the music and genuinely captivating. Her tone and approach seem ideally suited to the music, and the orchestra plays with delicacy or power or passion as called for. Like all the performances on this disc (again except the Cascarino), it was recorded live and no one puts a foot wrong.
Gunther Schuller’s Concerto da Camera is purposely written for an orchestra in which all the mellow instruments (clarinets, bassoons, and horns) have been removed (trombones are allowed), resulting in what the composer describes as a “tarter, brighter, friskier sound.” However, the first and longer of the two movements is gently moving, with slowly changing, rich string chords, rather charmingly decorated at times with glissandi on solo strings sounding like eerie birds. This gives way to a livelier, more episodic movement. The work as a whole doesn’t feel like a chamber concerto as the title implies, but no matter; it is interesting enough in its own right and makes a fascinating foil to the Rudin work that it follows. Once again Orchestra 2001 plays with sensitivity and evident commitment to the music.
Jay Reise’s violin concerto, titled The River Within, is more overtly virtuosic in its solo writing than the Rudin concerto, and the orchestra, though small (single winds and brass, strings, piano, and “a small selection of percussion instruments”), is often muscular and energetic. The work is structured wholly conventionally: three movements, fast, slow, fast. But within that scheme, Reise is constantly imaginative, though the “rhythmic polyphony” techniques he uses do not get in the way of the direct appreciation of music. It is works like these three I would point to when challenged by the proponents of the often ultraconservative contemporary music that is being written today. All three works are compelling, interesting, emotive, and demonstrate that it is entirely possible to be imaginative and appealing without resorting to the lowest common denominator, or requiring the composer to leave his or her comfort zone.
Jennifer Higdon’s brief To the Point for strings is simpler fare, but provides a good opener to the disc. Derived from a movement of a string quartet, it responds to Debussy’s and Ravel’s string quartets, particularly the pizzicato movements. It is rhythmic and bouncy and, although Tippett did this sort of thing much better, it is enjoyable. I didn’t get Romeo Cascarino’s Blades of Grass (1945) on first hearing. Playing it after the Reise work (instead of before it, as it appears on the disc) enabled its slow, tonal language to act as a foil to the dazzling, chromatic writing of the concerto. It is a touching threnody to the victims of war based on a poem by Carl Sandburg, “Grass,” the grass being that which grows above the bodies of the fallen. Dorothy Freeman finds the dignity in the music, avoiding all mawkishness.
Recorded on five occasions between 2002 and 2008, the sound is acceptable, though the various locations and different recorded balances achieved are obvious (for example, the Reise Violin Concerto sounds more closely miked than does Rudin’s). Only once does the transition from one work to the next really jar: To the Point is given a big, full, attractive sound with plenty of ambience—fine in itself, but it makes the opening of the Rudin concerto, at a lower level and a more discreet balance, sound somewhat weak. Play the Rudin by itself, at a higher level, and all is well. There is much to enjoy and be fascinated by on this disc.
FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
According to Peter Dobrin, music critic of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia-based Orchestra 2001 "occupies a place of such importance that a classical music community without it seems unimaginable". That may be overstating the case rather, given that there are surely many music fans quite unfamiliar with the ensemble, but Orchestra 2001 - formed, curiously, in 1998 - has some very laudable goals, being "dedicated to performing and promoting the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, premiering new works, providing a major focus for the best new music of our time, introducing rarely performed older works, and reaching out to regional and international audiences through recordings and tours."
Certainly the group's commitment to American contemporary music is inspiring, with their website listing nearly a hundred world premieres. As for recordings, this looks like the Orchestra's tenth CD so far, with five dedicated solely to George Crumb's music, including four volumes from Bridge Records' complete edition - the latest of which was recently reviewed here.
Jennifer Higdon and Gunther Schuller are probably the most familiar names in the programme. Philadelphia-based Higdon's
Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize for music only last year, and although she is not likely to win anything similar with her diminutive
To the Point, a movement from her
Impressions string quartet adapted for string orchestra, it is a sprightly, polished piece that will find favour with audiences everywhere. The title is a reference to paint brushes and Impressionist painting, but there is nothing impressionistic about the jaunty rhythms, though the frequent application of pizzicato may bring artistic brush-strokes to mind in the pre-motivated.
Veteran Gunther Schuller's
Second Concerto da Camera is one of three live recordings. There are two contrasting sections, the restrained, other-worldly musings and odd sounds of the first half giving way to a more energetic second. By way of experiment, Schuller reduced the string section and omitted the usual clarinets, bassoons and horns from the score, giving a slightly more tart and edgier feel to a work that provides a arrestingly gnarled middle to Orchestra 2001's programme.
Blades of Grass, based on an anti-war poem by Carl Sandburg, is from a different era. It has a kind of modern outdoor film score grandeur about it. Cascarino was a Philadelphian, but unfortunately died just as Orchestra 2001 decided it was high time they recorded the work. As the title suggests, this is a gentle, slightly mournful work, the poignancy intensified by the cor anglais, sweetly played by Dorothy Freeman. She first performed the work at a concert in 1994, attended and admired by Cascarino.
The two works for violin and orchestra provide the main meat of the recording. Andrew Rudin and Jay Reise are not exactly household names, but they
are Vice-President and Secretary of Orchestra 2001's board of directors respectively. If that seems fishy, their works dispel any suggestion that their inclusion on this disc was based on anything other than merit. Rudin's single-movement
Canto di Ritorno is an emotional, mildly sombre affair, blending the rhapsodic with the meditative in a universally attractive package. Diane Monroe gives an appealing, heartfelt performance.
Jay Reise's three-movement
The River Within is similar in some ways, though uses a full orchestra for maximum effect, and is more harmonically and rhythmically adventurous. Magnificently played by Maria Bachmann, this is a high-quality, full-blooded concerto in the tradition of the great mid-20th century virtuoso works - and redolent, perhaps surprisingly, of Bartók, Prokofiev or Shostakovich. The vigorous
vivace finale brings the disc to a marvellous conclusion.
Orchestra 2001 give of their best throughout, although the strings sound rather dull and flat in
Blades of Grass and in
Canto di Ritorno - possibly a recording issue. Sound quality is good, though not uniformly so - perhaps to be expected given the different recording conditions. There are a few low-key 'noises off' - a few conductorly hums in
Canto di Ritorno, for example - and the odd technical blemish, such as differently placed microphones, but nothing to spoil the listener's enjoyment or appreciation of the fine music. The CD booklet is impressively informative and well laid out.
To those that complain that all 21st century music is tuneless, aimless rubbish, this CD says: use your ears ...!
Contemporary treat.December 28, 2013By Dolores C. (Norristown, PA)See All My Reviews"It's wonderful how Mr. Freeman champions all styles of American contemporary music. He and the orchestra look for the essence of each piece with studied care and sincerity. The Cascarino "Blades of Grass" is exceptionally notable. This album's a must for lovers of this musical genre."Report Abuse