Rainbow Body/Symphony 1/Ste Appalachian Spring Import
lanking two major works from an earlier generation of American composers are two shorter ones by contemporaries whose command of orchestral textures and hues make for a stimulating program. Christopher Theofanidis' Rainbow Body opens quietly, and builds to a shattering brass-and-percussion-led close, fully exploiting the rich colors of Atlanta's crack orchestra. Jennifer Higdon's Blue Cathedral, which closes the disc, is a finely textured exploration that, in her words, represents an imaginary journey "through a glass cathedral in the sky." It has a soaring quality that captivates, and while not as melodic as Theofanidis' piece, is as compelling in its own way. Spano excels in the Barber and Copland works too; the Barber Symphony No. 1, played with coiled energy, the Copland Suite from Appalachian Spring, full of atmosphere and momentum. Both are among the best available. This brilliantly engineered disc is a winner. --Dan Davis
The two new pieces are also alike in that they are among the better products of the so-called New Romanticism and, further, partake of another rather more European trend, the New Mysticism, like that of pieces by Tavener or Pärt, or closer to home, the ecstatic mysticism of American Richard Einhorn, whose 'Voices of Light' (happily introduced to me by fellow Amazon reviewer Bob Zeidler) has become such a phenomenon.
The two standard works on this disc--the Barber and the Copland--are given sterling performances here by Robert Spano, that extraordinarily talented American conductor, and his fine Atlanta Symphony, and the sound is also sterling, something we have come to expect from Telarc. These performances rank with the best ever made. Certainly, if you don't have recordings of either of these pieces you will not go wrong obtaining this CD.
Chris Theofanidis is a young American (born 1967) whose music is getting around quite a bit these days. He has had the usual run of honors, stipends, fellowships (including Charles Ives, Guggenheim, and Fulbright fellowships, as well as the Rome Prize). This is, however, the only piece of his I've ever heard. I was immediately quite attracted to it and my fascination has remained with many hearings. One could characterize this piece as one that uses extremely slow harmonic motion--typical of the music of folks like Tavener and Pärt--with an ever-changing panoply of musical events above the slow-moving mostly string-tone harmonic cushion (and in this eventfulness alone it differs considerably from the mentioned European composers). His use of brass, wind and percussion color is striking. The piece is based on a chant by Hildegarde of Bingen, 'Ave Maria, O auctrix vitae,' which recurs in various forms throughout the 13-minute piece. There are several climaxes arrived at primarily by the resolution of long-held harmonic suspensions--think of the resolution to a glorious C-major chord of the so-familiar section of Strauss's 'Also sprach Zarathustra.' This is assisted by a technique in which a chord is held onto softly for a moment after the rest of the orchestra has moved on to the next chord, a sort of harmonic nimbus. The tension generated by each suspension does not become at all intolerable, and each resolution is as refreshing as a summer shower. Theofanidis has a real talent for forward motion leading to emotional satisfaction, a talent not present in many modern composers. I truly believe this piece could have a vigorous life on orchestral programs fully the equal of, say, Adams's 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' or Torke's 'Javelin.'
Jennifer Higdon's 12-minute 'blue cathedral,' written on commission for the 75th anniversary celebration of the Curtis Institute, has a very personal meaning for her. Her brother, Andrew Blue, a clarinetist, had recently died. In the course of the piece a flute (Ms Higdon's instrument) discourses with a clarinet and eventually, as in life, the flute becomes silent while the clarinet continues upward, as if to heaven. Again, one of the most striking things about the piece is the slow harmonic motion set against which there is plentiful upper instrument melisma. Complex added-note chords abound, leading to an occasional uncertainty about tonality, although this is never unsettling; rather, it adds some spice to the otherwise fairly tonal landscape. The overall tone is a gentle and melancholy ecstasy peppered with almost frantic brass or wind outbursts. Throbbing chords sometimes suggest subdued weeping. Again, I can easily imagine this piece becoming a regular visitor to American orchestral programs. One hopes that this splendid CD will spur that development for both 'blue cathedral' and 'Rainbow Body.'
One last thought: the two new pieces are the musical great-grandchildren of Ives's 'The Unanswered Question' [harmonic stasis punctuated by upper-instrument frenzy] by way of, yes, the utter American-ness of Copland's and Barber's two pieces included here.