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Disclamations: Discourse for oboe, harpsichord and string orchestra;
Concerto for double bass and orchestra.
Han de Vries (oboe)
John Downey (harpsichord)
Gary Karr ( double bass)
London Symphony Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon
CALA CACD 1003 [76 14]


John Downey was a child in Chicago in the days of World War Two. He attended De Paul University and the Chicago Music College. He studied with Rudolph Ganz and the legendary Vittorio Rieti. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Paris for eight years working with Honegger, Milhaud, Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger and living in the Latin quarter of that city. I have never understood the Americans’ fascination with Paris.

The difficulty I have with this composer is that he is stylistically all over the place. He has been influenced by jazz and that is all well and good but in his works he does not know whether he wants to be a jazz composer, a serious composer and if that whether he wants to be melodious and conventional or avant-garde. This reveals an insecurity and immaturity. He has no voice of his own. If he wants to write jazz, let him do so. If he wants to write serious melodic conventional music, let him do so. If he wants to write in a more avant-garde idiom, let him do so, but please not all styles within the same piece. It is like having beef stew with strawberries and cream incorporated in it.

The other curious thing about Downey's works is that they all start well and then develop into ordinariness or something less commendable. If Declamations were half the length I would love it. If Jingalodeon were seven minutes long, I would love it.

Declamations has a beautiful opening with extended flute, clarinet and horn solos. The music is not declamatory but rather ethereal and cantabile. It is tonal and presents no problems aurally. It is wonderfully written both for solo instruments and for the orchestra, with stunning brief percussive interjections. So far, so good. We have musical logic and the orchestral playing and the sound is first class. In fact it has to be said here and now that Geoffrey Simon's conducting is truly superb. I have not heard him give a bad performance. Declamations continues with an extraordinary climax which leads to a brief scurrying and a sublime horn solo with shimmering strings. Even the gentleness has a restlessness and the music seems to hint at a blues.

For discerning readers how did the blues begin? What is their origin? It is not something that has existed for about 150 years only. If you know your music you will find a blues in Beethoven although it is not called that as such.

Downey achieves a warmth and humanity in this music but then the problems start. The music begins to be merely padding but we have not failed yet. At 6. 57ff there is some sumptuous music and the music heads towards a sinister climax. Geoffrey Simon has marvellous control here. Metal chimes herald the next section with ' underwater' harp music such as you find in Bernard Hermann's film score Beneath the 12 mile reef. But now the problem. Where is the music going? Effects and gimmicks are introduced and the music has lost its way. It is confused and meanders aimlessly. There is , eventually, a brief climax and the last two minutes are quite exciting.

There are worrying features in the Discourse. The harpsichord has comparatively little to do. For most of the time it is non-existent or lost in the texture. Leon Goossens told me once that the oboe is a lady and should be treated as such. In this piece she is a witch with chanting incantations and the use of multiphonics makes her out to be a ............... Well, you can supply the word. The material of this piece is not very memorable and the use of strings only is not well conceived as the music usually sounds dull. It is only when pizzicato effects arrive that there is some relief from musical intensity. The bending of oboe notes does not belong in this piece since it is not of an advanced style because basically the piece presents itself as a conventional piece. The question of the music's purpose and direction arises again. The harpsichord cadenza is out of place and the work ends in further disappointment.

Jingalodeon is curious incorporating a jazz band in what sets out to be a serious piece. This combination does not work although I admire Rolf Liebermann's Concerto for jazz band and orchestra and partly because he sets out his intentions at once. Downey shows us that jazz music is so diverse from a symphony orchestra. It is that beef stew with strawberries and cream in it again! Jazz music is often raucous and improvised and therefore not controlled or contained, being indeterminate and lacking in organisation in complete variance with a classical score. Nonetheless Downey's piece has a popularity in America, I understand. Again, it begins well but when the jazz group enters after metallic percussion and celesta the music is crude and banal. A lovely viola solo only serves to show that class music does not belong in the vulgar world and it indicates that this string player is in the wrong piece. There is a long mysterious section which is yet another stranger. There are solos for violin and flute but where is the music going? It has no logic but is like an untidy patchwork quilt. Then Frankenstein appears and Jingle Bells is abused, hence the title. This is dreadful music, absolutely awful. The composer does not know what side he is on, whether he is a Unionist or a Confederate, a Yankee of a Johnny Reb.

There is no doubting the amazing skill and talent of Gary Karr, the dedicatee of the Concerto for double bass. But for him to learn a work lasting just over half a hour which is a poor work and hopelessly flawed seems to be the wrong use of his time and talent. Many of the observations I have made on the previous pieces also apply here. There are other worrying features. The third movement is under 90 seconds long. Too short for a symphonic work? Maybe, but the other movements are too long and the music, while good in parts, is just as episodic.

John Downey is clever and gifted and I am truly sorry to say these things. I hope he graciously takes on board what I say here and finds a logical style and leaves the strawberries and cream out of what could be a tasty beef stew!

David C F Wright

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