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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Samuel JONES (b. 1935)
Tuba Concerto (2005) [23:57]
Symphony No.3, Palo Duro Canyon (1992) [23:39]
Christopher Olka (tuba)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 31 October 2006 (Concerto); 9 January 2007 (Symphony), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559378 [47:36]
Experience Classicsonline

The première of Jones's Tuba Concerto was broadcast on Seattle's KING–FM radio station. I took a recording of the piece at that time, so when this CD arrived I already had some knowledge of the work. It's a very strong piece, imbued with a warm lyricism, full orchestrations and some unusual twists and turns along the way. Commissioned in memory of her husband – aeronautical engineer and amateur tubist, James P Crowder – the piece is more celebration than memorial and even though there is a desolation about the end of the slow movement, the music is still full of questing, forward-looking, gestures. The finale seeks to emulate in music a wind tunnel – Crowder's specialisation was in wind visualization, making it possible to see the motion of air as it flows over solid objects at high speed – where the engine starts up, gains momentum then, once at top speed, the tuba unleashes a moto perpetuo, intercut with more reflective passages. At 23 minutes it's about as long as a Concerto for this instrument could be, indeed, the finale could benefit from a little pruning to make it more interesting, for, whilst Jones writes that, "the tuba has amazing range, agility and versatility, and in the hands of a master performer it can command the stage on an equal footing with any instrument" I cannot agree about the range of the instrument as one which can hold the stage over a period of time. For me, the best example of "concerted" music for solo tuba is still the late, great, Wally Stott/Angela Morley's theme music for the BBC radio sitcom Hancock's Half Hour. But this is a worthy effort and much of the music is very enjoyable, and Jones is a composer whose work we cannot afford to miss, so I must not, and indeed cannot, be overly critical.
 
The Symphony is an altogether different prospect. Perhaps being removed from the constraints of writing for a virtuoso soloist and being allowed to let his imagination run free this work shows the better, and more interesting and imaginative, side of Jones the composer. In one continuous movement, in four sections, this is real symphonic music. Starting with the pre–recorded sound of blowing wind, the orchestra gradually enters in a kind of Sibelian forward rush of semiquavers before we're into Jones's own American language. This is very powerful stuff indeed, brilliantly constructed, superbly orchestrated, thrillingly compelling. Jones builds a big climax at the end of this most exciting and invigorating opening section – big music, exactly the kind of thing I would expect from a pupil of Howard Hanson, a composer who certainly knew how to build climaxes – which is followed by a pastoral slow movement, very American, very tuneful. A wild scherzo, again brilliantly orchestrated, comes next, taking the place of the sonata form development section; here we're partly in the west but we're equally at home in urban conurbations. Another big climax – Jones can really handle his material well – and the work ends in the most beautiful Ivesian transcendentalism. 
 
Whilst the Concerto is a fine work it is the Symphony to which you will return for it has much more to give and is a more complete, and completed, work. The performances are excellent, Schwarz leading strong performances and the orchestra responding with fire and passion. The recording is one of Naxos's best – the Benaroya Hall has the most stunning acoustic – giving a good concert hall perspective on the big orchestra. With good notes this is an absolute must for anyone with an interest in what is happening in contemporary composition, or just wants a truly satisfying listen to some strong, and enjoyable, contemporary music.
 
Bob Briggs
 
And a further perspective from Rob Barnett ...
 
Samuel Jones was a pupil of Howard Hanson at the Eastman School. He has been composer-in-residence at Seattle since 1997. Amongst the works he has written for Gerard Schwarz's orchestra is Janus (1997) and a Horn Concerto (2008); the latter presumably for that outstanding hornist John Cerminaro, the Seattle principal.
 
The two works here are of about the same duration and together make for modest LP-type playing time at best - but this is at Naxos price. A pity we could not also have had the other two Seattle works. Enough!
 
The creativity of this composer is expressed through an accessible tonal idiom. His language is only slightly inflected with the conventions of lyrical Americana. Equally there's no obvious jazz insurgency.
 
The Tuba Concerto is not one of those melodically vapid display concertante pieces. Jones puts Olka through his instrumental paces at every level. Of sharply etched inventive substance, it just happens to be a Tuba Concerto. It moves from Herrmann-style aggression to the sleekly singing Andante into adagietto with its deeply satisfying concluding ‘purr’. Jones can sometimes sound like a mix of Malcolm Arnold and Vaughan Williams, the latter of whom also wrote a strong concerto for the instrument although without the grave mien of the Jones. The Concerto was written in memory of wind tunnel engineer James P Crowder - also an amateur tuba player - and was commissioned by his widow.
 
The single movement Third Symphony is based on the impressions of the Palo Duro Canyon, twenty miles south of Amarillo, Texas. It was premiered by the Amarillo Symphony. It operates at various levels including catching something of the epic scale of the Canyon and its native Indian heritage. At 11.10 we encounter a great singing theme. A rippling melodic lilt is followed by discreet woodwind sent spinning among the orchestra with its evocation of stern statuesque pillars. The work rises to epic Hansonian statements with Sibelian cross-currents as in the string shimmer at 21:01.  One can feel climaxes built and evoked rather than unleashed explicitly. This has a familiar yet fresh manner which is in part redolent of the Hanson Sixth Symphony - 19:02 onwards. The symphony ends in a discreetly gentle bell carillon veering down into silence.
 
The recording is full of directional stimulation, good signal spread and ear-tingling detail.
 
I won't be avoiding further contact with Samuel Jones’ music - quite the contrary.
 
Rob Barnett
 
Naxos American Classics page

 


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