To the Point
Jennifer HIGDON (b.1962)
To the Point, for string orchestra (2004) [3:54]
Andrew RUDIN (b.1939)
*Canto di Ritorno - Concerto, for violin and small orchestra (2004) [21:36]
Gunther SCHULLER (b.1925)
+Concerto da Camera (2002) [13:46]
Romeo CASCARINO (1922-2002)
Blades of Grass, for English horn and orchestra (1945) [8:48]
Jay REISE (b.1950)
**The River Within - Violin Concerto (2008) [25:35]
*Diane Monroe (violin); **Maria Bachmann (violin); Dorothy Freeman (English horn)
Orchestra 2001/James Freeman; +Gunther Schuller
rec. Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College, Philadelphia, 27 January 2006 [Rudin - live]; 21 April 2002 [Schuller - live]; 20 September 2004 [Cascarino]; 12 April 2008 [Reise - live]. Trinity Center, Philadelphia, 12 November 2005 [Higdon]. DDD
INNOVA 745 [73:09]
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.
Romeo Cascarino's 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 ...!
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To those that complain that all 21st century music is tuneless, aimless rubbish, this CD says: use your ears ...!