Echoes: Classic Works Transformed
David SCHIFF (b.1945)
Infernal (after Stravinsky) [5:40]
Bright SHENG (b.1955)
Black Swan (after Brahms) [6:52]
David STOCK (b.1939)
Plenty of Horn (after Clarke) [3:45]
John HARBISON (b.1938)
Rubies (after Thelonius Monk) [5:28]
Samuel JONES (b.1935)
Benediction (after Lutkin) [9:00]
Aaron Jay KERNIS (b.1960)
Musica Celestis (arr. string orchestra) [12:36]
Gerard SCHWARZ (b.1947)
Concerto for Brass Quintet and Orchestra (after Handel) [10:17]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
rec. 10 January, 2006 (Stock, Jones, Kernis, Schwarz), 3 February, 2006 (Schiff, Harbison), 2 March, 2006 (Sheng), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA
NAXOS 8.559679 [53:35]

One of Gerard Schwarz’s initiatives as longtime director of the Seattle Symphony was a series of short commissions “reimagining” old favorites. The participating composers (including Schwarz himself) were asked to choose a short piece they knew and loved and, in Schwarz’s words, “to transform them for our present time.…to create something original for this recording.” The results don’t always live up to the assignment’s potential, and the CD length is just under an hour, but this is certainly well worth hearing, both as a meditation on contemporary composers’ love for their predecessors and as a varied collection of short, listener-friendly new pieces.

The least interesting, in my view, is the very first piece on the lineup: David Schiff’s “Infernal,” after the dance so-called in Stravinsky’s Firebird. It’s an effort to jazz the original tune up and trade it between various instrumental soloists, but it adds little to the original Stravinsky piece’s excitement or color (while adding several minutes to the play time). At least the ending rather merrily evokes the winking style of old Pink Panther scores. After this opener, though, the music improves markedly.

Bright Sheng’s “Black Swan” (recorded years before the film, by the way) is inspired by Brahms’ Intermezzo in A, Op 118 No 2. It’s a really achingly beautiful piece, some of the woodwind writing (4:20) evoking the original composer but the way Sheng hands the main tune to the violins is simply lovely. This is one for those who aren’t sure living composers can do “pretty” music.

David Stock’s “Plenty of Horn” is a loving tribute to Clarke’s trumpet voluntary; there’s rather a lot of percussion, but the focus is on trumpets, winds, and a string section which occasionally evokes the sonorities of an organ. The overall atmosphere is that of an Olympic theme, but there’s no lack of craft, and at under 4 minutes this is the most concise contribution. John Harbison takes a rather different tack by paying homage to Thelonius Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” in a wide-ranging and often very dark fantasia including orchestral piano and other effects. This is probably as far as any of these composers strayed from their material.

The heart of the album must be tracks 5 and 6: Samuel Jones’ rendering of Peter Christian Lutkin’s Benediction and Sevenfold Amen, a nine-minute prayer of restrained colors, and the contribution by Aaron Jay Kernis. Kernis offers an orchestral arrangement, “Musica Celestis,” of one of his own string quartet movements—a potentially self-centered choice which turns out to be twelve minutes (not four minutes, as the CD case says!) of genuinely moving string orchestra bliss. Set this (and I say this with all seriousness) right alongside Barber’s Adagio—though it is the emotional opposite of that work. It is a great healing. What Barber lost, Kernis found.

The album concludes with Gerard Schwarz’s own contribution, a concerto for brass quintet and orchestra. Schwarz has taken three movements from a Handel concerto grosso (Op 6 No 9) and arranged them for brass and strings, a commission originally carried out for the legendary Canadian Brass. As with all the works here, it’s very well played, and Schwarz’s adaptation is minimally interventionist, nearly a reproduction of the original rather than an ‘homage’ to it.

The recorded sound is as good as ever from Naxos’ exemplary Seattle recordings, close and full and presenting a rich, characterful orchestra at its best. The only complaint I can really make here is that the five brass soloists in Schwarz’ concerto are not named anywhere.

If you want a grab-bag of five-to-ten minute samples of seven American composers’ wares, this is a really excellent and extremely accessible introduction. But, and I can’t stress this enough, you need to hear “Musica Celestis.” If there is a thesis to Echoes, it might be this: today’s composers are never very distant from their predecessors, and retain a great love for the music which came before them. They may not write music which sounds like that of their ancestors, but they are capable of blending past and present in enjoyable ways. And “Musica Celestis,” with its obvious affinity with Barber’s Adagio, proves that something old and something new can together produce something great.

Brian Reinhart

If there is a thesis to this album, it is that today’s composers are never too far from their predecessors, and something great can come of the marriage of old and new.