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
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
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.
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.