To the Point
Jennifer HIGDON
To the Point (2004) [3:54]
Andrew RUDIN (b.1939)
Canto di Ritorno (2004) [21:36]
Gunther SCHULLER (b.1925)
Concerto da Camera (2002) [13:46]
Romeo CASCARINO (1922-2002)
Blades of Grass (1945) [8:45]
Jay REISE (b.1950)
The River Within (2008) [25:35]
Diane Monroe (violin) (Canto di Ritorno); Dorothy Freeman (English Horn) (Blades of Grass)
Orchestra 2001/James Freeman
rec. 12 November 2005, Trinity Center, Philadelphia (Higdon), Lang Concert Hall, Swarthmore College, 27 January 2006 (Rudin), 21 April 2002 (Schuller), 20 September 2004 (Cascarino), and 12 April 2008, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Centre, Philadelphia (Reise)
INNOVA 745 [73:40]

With a fine recording and a wide variety of highly approachable new music, this is a CD which richly deserves a wide audience.

Philadelphia based and founded in 1988, Orchestra 2001 is now recognised as one of America’s foremost champions of new music, and this is their first recording of the Innova label.

In a well conceived programme, Grammy award winner Julia Higdon’s To the Point acts as overture. Developed from a movement for string quartet into a piece for string orchestra, the piece deliberately responds to the Ravel and Debussy quartets in its pizzicato textures. The title also refers to the tip of a paint brush in a reference to the pointillist techniques used by some impressionist artists of the period. This is quite a light and breezy opening to the programme, with plenty of darting rhythms and contrapuntal layering to wake us up for what comes next.

Andrew Rudin’s Canto di Ritorno is another work with chamber-music origins, in this case a Sonata in one movement for Violin and Piano. The piece was revised and very nicely orchestrated, sensitively introducing a wide variety of nuance and colour. There is some ‘interior programme’ to the piece, but this incidental information doesn’t impinge on the personal associations a listener may have with any well crafted work. There are sections of greater angst and stress, and a good deal of lyrical meandering which creates some lovely and impressive moments including an extended chaconne, but the work as a whole gives the impression of hanging together more as a narrative than a tightly constructed form. It has elements which point towards quite Germanic expressionism at times, with touches of Berg and Hindemith as part of the mix. As a piece, it left for me the impression of a club sandwich with a different flavour in each bite – making it hard to ‘fix’ in the mind as something memorable, but full of intriguing ingredients nonetheless.

Gunther Schuller here conducts his own Concerto da Camera, a piece co-commissioned by Orchestra 2001. This work is in two sections, and orchestrated without the mellow tones of clarinets, bassoons and horns to emphasise a “tarter, brighter, friskier sound”. A slow and atmospheric almost Tippett-like opening with sometimes closely clustered notes and broad melodic shapes is paired with a dramatic faster second ‘movement’, which is introduced by a passage of the utmost transparency, using filigrees of string glissandi and high percussion. There are some lovely moments of rhythmic wit in this second section, and plenty of fascinating variety in colour and texture despite the composer’s feeling that his orchestration was comparable with “a painter who has always used the full colour spectrum suddenly limiting his palette to, say, only black, grey, and blue-green.”

Blades of Grass by Romeo Cascarino is quite a few generations older than the rest of the works here, but in terms of idiom and style fits in nicely, providing a kind of pastoral contrast with the more abstract pieces amongst which it finds itself. The composer declared that the English horn soloist here, Dorothy Freeman, “played the piece better than anyone”. This and the moving anecdote in the booklet, about how the call for orchestral parts for a recording went out, unknowingly, just a day after the composer had died. This all adds up to a performance of remarkable poignancy, and this is a lovely work which has gained a little in recognition over the last few years with a rather more compact performance – undercutting Orchestra 2001 by about a minute and a half – from Naxos (8.559266) with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The final work is a substantial violin concerto, The River Within by Jay Reise. Given a classical format of fast-slow-fast in terms of its three movements, the piece also integrates techniques of “rhythmic polyphony” inspired by Carnatic music and jazz. This might imply complications, but Reise’s musical language is one of clarity and directness, so that there are few real challenges to the listener in terms of superficial comprehension. The central movement is a kind of nocturne – an atmosphere of stillness from which grow ‘inquieto’ elements of turbulence. Both of the outer movements have a sense of urgency in their rhythmic impulse, but with plenty of space for a good deal of highly virtuoso writing for the solo violin. The last movement is also pretty demanding for the strings of Orchestra 2001, and the strain does show a little here and there. In all this is a stunning work, but it didn’t set my spine resonating or communicate much actual emotional content. “Music taps into the river of life in all of us” concludes the composer in his notes for the piece, so I can only imagine that my particular tributary is flowing in the wrong direction.

In all this is a fascinating programme of new music from the USA, and one which, as the press release promises, is “to be treasured, studied, and savoured”.

Dominy Clements

A fascinating and varied programme of highly approachable new music.