“Orchestral Masters, Vol. 1” the cover declares. Berlioz? Rimsky-Korsakov? Stravinsky? No: this is a diverse collection of living composers from around the globe, and while the quality is pretty mixed, some of their music is very good indeed. All of it is grounded in a return to traditional tonality, and probably some of these composers could be described as “neo-romantic” if you like labeling people with that word. I don’t.
Federico Garcia’s Passacaglia on a Theme by Bach is a suitably grand, austere edifice, and all the orchestration is a little too cute at the beginning - instruments entering one by one in a suspiciously coordinated procession - the work leaves a positive impression. Craig Morris’ Lullaby, the shortest work at just three minutes, is a sincere and sweetly evocative piece. Morris is one of two part-time composers on the album; he’s also a child psychiatrist. Hiroaki Manaka worked a full career in advertising, composing on the side until taking it up as a retirement hobby. His Thought of the Great Plains is a skilful, indeed brilliant evocation of the experience of riding a bus across American Midwest. What makes it more remarkable is that once you think of the name Sibelius, you can’t stop: it’s - and I say this with sincere admiration - one of the closest approximations of Sibelius’ style I’ve ever heard. Manaka wasn’t attempting to imitate it, so “imitate” is the wrong word: it just came out that way, sincerely, I think, and it is astonishing.
The other highlight is Paul Siskind’s Organal Dances - a set of splashy, brilliantly orchestrated American spins on baroque dance modes. I’m not surprised to learn Siskind has had music performed by the Pittsburgh and Minnesota Orchestras, not when his instrumental writing stands out so sharply even on an album like this.
There are, as I said, disappointments. Lance Hulme’s Sirens’ Song makes little attempt to be seductive, and after a very promising opening flourish we get three or four minutes of the same thing in repetition. Although we’re told the tripartite structure is feminine, I’m not sure where the sirens come into it. Spiros Mazis’ 10 Dimensions - AEB160 is a lot more interesting than its title, an exploration of textures and sounds and feelings, but the ending is somehow less interesting than the beginning, I think because it’s more conventional. Half the works on the disc rely too much on wood blocks and other faddish percussion instruments.
The Brno Philharmonic give able, committed performances; I heard what sounded like some woodwind missteps in the middle of the Hulme piece but maybe he just wrote it that way. The quality of music-making over an hour of unfamiliar new works is something of which performers and composers can be proud. Recorded sound is good, too. For adventurers.
A word to composers: please put your birth year somewhere in your biography or your website. It makes our job much easier and our review more helpful. If you aspire to someday merit a Wikipedia page, you’ll need your birthday online anyway. A few of these composers have a good chance.