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Jack GALLAGHER (b. 1947)
Symphony No. 2 Ascendant (2010-13) [62:58]
Quiet Reflections (1996) [12:10]
London Symphony Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Blackheath Concert Halls, September 2013
NAXOS 8.559768 [75:08]

The Ohio-based composer Jack Gallagher may be a Professor of Music — specifically, at The College of Wooster — but he doesn't write like one, and I mean this as a compliment. He doesn't strain at the sort of spurious "originality" favoured in the academy; as if it were the composer's solemn obligation to reinvent the wheel with each new score. His harmonic language is tonal but dissonant, its manner exploratory and searching manner rather than aggressive. He deploys solo instruments expressively in their natural tessituras, eschewing unusual sounds and "difficult" ranges, and generally weaves airy orchestral textures. Rhythmic impulses are irregular, but the short, repetitive motifs are easy to follow. The results are unmistakably late-to-post-twentieth-century in idiom, in the manner of the post-WWII American symphonists: accessible, but by no means undemanding.

The generally aspiring outlook of Gallagher's music is reflected in the subtitle, Ascendant, of his second symphony. The first movement is active and full of character. Even the tender oboe theme at 3:09 is accompanied by a subtle play of dissonances. Rhythmic gestures, whirling figures and repeated-note patterns, variously reminiscent of Bartók and Stravinsky, provide a bounding rhythmic impetus, while staccato woodwinds evoke a contrasting, lighter spirit. The recapitulation runs aground, however, by inserting a coda of sorts after each of the themes. It's a novel idea, but tedious when you've been primed for a quick wind-up.

At the start, the scherzo hardly sounds Playful as marked, but soon the mood lightens, with metrically irregular textures. In the searching slow movement, florid reed curlicues which start out as embellishments gradually take on the principal role; an ominous intrusion of brass and tympani at 8:40 briefly brings turbulence. The finale begins in a questing frame of mind, with pulsing woodwind triplets injecting an anxious undercurrent. The agitated main allegro has a moto perpetuo drive not unlike Shostakovich.

Quiet Reflections begins with, yes, quiet chime strokes and a tentative horn-call. Strings, "growing out of" the end of a horn phrase, gradually fill out the sound. The music grows cautiously affirmative, adding whirling woodwind flourishes, until an expansive bassoon solo moves into the flowing second theme. It's lovely.

This music pleased me. So did JoAnn Falletta's conducting, which I'd somehow managed to miss until now. The maestra shapes the music with a (literal) sure hand. Her tempo for the scherzo, for example, allows horn and tutti punctuations to register firmly and musically and keeps a firm grip on the structures. The reed triplets at 5:00 of the slow movement don't immediately settle, though the ones in the finale are fine. The violins suffer some dry tone and imprecise tuning in the highest reaches. Ensemble is a bit sketchy through the finale's bustling main section. The London Symphony is responsive, and, overall, handles these unfamiliar scores with assurance and conviction. In the scherzo, the solo winds are particularly deft in the undulating scansions, while the midrange strings provide a posh warmth.

Even if you think you're allergic to "new music", give this a listen.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.


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