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John CORIGLIANO (b. 1938)
Symphony No. 1 (1989) [40:56]
Michael TORKE (b.1961)
Bright Blue Music (1985) [9:06]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Appalachian Spring: Suite (1944) [23:56]
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/David Alan Miller
rec. Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, University of Maryland, College Park, USA, June, 2015
NAXOS 8.559782 [73:58]

This new disc contains three American works, one a classic, one the work of a young man (at the time of composition), and one the considered and passionate response to a tragedy of a recognized contemporary master. At the same time it serves as an example of the expertise of a variety of young musicians brought together in the National Orchestral Institute: a yearly seminar for young, promising musicians from all over the world and now more than 25 years old.

Michael Torke has the ability to see musical notes and chords as colors, a form of synesthesia. Thus, many of his pieces revolve around colors. Bright Blue Music is of course one of these, being (without modulation) in the key of D-major, a favorite key and color of the composer. To the listener the major impression the piece makes is of an almost unrelieved gentleness, without much contrast. It is a sign of the composer’s ability that the constant mood and key do not prove tedious in the least. David Alan Miller conducts competently if not with great verve.

It is almost a cliché to say that Copland’s Appalachian Spring is a cornerstone of American music. But the work’s influence on other American composers and its place in the development of the composer’s personal style make it so. The original ballet, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1945, was scored for 13 instruments, but the composer then arranged most of the music as a suite for full orchestra. The suite is in eight continuous sections. Miller takes a rather relaxed approach to the score. This is appropriate in some sections of the ballet such as the scene involving daily events among the farm folk who are the subject of the ballet and in the famous variations on “Tis a gift to be simple” (section 7). But in the faster sections (4 and 5) this approach proves rather heavy and dissipates a lot of the work’s drive.

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 is a large scale work memorializing friends of the composer who died at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s. The first movement is dedicated to a friend who was a pianist. Its first section is described by the composer as “ferocious” and contains a frequently sounded note “A” that returns throughout the symphony. The succeeding section is a beautiful passage for strings with nostalgic elements and an off-stage pianist representing the composer’s lost friend. Needless to say, the ferociousness of the first section returns, leading to a final “A”. The second movement is a tarantella, a dance form that was once thought to cure insanity if danced correctly. Corigliano uses this form to pay tribute to a friend who died from AIDS dementia. It treats its basic material in a variety of ways as the speed and the amount of dissonance increase before ending in a stifled sob.

The chaconne slow movement is the longest and most emotionally intense of the symphony. The title “Guilio’s Song” refers to an amateur cellist the composer knew in his youth. He is represented by a solo cello, later joined by a second cello representing Giulio’s teacher, who also died of AIDS. Their music is played over the chaconne theme of twelve tones. Further melodies enter, each representative of another friend who died of AIDS, before the solo cello returns with Guilio’s theme. These are succeeded by a solo trumpet playing the recurring “A”, eventually taken up by the whole orchestra and becoming a funeral march. The movement ends with the solo cello playing the “A” and leading into the last movement. Against repeated brass passages, memories of the music from previous movements emerge, finally ending with the solo cello on “A”, dying away.

David Alan Miller seems to have saved most of his energy for the Corigliano symphony. While some of his tempi in the second and fourth movements are tepid, he basically keeps things moving and highlights the instrumental solos very competently. Miller has complete control of the orchestra in the sprawling third movement and also brings great intensity to the last movement. He also gets a good deal of both finesse and power from the young people of the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic. They play with a great deal of professionalism and with the enthusiasm unique to musicians at this early stage of their career.

The sound quality on this disc is quite good and the notes comprehensive. As there are many competing recordings of Appalachian Spring, this disc will be of most value to those interested in modern American music, although the intensity of the Corigliano symphony may appeal to a wider audience.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Nick Barnard


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