Kenji BUNCH (b. 1973) The Snow Queen: Ballet in two acts (2017)
Orchestra NEXT/Brian McWhorter
rec. Asen-Hull Hall, School of Music and Dance, University of Oregon, date not given INNOVA 977 [49:37 + 52:56]
Complete ballet works on the scale of Swan Lake don’t crop up very often these days but American composer Kenji Bunch is no strange to large-scale scores, having already completed a couple of symphonies as well as numerous concerto type works. Produced in collaboration with the Eugene Ballet Company, this is Orchestra Next’s debut album. Based in Oregon, this is a training orchestra that on this showing performs for the most part at the highest level, and with a palpable verve and energy coming from the recording.
The Snow Queen is a fairy tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen that has already been the subject of many stage and film productions. Kenji Bunch has created a highly effective ballet score which follows the narrative faithfully, inevitably not attempting to fill in every detail but creating all of the atmosphere and melodic expressiveness and dramatic contrast you could ask for. Echo effects for instance create unmistakable imagery for The Mirror, the chilling iciness of The Snow Queen’s Palace being previously set with judicious use of subtle percussion added to tremulo strings and interesting wind voicing.
Bunch acknowledges the inspiration he gained from previous masters of orchestral ballet from Prokofiev to Tchaikovsky, but you can hear him giving space to the action on the stage even in romantic scenes such as the initial Kay and Gerda, which has a beautiful sense of thematic growth while remaining restrained and transparent. The warmth of these two is of course calculated to contrast with the coldness of the Snow Queen. There are some sweet excursions into nature, but even with the slightly ‘Catch Me if You Can’ inflected Arrival of the Crows and a rousing Gypsy Camp, the ballet does well to retain focus on the opposing forces of the central characters.
I can imagine this being a mightily rewarding evening at the ballet, and it has certainly resulted in a highly effective performance. The actual recording is good enough, though not the most transparent I’ve ever heard, and there is some minor scratchiness in the playing here and there if the truth be told. If you are looking for ‘hit’ numbers as have emerged from the likes of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet then this is where you will find this score lacking that last ounce of daring distinctiveness. The final number, Gerda Thaws Kay’s Heart comes closest, but still doesn’t quite generate that ultimate earworm.