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Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1931) [28:51]
Samuel ADAMS (b. 1985)
Drift and Providence (2012) [18:59]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1936) [22:02]
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/James Ross
rec. Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Centre, University of Maryland, 2016
NAXOS 8.559822 [69:52]

If I read the booklet correctly, the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic is an orchestra formed each year at an intensive summer school for advanced young musicians held at the University of Maryland. This present disc is the second by the orchestra which Naxos has issued. The previous CD included John Corigliano’s First Symphony played by the 2015 incarnation of the NOIP. I haven’t heard that release but I see that it was favourably reviewed by Nick Barnard. I was rather interested to see that Nick wasn’t convinced by the structure of the programme for that disc. I only saw his comments after I had completed my listening to this present disc and formed my opinions but, as we shall see, I had reached a similar conclusion.

I’ve heard Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony before through Leonard Bernstein’s 1968 recording with the New York Philharmonic (review), though it’s a long time since I listened to it. I wondered seriously about using the Bernstein version as a comparator but decided against it: I felt it would be unfair to compare a recording by a student orchestra, no matter how gifted, and one, moreover, that is not a permanent ensemble with a recording by Bernstein and the NYPO at the height of their relationship.

Thompson’s symphony dates from 1931. Though he’s much more widely known nowadays for his choral music, this score demonstrates that he was effective in his use of the orchestra. The first of the work’s four movements (Allegro) bursts out, full of energy and syncopated rhythms. It’s an enjoyable movement and the momentum scarcely lets up throughout its course. A warm, generous string melody opens the second movement (Largo). This romantic tune promises much and Thompson makes full use of it. You might expect, given such an auspicious opening, that this slow movement will be a substantial affair but, in fact, it lasts for only slightly more than four minutes. That might suggest that Thompson had run out of ‘puff’ but I don’t think that’s the case. I rather suspect that he felt he’d said enough and didn’t wish to overplay his hand. If that’s the case, I think he was right: sufficient unto the day. While it lasts it’s a beautiful movement.

The third movement (Vivace) is highly energetic and I like the way Thompson varies the rhythmic emphases so as to heighten the interest. There’s a central episode – a trio section? – in which perky woodwind material interjects, making a genial nuisance of itself against the strings’ more legato lines. When the vivace material resumes I like the little pay-off at the very end of the movement. What I think is a typographical error in the otherwise useful notes suggests that the finale begins and ends quickly. In fact, the opening (Andante moderato) presents a dignified melody, played first by the horn and passed to the clarinet; this is almost hymn-like. At 1:44 the music, though based on this melody, becomes much more vivacious. All that follows is perky, good-natured and pleasing. The opening melody returns (7:52), this time in confident array, and Thompson brings his symphony home with a big final statement. Randall Thompson’s Second is pretty much free from angst. It’s a good-natured, enjoyable score which James Ross and the members of the NOIP play very well and with conviction. These young musicians are likely headed for careers in the American professional orchestras and I wonder if they’ll ever get the chance to play this symphony again. If not, it will be a pity for I think it’s music which, while it may not plumb the emotional depths, is well written, attractive and likely to be enjoyed by audiences.

I said that I have a reservation over the contents of the disc. Time to reveal my hand. Drift and Providence is a composition by Californian composer, Samuel Adams for orchestra with electronics. In fact, Adams himself deals with the electronic aspect of this performance. I should hasten to say, however, that the electronics are not obtrusive; indeed, I was scarcely conscious that electronics were being used. Rather than employing electronic sounds per se, what Adams does is to use electronics to enhance the acoustic range of the orchestra. Usually, we are told, orchestral sounds are found within a frequency range of between 60 and 4000 hertz. Through electronic techniques Adams is able to extend that range below 60 hertz and up to more than 5000 hertz. His score, which is in five sections, is inspired by the US Pacific coastline and, specifically, the Pacific around San Francisco. The result contains many interesting, nay intriguing, sounds but that is really as far as it goes. I struggled to discern any thematic material in the music, still less any development of thematic ideas. Of course, that may well be a failure on my part but it seemed to me that Drift and Providence is about little more than sound for sound’s sake. I have listened to it as carefully as possible for this review but I can’t imagine wanting to experience it again. Furthermore, I really can’t see its relevance to the rest of the programme of this disc unless the aim was to show the proficiency of these young musicians in playing contemporary music.

We return to more traditional fare with Samuel Barber’s First Symphony. Robert Lintott includes in his notes a delicious anecdote which Barber himself related concerning the premiere which took place in Italy. Barber took a couple of curtain calls and reckoned that the audience was spit about 50/50 between those who were applauding and those who were hissing the new work. As Barber told the story, “I remember standing in the wings wondering whether I was supposed to go out again, and the old doorman said, ‘Better not – the hissers win!’” Well, I doubt people would hiss the work nowadays and I’m sure they wouldn’t hiss this highly creditable performance by James Ross and the NOIP.

From the off, the symphony demonstrates urgency and intensity that aren’t present in Thompson’s score – that’s not a criticism of the older man’s work, just a statement of fact. In the scherzo-like Allegro molto episode Ross and his players bring out the playfulness in the music and there’s good precision in their playing. The Andante tranquillo is ushered in by a soulful solo oboe (Alexander Curtis?) and rich singing strings take that melody on. Barber builds the music to an ardent climax which is very well achieved here. The passacaglia section (track 12 from 5:11) offers a satisfying and increasingly powerful recapitulation of the ideas that Barber has deployed in the symphony; it also offers a satisfying conclusion to this very accomplished performance.

Whilst I’m afraid I can’t raise any real enthusiasm for Samuel Adams’ piece the Thompson and Barber symphonies are, in their different ways, fine works. They’re well served here and the performances are presented in good sound.

John Quinn

Previous review: Bob Stevenson



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