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Mark John MCENROE
My Symphonic Poems – Orchestral Images
Summers’s Last Hurrah [8:51]
That Old Indian Summer [7:24]
Mid Autumn’s Deep Colours [10:54]
Movements in the Night [10:28]
An Early Autumn Morning [21:19]
Deep in the Wilderness [8:43]
The Passing [7:25]
Echoes from a Haunted Past [8:31]
A Pageant at the County Fair [6:21]
A Celebration of the Natural World [17:19]
The Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Armore
rec. Ostrava, Czech Republic 2016-2018
NAVONA RECORDS NV6189 [2 CDs: 107:15]

These days it is possible for someone who is completely untutored in music, but who can pick out a few chords on the piano or guitar, to use a computer app to compose and even orchestrate music.

I myself have never done this, but I have taken a look at some of the apps and have concluded that the years of study in harmony, melody, tempo, orchestration, fugue, sight reading and so on and so forth, which would-be composers have followed until very recently, can be more-or-less disregarded. Composing by ear, which has a long history, can now be supplemented by use of these apps, enabling the user of the app to generate an orchestrated musical score.

Initially, I assumed that McEnroe had done this; wrongly as it turned out, because I almost missed an insert, nearly hidden in the centre part of the sleeve, which is more informative than the brief notes visible at first sight.

In fact, he has been a label manager for EMI Australia (he is Australian) and EMI Sweden, and at the age of 37 he started to study piano in earnest with three respected teachers and began to develop an interest in composition. Consequently in 2003 he began a course in composition with Margaret Brandman in Sydney and continued until 2012. However, his website remarks that Mark J. Saliba has orchestrated much of his piano music, and the back of the sleeve states that all orchestration is by Saliba.

In his statement in the sleeve insert McEnroe says that he is not an academically trained composer/musician. By this I now understand that he means that he has not done a music degree/diploma at a traditional university/conservatoire. He then goes on to say that he is only interested in creating an emotional platform, not aiming to extend the theoretical or technical boundaries of music or the challenges presented to performers.

He is forthright in expressing his musical aims: “I’m just not interested in writing material for performers to demonstrate their musical prowess or ego. For me, strong melodic content is of extreme importance even if that puts me at risk of being old fashioned …….”

The bulk of these two discs consists of symphonic poems which “talk of the wonders of our natural world, biodiversity and the power of the seasons”. Titles such as Summer’s Last Hurrah, Mid Autumn’s Deep Colours, Movements in the Night and An Early Autumn Morning will give the reader an idea of the composer’s aim. The trouble is, he is taking on a very difficult task; many are the times that I have listened to a work which a composer has entitled ‘Springtime in…’ ,or ‘A Winter’s ….’, or ‘The Flowers of…’, or ‘The Mountains of …’, only to find that if the composer had not given the piece a descriptive title, I would have been completely unable to guess just what the piece was supposed to be ‘talking’ about. Exceptions abound, of course – some composers have been able to describe storms or the rain or the sea conditions, but that is because those natural events have natural sounds associated with them. With all respect to McEnroe, an Indian Summer, or an Autumn Morning, do not.

So, there we have it: McEnroe has a pleasant melodic style, which doesn’t mean that anyone is going to instantly latch on to one of his tunes – Tchaikovsky he isn’t – but the pieces are nice, quite unassuming works, honestly composed and presented. They plumb no great heights or depths of emotion, although McEnroe is clearly something of an ‘eco-warrior’, and tries to express his environmental concerns in the music.

Incidentally, I am in awe of anyone who starts to study piano at 37 (I tried briefly, and failed miserably) and then goes on to study composition for over a decade. This speaks of an intense love of music, and so Hurrah!

My principal problem with these CD’s, is that the works on them are not all that well differentiated from each other. Slow tempi abound and pleasing but not particularly memorable themes merge into each other, giving the ear little to latch on to.

The longest piece, at over 20 minutes, is entitled An Early Autumn Morning, and I found myself becoming aware that the music possesses a somewhat wider volume range than the others, reaching an extended climax at the end. The orchestration is quite varied, with an occasional prominent part for violin. Within the piece, the melodies are similar to each other and, as with the other works, the overall tempo is slow which makes it too easy to lose concentration when listening. The ending section reaches a crescendo and maintains it, with tam-tam strokes and an occasional clang on what I presume is a tubular bell. Whatever the instrument, as recorded, its integration with the rest of the orchestra is poor, and it almost sounds like it has been superimposed. However, this is my only significant criticism of the recording, which, whilst not in the top league of hi-fidelity, is perfectly acceptable.

The second CD has the same characteristics as the first, indeed the composer’s description of the whole of the first disc and the first and last tracks of the second are that they “talk of the wonders of our natural world, biodiversity and the power of the seasons. I want to remind people that we are destroying this for the sake of greed and economic rationalism”.

Tracks two, three and four of the second CD, described as “referring to life’s personal struggles”, occasionally display a greater range of emotions and musical dynamic than the others, which is probably to be expected. Once again though, I don’t feel that the melodies are distinctive enough to stand playing one track after another, as a reviewer tends to do. Maybe the fact that the pieces are all orchestrated by the same person, who probably doesn’t have the same insight into the significance of individual sections of the works as has the composer, gives them a sonic similarity that adds to my sensation of slight ennui.

In summary, McEnroe is to be admired for his devotion to his art, but listening to a clutch of pieces that sound so similar, is difficult. If one or two of these tracks were to form part of a compilation of Australian Composers’ music, then I would be more positive.

The orchestra, with which McEnroe has recorded before, play well and the recording is of good quality. As stated earlier, documentation is pretty minimal, and most of the interior of the sleeve is taken up by photos of the orchestra.

Jim Westhead

 



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