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Julian WACHNER (b. 1969)
Chamber Symphony (2014) [26:27]
Elena RUEHR (b. 1963)
Shadow Light, Concerto for Viola and Strings (2016) [12:32]
Joel Phillip FRIEDMAN (b. 1960)
Elastic Band, Version for Chamber Orchestra (2015) [17:41]
Marcus Thompson (viola)
New Orchestra of Washington/Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez
rec. 2014, Omega Studios, Bethesda, Maryland (Wachner, Friedman); 2016, Kreeger Auditorium, Rockville, Maryland
ACIS APL00442 [56:37]

It’s ‘bespoke’ as in ‘custom made’ and the tailoring conceit extends only so far as the jacket design. It would be more pertinent to note that this disc contains three commissions for chamber orchestra from the New Orchestra of Washington (NOW), an adventurous ensemble with flexible instrumentation that has a strong track record in bringing out new works in engaging live performances.

Julian Wachner’s 2014 Chamber Symphony gets the disc underway. It’s a feature of the production that the three composers are given plenty of space to write about their compositions and Wachner is explicit about following the tradition of Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie as well as John Adams’ Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony and instrumental reductions, by various hands, of Mahler symphonies. Perhaps one wouldn’t therefore expect the marimba to play so central a role in the first of the three movements, but it does, and it inaugurates a vibrant and urgent degree of instrumental colour and sonority, as well as exciting, biting rhythms that explore elements of minimalism. The central movement, a powerful March, explores incremental anxiety – romanticism allied to repetitions – and is the work’s core, whilst the finale is a light-hearted Chaconne that chugs away aerated by splendid wind and percussion sonorities. This is a rhythmically vital and imaginatively conceived work.

Elena Ruehr’s Shadow Light is a single-movement 12-minute concerto for viola and strings and is most eloquently played by Marcus Thompson. The work develops from its initial material, and the harmonies evoked move from expressive state to expressive state. Predominately the music is veiled in a rather beautiful melancholy that excludes any hint of the saccharine; a romantic fabric that unerringly leads through moments of drama to a structurally cohesive, thoroughly ‘felt’ conclusion.

The final work in the programme is Joel Phillip Friedman’s Elastic Band. Here we move into the worlds of Rock and Jazz which lends the music a ‘drum break’ and Big Band melange, served up with great confidence by the composer. Friedman explicitly cites Barney Bigard’s clarinet playing and Duke Ellington’s ‘Jungle’ music when discussing the second movement, Pure Happenchance, and in the clarinet/drum exchanges, the jazz ensemble sound, feel to rhythm and in its sectional approach this makes sense. The shifting meters in the finale are part of a full-on, sonically wild Rondo, complete with enticing jazzy lope from the clarinet – Jeremy Eig should be mentioned here for his fine playing - and a slightly sleazy air to the proceedings. This is certainly the most demotic and outgoing of the three pieces.

This, in itself, points to the varied commissions undertaken by NOW; there seems to be no prescribed ‘house style’ so composers of various musical inclinations can flourish, as these three assuredly do. Splendid studio performances and recordings enhance the disc and the notes, as mentioned earlier, are full and from the composers’ perspective. Bespoke, then, certainly but more importantly, enjoyable, engaging and very listenable.

Jonathan Woolf


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