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Robert MORAN (b. 1937)
Points of Departure
Points of Departure, for orchestra (1993) [7:07]
Angels of Silence, for viola and chamber orchestra (1973) [22:21]
Frammenti di un’opera barocca perduta, suite for vocalist and orchestra (2017) [13:43]
Star Charts and Travel Plans I, for large chamber orchestra (2016-17) [4:13]
Yahrzeit, for orchestra with solo basso profundo (2002/2018) [6:26]
Maria Rusu (viola); Daniel Bubeck (countertenor); Zachary James (basso profundo)
University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra/James Allen Anderson
Recording details not supplied
Sung texts and translations included
NEUMA 123 [53:52]

Robert Moran’s name first arrived on my radar during the mid-1990s when Decca’s Argo imprint was reborn and reimagined. He was one of the contemporary American composers who most benefitted from their advocacy, along with luminaries such as Michael Torke and Aaron Jay Kernis. Given the preoccupations of that label at that time it was no surprise that Moran’s music incorporated something of a post-minimalist aesthetic, nor that he was a favourite of those British groups who ‘hung out’ during those heady, optimistic days of yore. I’m thinking of the likes of Piano Circus and the Balanescu Quartet. How we tapped our toes and even danced …..

Time moves on and this disc provides an overview of Moran’s work from before, during and after that those times. Points of Departure, the piece that provides the album with its rather apt title dates from those Argo years and acts as a pleasant, rather Glassian overture in this context. It’s elegantly laid out for the orchestra; the harpist and tuned percussionists are rewarded with extended workouts and provide a glittering, colourful backcloth throughout, a continuo to brighten the darkest day. Points of Departure is gently subverted by offbeats that occasionally disrupt its comfortable, chugging progress and builds to a mildly unsettling, gnomic conclusion.

The short orchestral interlude Star Charts and Travel Plans I is of more recent provenance and takes its cue from astronomy, specifically the gestalt principles one intuitively applies in order to make sense of the stars by drawing connecting lines between them and forming ‘constellations’ (I used to wonder as a child whether the inhabitants of Rigel were aware that they were part of a more extensive local authority, Orion). Ethereal high strings, clouds of flutes, and enigmatic winds coalesce in a suspended extra-terrestrial haze. Its four minutes constitute a gently pointillistic expansion and contraction. Its sonic arc broadens over the course of its duration. If Moran’s title rekindles memories of Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon, the late David Bedford’s trendy seventies work for choir and brass, the music itself inhabits an entirely different galaxy.

The introductory bumf for this disc that appears on the Neuma website provides this pithy summary of Moran’s work: “If you drew a Venn diagram showing the overlap of Handel, Pachelbel, Haydn, Wagner, Feldman, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass, and John Cage, it would only have one name in the middle: Robert Moran”. In actual fact the fastidiously composed Frammenti di un’opera barocca perduta, a recent suite comprising an introduction and three arias (here delivered by the countertenor Daniel Bubeck) reveals Moran’s instinctive and wholesome appreciation of seventeenth and early eighteenth century Italian operatic models. These warmly communicative pieces are affectionate settings of arias written by librettists who worked with the likes of Francesco Cavalli and Francesco Gasparini. A tolling bell signals the gradual manifestation of a radiant string chord which yields to Aria 1, a setting of a text by Minato (used by Cavalli in Xerse). It’s limpid and appealingly melodic, although the calm, transluscent textures are somewhat muddied by the university orchestra’s occasionally ragged ensemble. Bubeck’s voice is aptly fragile at its outset, although the wide vibrato he employs ensures a more virile effect as it proceeds. Aria 2 (to a text by Buti for Cavalli’s L’ercole Amante) is rather jazzy and boasts some delightfully light percussion scoring, although Neuma’s recording doesn’t make it easy to disentangle textures, whilst excessively fat brass chords seem too loud.. Moran’s vocal writing emerges as even more idiomatic and confident in the final aria, Amor da Guerra e pace (a number from Tamerlano, originally set by Gasparini who got there before Handel) The recording is marginally better balanced here, although Bubeck’s countertenor is not the most mellifluous I’ve ever heard. Neat and entertaining as the Frammenti are, ultimately this suite amounts to tastefully crafted pastiche.

Even more recent (2018) is Moran’s voice and orchestra re-working of Yahrzeit, a touching setting of James Skofield’s memorial poem to his life partner Micheal Dean Sitzer who passed away in 1995 due to AIDS related complications. Skofield’s genuinely eloquent words constitute a paean to their shared memories of the natural world, and Moran originally set them in 2002 for male choir and piano. Yahrzeit is certainly beautiful and despite the message of acceptance and reconciliation in the text it seems extremely sad, with a prominent harp part which unfailingly evokes the equally tear-jerking Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony. In this version Moran has rearranged the choral music for a single basso profundo voice, albeit one that seems to display a high tessitura throughout. If Zachary James displays moments of slight strain, these are neither surprising nor inappropriate, given the powerful emotions at play. Yahrzeit certainly emerges as direct and heartfelt.

To my ears the most impressive work on this disc is the earliest. I hesitate to describe Angels of Silence, for viola and orchestra as a ‘concerto’; there is nothing remotely virtuosic about it. Moran composed it as long ago as 1973 and it’s a creation that could only have been forged upon the unsteady foundations of the prevailing counterculture. It’s essentially a study in stasis; stately, tastefully coloured chords succeed one another in a mobile of glacial stillness. The burnished viola provides the occasional shaft of light but more often Maria Ruso’s instrument elicits a shadow which anchors the entire edifice. Trippy organ chords haunt the textures. Despite the fact that nothing much happens, I really liked this music. There are moments of truly hypnotic beauty (tolling bells at 18:38 indelibly so). Given its rather subversive quality I’m amazed that Angels of Silence isn’t better known.

I was impressed (and not a little surprised) by the breadth and variety of the music on this disc. On the other hand, without wishing to sound unduly negative, I felt rather underwhelmed by both the playing and recording. I recognise that The University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra is not a full-time, professional body; their commitment to this project is absolutely evident throughout, but the stillness of a piece like Angels of Silence surely demands real precision, and I don’t think the tentative sound that emerges for the most part necessarily does Moran’s concept any favours. I would love to hear a crack professional band of new music specialists take this piece on. (Surely there’s room in Gil Rose’s magnificent and extensive BMOP catalogue for a Moran disc?) The impact of the other works is also compromised by some unsatisfactory tuning, and a rather boomy recorded sound.

In the final analysis however, I’d much rather have had this opportunity to encounter this music than not, especially Angels of Silence, which has continued to weave its charm after half-a-dozen airings. Neuma’s packaging is compact and attractive and Philip Gentry’s notes perceptive and helpful.

Richard Hanlon

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