This album contains two concert works by the film composer Michael Kamen. The New Moon in the Old Moon's Arms - Symphonic Poem is referred to in the accompanying notes by the composer as a symphony, while there is no doubt that Mr Holland's Opus - An American Symphony is indeed a symphony. That said, the five movement work is derived from Kamen's score for the 1995 film, Mr Holland's Opus, and the titles of the first four of the five movements are more what one would expect from a soundtrack album - 'Iris', 'Cole's Tune', 'Marking Homework' & 'Rowena' precede the more conventionally titled 'Finale'. The film starred Richard Dreyfuss and told the Goodbye Mr Chips-like story of a composer who becomes a dedicated and much-loved teacher, and struggles to complete the great American Symphony in his free time.
The film used pop music to note the passing of three decades in 142 minutes of screen time, classical extracts for the scenes of Mr Holland inspiring his classes, and Kamen's score to provide the emotional heart. Of course, Mr Holland completes his symphony, and although we don't get to hear all of it in the film, the climax is a performance which features highlights, including the 'Finale'. And here there was a problem, for the climax of the symphony as depicted in the film proved to be lowest common-denominator orchestral rock music. The sort of thing one would find on a London Symphony Orchestra plays Classic Rock LP some years back. Alongside the pop music used, it was as if it was felt audiences might go to see a film about a contemporary composer, but they sure didn't want to hear any contemporary classical music he might write. Unfortunately we have the same problem here, and while the first four movements present an often engagingly bombastic expansion and development of the film score, the finale turns into a crass rock section which bears little relation to what has come before.
Kamen has always had one foot in the rock and pop world, recently collaborating with the band Metallica, though perhaps Mr Holland's Opus can perhaps be traced back to his time studying oboe at New York's Juilliard School of Music, when he formed a rock-classical fusion band under the name The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble. It was the late 60's / early 70's and the time of progressive rock-orchestral experimentation by the likes of Deep Purple, King Crimson and ELP. The real problem is that, unlike Imants Kalnins' Rock Symphony (Symphony No.4) (1972) the rock elements seem just slung on-top, emerging out of the blue(s), rather than being fully woven into the musical design.
There is some first rate solo playing, with Kamen himself on Cor Anglais, Leila Josefowicz on violin, and Simon Mulligan - currently to be heard with Daniel Hope on a fine disc of Elgar and Walton sonatas for violin and piano on the Nimbus label - joined by top bassist Pino Paladino and drummer Andrew Newmark. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of the BBC SO under the baton of their new principle conductor, that fine advocate of 20th century American music, Leonard Slatkin, the result is not convincing. Certainly in recent times Michael Nyman set a far better example for this sort of conversion with The Piano Concerto, derived from his score for 1993's The Piano. Perhaps the only really significant symphony to be derived from a film score is Vaughan-Williams Symphony No. 7 - Sinfonia Antarctica, developed his music to Scott of the Antarctic (1948). Kamen falls a very long way short of that.
Much better is the title work, a half-hour symphonic poem in seven sections derived from the Anasazi, telling a story of a journey spanning the last millennium, the title explained according to Kamen as - "a glimpse of the future in the light of the past." Not only is the music programmatic, carrying the titles '1000AD', 'The Prayer', 'In the Moonlight', '2000AD', but it is far removed from the New Age pseudo world-music crossover nonsense one might have been expecting/dreading. Rather, this is well developed, imaginative, inventive symphonic music of the sort which might in other circumstances have made a first-rate film score. From the opening solo violin evoking a lone eagle - and coincidentally James Horner's Legends of the Fall - '1000AD' expands into some complex and dramatic writing of the sort which might have livened-up Kamen's X-Men. 'The Prayer' offers gently attractive flute, and in the second section, gently effective dance-like percussion. The finale, '2000AD' is an expansive melody in the tradition of a Shaker hymn by way of Copland's Americana and the great Hollywood Western scores.
This is excellent music-making, with Slatkin eliciting fine performances from the National Symphony Orchestra, but again there is a problem. Quite without a doubt this disc is the worst-sounding modern release I have heard in some time. The quite passages sound fine, but as soon as the music becomes busy and dramatic, and especially on the title work, the sound hardens, becoming harsh, oppressive, dry and making individual instruments hard to distinguish. In-fact, on some transitory peaks the sound becomes so hard as to be painful to listen to at even moderate volume. Although this problem is much more noticeable on The New Moon in the Old Moon's Arms than Mr Holland's Opus, the problem does affect both works. The fact that they were recorded with different orchestras in different venues suggests a problem with the mastering rather than the recordings. This is a serious disappointment for a company with Decca's reputation, and for what is presumably a prestige project designed for a big marketing push. Cautiously recommended for the excellent title work.
Gary S. Dalkin