Classical CD Reviews

“Spellbound” = Works by PAUL OSTERFIELD, RONALD KEITH PARKS, TIMOTHY LEE MILLER, MICHAEL MURRAY, MARK ELIOT JACOBS – Navona

All this music is designed to let an orchestra and conductor show off a bit. An enjoyable program.

Published on November 22, 2013

“Spellbound” = PAUL OSTERFIELD: Opaque Shadows; RONALD KEITH PARKS: Torque; TIMOTHY LEE MILLER: Alone: Suite for Orchestra; MICHAEL MURRAY: Tempest Fantasy; MARK ELIOT JACOBS: Las Ranas de Katanchel – Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players / Petr Vronský / Kiev Philharmonic / Prague Radio Sym. Orch. / Robert Ian Winstin / Moravian Philharmonic Strings / Moravian Philharmonic Orch. / Petr Vronský – Navona NV5911, 55:00 [Distr. by Naxos] (5/28/2013) ***1/2: 

Here’s another interesting mix-and-match project from Navona featuring contemporary American composers, in this case writing very colorfully for large orchestra. The “mix” part, as usual, has to do with the range of styles displayed, which also speaks to the somewhat dizzying range of styles available to the contemporary classical composer. That said, all this music shares diatonicism as its harmonic language, and none of it should be off-putting to those who find contemporary art overly intellectual or impersonal.

I would describe the music of the last three composers on the program as neo-Romantic, creating musical landscapes that are almost filmic. That’s especially true of Mark Jacobs’s Las Ranas de Katanchel, which could easily be mistaken for a film score and reminds me very much of the cinematic musical tapestries Villa-Lobos wove in some of his symphonies and tone poems, such as Floresta de Amazonas. The comparison is especially apt since Jacobs’s piece is a tone poem that uses as its backdrop the rain forests of Central America. In his lengthy notes about the work, Jacobs explains that the program derives from the tales of the Mayans of Guatemala, as recorded in the creation story Popol Vuh, and the Yucatan peninsula. Central to the piece, according to Jacobs, is “the Yucatec goddess Ixchel,” who’s associated with midwifery and time-keeping. These two attributes are connected through “the 260-day Mayan calendar, the Tzolkin,” 260 days being, roughly, the gestation period of the human fetus. That’s not all, however. The tone poem also portrays the trials of the twin demigods Hunahpu and Xbalanque, enacted in the Mayan underworld, Xibalba. Jacobs doesn’t give us a lot of musical clues about the doings in the piece, except to say that the beginning is an exposition of the musical themes in the work, followed by “two passacaglias based on the creation myths” in Popol Vuh, and that the triumph of the twins and the coming of humankind to the earth are marked by the (recorded) sound of frogs and the horns of the orchestra, respectively. The Moravian Philharmonic struggles with the harmonic and rhythmic complexities in the middle section describing the twins’ adventures.

As with most tone poems, the listener is on his or her own in matching the music to the incidents portrayed. Fortunately, Jacobs’s music, aided and abetted by the recording of rain forest sounds the composer made at Hacienda Katanchel in Central America, is colorfully atmospheric as well as dramatic, even if the drama is often inchoate. Like Villa-Lobos, Jacobs seems occasionally to walk a fine line between local color and pure schmaltz, but mostly Las Ranas de Katanchel is a compelling listen.

Not film but stagecraft inspired Michael Murray’s Tempest Fantasy, based on incidental music the composer wrote for Shakespeare’s romance. So, unlike tone poems based on The Tempest (such as Tchaikovsky’s), it is not chiefly pictorial but mostly takes its cues from the music supplied for songs sung by the spirit Ariel, the chief orchestrator of the actions of the play at the behest of the magician Prospero. This piece made the least impression on me, in part because I could make no mental connection between it and the action or characters of Shakespeare’s play.

Timothy Lee Miller’s Alone is the only score based directly on film music, though if you didn’t know this from reading the notes to the recording, you’d be thrown off the scent by the beginning of the piece, which quotes from and expands on the theme of Le Sage, the seventh section in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This frank homage replaces the opening of the film score, drawing as it does on “radio source music, which did not make sense to try to incorporate into the concert score.” The film itself charts the experiences of a young woman who finds herself in a city chillingly devoid of people. Her mounting sense of dread is the subject of the early pages of Miller’s score, but by the end of the piece, the heroine has come to accept her plight, and the final pages seem to map some sort of spiritual awakening, or at least accommodation.

More abstract is Ronald Parks’ Torque, inspired by a temporary installation he saw in New York, a sculpture “composed of thin metal panels of shapes and textures that rotated when blown by a moderate breeze. . . .” Hence the title Torque (“a force that tends to cause tortion or rotation”). The piece is constructed like a kind of musical syllogism: the three sections “coincide with the application of force, subsequent rotation resulting from those sources, then release of energy tending toward equilibrium.”  As one might expect, the piece is dominated by oscillating patterns shared just about equally by the various sections of the orchestra—a sort of minimalist concerto for orchestra that makes its mark through the shifting musical colors and textures that Parks employs.

Opaque Shadows, a work completed by Paul Osterfield toward the end of his graduate studies at Cornell University, also has minimalist drive and intensity, like an even noisier and more frenetic version of Short Ride in a Fast Machine, though as Osterfield notes, it unfolds in alternating sections, some more “subdued and blurred. . .with subtle shadings.” The piece provides quite a workout for the orchestra and would make for a memorable opening to any concert of contemporary orchestral music.

The playing of the three orchestras, though hardly virtuosic, is committed, bringing color and verve to these mostly very lively scores. The recordings, too, are pretty good, especially given the fact that they derive from three different venues and that Torque is an “archive recording,” whatever that implies (maybe live?). The pieces recorded with the Moravian Philharmonic are the most impactive, but the perspectives are a bit baffling. Some of the instruments sound very close to the mikes—including the strings, which don’t have much chance to bloom—while others seem almost too distant, and the perspective appears to shift, as if “spotlighting” were employed. Not ideal, perhaps, but the force of the music comes through loud and clear.

—Lee Passarella




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