FENNELLY:  Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 (Ambrosial Mornings).  Lunar Halos (Parasalenae) for Doublebass and Chamber Orchestra.  Concert Piece for Trumpet and Orchestra.  Reflections/Metamorphoses.  Chrysalis (from A Thoreau Symphony).
Boguslaw Furtok, doublebass; Chris Gekker, trumpet; Roland Orlik, violin; Polish Radio National Symphony Orch/Joel Eric Suben, cond.
ALBANY TROY 491 (F) (DDD) TT:  72:23

Pretty Ives. I began to listen to the Thoreau Fantasy No. 2 and heard the arrhythmic noodling around of the mandarin music of the Seventies. I glanced at the timings. At about twenty-two minutes, I thought myself in for a long evening. I can flounder in an aural swamp for only so long. But just when I had decided I had pushed a pin into the chest of the piece to mount it on the specimen board, a funny thing happened. Fennelly loused me up. He veered off onto a totally unexpected path. The piece surprised me to the end and, on subsequent listenings, continues to do so. Obviously, I don't have the measure of the composer. But here's what I think I know.

Unlike those composers who seemed to re-write the same Ur-piece during the Sixties and Seventies, Fennelly actually creates structures clear to the ear, rather than to the eye alone. Arrhythmia is simply one technique, not a compositional Weltanschauung, and he can write lively dances and even eloquent songs. He writes colorful, sensuous orchestration. Clarity's the watchword. One can, for instance, hear complex, complicated canons, recognizable as such, without the aid of a kindly docent. The Thoreau Fantasy at one level comes off as a kind of concerto for orchestra, with sections of the orchestra playing off each other. At another level, one is aware of a rhapsodic, ecstatic quality, a striving for transcendence, such as one finds in Ives. I should mention, however, that Fennelly composes far more tightly than Ives. He builds a taut thematic argument, but the technique always serves the emotion of the piece.

Lunar Halos for solo double bass and orchestra continues the "ecstasy in Nature" vein. According to Suben, Fennelly generates the piece from a single chord - interesting, but not essential, to know. Far more important, is the rhetorical "story." The bass begins a very beautiful solo which the orchestra takes over and begins to build the Ur-chord, in a glittering of rapid figurations. The english horn emerges with a solo similar to that of the bass. Eventually, the bass takes a second solo. Until now, soloist and orchestra have stayed apart, but some rapid woodwind work leads to an almost-conventional interplay between bass and ensemble. Indeed, much of the "story" of the work lies in the changing relationship between solo and tutti. In all, a beautiful, substantive work (it impressed me far more than Meyer's bass concerto), gorgeously written for (and played by) the solo instrument.

The Concert Piece for trumpet and orchestra, the earliest piece here (1976), is undoubtedly well-written, but it shows its fathers a little more than I care for. Essentially a marriage between serial technique and neoclassical rhythmic ideas, it certainly has its attractions, and I feel like a heel for not liking it more. I find the thematic ideas and habits of melody too derivative. It may suffer from its placement in CD's program. The coda, however, is a smasher and heralds the imaginative composer to come.

Fennelly composed Reflections/Metamorphoses in response to the Oklahoma City bombing. The cheap response is the maudlin one, and Fennelly has nothing to do with the cheap. There's little conventional mourning here, or conventional anger and anguish. Yet it moves you. Mostly, "it is what it is." The composer provides the structural key:

There are three primary textures: 1) the opening rhapsodic music, 2) bright, rhythmic music in the winds and percussion, which grows longer at each appearance, and 3) a melodic line in the strings, first heard as a nostalgic dance, which is transformed at each occurrence and combined with the wind music at the high point of the piece.

For me, 3) really makes the piece, gives it a warmth and humanity that gets inside you. Equally effective, especially as the work continues, are the contrasts arising from juxtapositions and ultimately the electrifying simultaneity of these ideas.

Chrysalis, Suben writes, is both an independent piece (a tone poem, if you will) and the final movement of Fennelly's Thoreau Symphony. I hate it when composers do that. They usually produce one or the other. In this case, I think Fennelly may have actually achieved the dichotomy, even though a symphony means something more specific to me than it probably does to Fennelly. It starts out sounding very much like an update of Ives's Unanswered Question, but almost imperceptibly it shifts into a slow, singing passage that definitely moves symphonically. The texture becomes increasingly canonic and martial, without ever alluding to the usual gestures of march. This transforms into a kind of display of glittering wings and excited fanfares, until it dissipates gradually into a quiet, still glittering coda. Transformation is the name of the game in this work. By the end of the piece, I'm not so sure that "tone-poem" accurately describes it. Fennelly's thoughts about a "program" may have inspired the work, but it's not necessary, or even particularly helpful, to the listener. The music is evocative, but not descriptive, and the evocation is, as with most music, of inchoate emotion.

Suben, with salient quotations, provided the useful liner notes, and his performances rock. This isn't easy music by a long shot, but Suben manages to get not only clear, but beautifully expressive playing from the Poles. The sound is a trifle bright, but acceptable.

S.G.S. (January 2003)