KOLB: All in Good Time (1994). KERNIS: Sarabanda in Memoriam (1997 / 2003).
HERSCH: Ashes of Memory (1999). CORIGLIANO: Midsummer Fanfare (2004). HARBISON:
Partita for Orchestra (2000).
Grant Park Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar
Cedille CDR 90000 090 (F) (DDD) TT: 76:00
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
This CD brings together recent works by American composers, both better-
and less-known, from the conservative side of things. No boops and squeaks,
no rhythmic sludge, no plug-ins. Like most such collections, some pieces
come off better than others. Without a Genuine Masterpiece Detector, I
can't tell you which of these scores will live for the ages, but that's
never the point of music, or any art, for me. Probably the least spiritual
person you will ever meet, I want music to either stimulate my mind or
stir my hormones. Most of these works pass that test.
You can get the gist of Barbara Kolb's exciting curtain-raiser, All
in Good Time, through the title. This piece concentrates on rhythm. From vigorous
opening, somewhat reminiscent of Walter Piston, the work winds down to
its opposite, an evocation of near-stasis. From there it builds back up.
Kolb largely ignores harmony and melody -- indeed, the end is mainly the
repetition of one note -- but manages to pull off an exciting work. My
reservation comes down to the performance. Kalmar seems to run out of dynamic
room and therefore gives you a crude, hammering close, rather than an ever-increasing
I've never cared for Corigliano's music, and the Midsummer Fanfare doesn't
win me to his side. In fact, it seems a compendium of his worst habits.
There's the "parting the mists of time" opening one encounters
in many others of his works, which so often sound as if somebody paid
him by minutes produced. In this case, the noodling around (because that's
what it is) lasts for slightly more than half the piece. When the work
finally gets around to chewing its thematic meat, Corigliano makes very
little of it, despite an arresting idea, as if he gums his food. Why
he get commissions?
If the Corigliano comes down to trendy padding, Michael Hersch's Ashes
of Memory diffuses a lot of good ideas and thus dulls the effect. In
two movements, the work lays out its basic material in the first movement.
I'm sure that if I were to look at the score, I'd find a standard motific
development. But music is ultimately a matter of the ear, rather than
eye. On the rhetorical level, the piece proceeds as "one thing and
then another." The far more successful second movement moves more
purposefully, but somewhere into the middle there's a restatement of
part of the first-movement exposition for no reason I can come up with.
I prefer this to Corigliano.
I haven't yet made up my mind about the Kernis Sarabanda. For some reason,
I have trouble making my way through it. Yet I recognize its superb craft
and its gorgeous string sonorities. At times, I think I'm listening to
one of the great slow movements since Beethoven; at others, I'm asleep.
The fault may lie in the monochromatic performance. Kernis dedicated the
piece to the victims of 9/11 but had conceived it as part of his string
quartet years before. He arranged that movement for string orchestra and
hence the new title and dedication. Perhaps the piece not laboring under
the burden of expectations for a suitable In Memoriam of something so far
beyond the merely tragic exorcises the curse of pretention or presumption.
Like Bruckner, Kernis dares profundity. You can't accuse him of sloughing
off. I'm just not sure how close he comes. At any rate, it's something
I'll have to listen to several more times.
Right now, I like the Harbison Partita best, but in a way, this little
concerto for orchestra strikes me as the routine well-written piece I
hate to review. There's nothing wrong with it, but neither does it contain
real risk, as I find in the Kernis. I may worry that Kernis's risk might
not pay off, but at least he took it. The Harbison more or less updates
neoclassicism with a slightly expressionist idiom. It reminds me a bit
of the Sessions Concertino for Chamber Orchestra, but without that score's
authority. Of its four movements, I like the second -- a fleet rondo
-- best. However, it also moves the most convincingly of any work here.
comes up with original, successful narrative strategies, pretty much
free of contemporary cliché. But everything stays at a certain
level, just below boiling. Nothing reaches out and grabs you. The pleasures
the piece come at you from a certain remove. The music doesn't really
change you, as even great light music (the Fledermaus overture, for example)
The Grant Park Orchestra under Kalmar presents these works in a highly
professional way and standards of playing have risen quite a bit in my
lifetime. Nevertheless, they don't reach the level of revelatory or even
vulgar enthusiasm. To me, the disc is a curiosity. How much interest do
you have in contemporary American music?
S.G.S. (March 2007)