BROUWER: Aurolucent Circles. Mandala. Pulse. Remembrances. Sizzle.
Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
NAXOS 8.559250 (B) TT: 65:05
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GLASS: Symphony No. 6 "Plutonian Ode"
Lauren Flanigan, soprano; Recitation by Alan Ginsberg; Brucknerorchester Linz; Dennis Russell Davies, cond.
ORANGE MOUNTAIN 0020 (2 CDs TT: 50:49 + 50:49
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Although she was born in 1940 (just three years after Philip Glass, two after Joan Tower and one after Ellen Taafe Zwillich) Margaret Brouwer will be a new name to many, although starting in the late ‘80s she began attracting kudos as a composer, then solidified her reputation during the ‘90s, and has become America’s foremost – and soon perhaps to be the most famous – distaff composer during the current decade. I have to confess her name was new to me until the release of this creatively vibrant and vividly performed disc from Liverpool by way of Naxos. The featured work is a percussion concerto – Aurolucent Circles in three movements – for the protean Evelyn Glennie, who gave the premiere at Seattle in 2002 with Gerard Schwarz conducting, as he does here with an orchestra he’s leaving at the end of the current season: Liverpool’s loss I’d say. With spatial writing, apart from Ms. Glennie at the center of action, it would seem to me a more suitable candidate for SACD than standard stereo, but even from two speakers Brouwer’s signature waves of sound from side to side and front to back are as startling as they are corruscating. As produced by Michael Ogonovsky and recorded by David A. Pigott, this is a new level of technical expertise from Merseyside. The dynamic range borders on awesome – from whispers of metal tintinnabulation that open the first movement, “Floating in Dark Space,” to whirligig outbursts engendered in third, “Cycles and Currents” (whose rhythmic basis is the 13th-Century “Fibonacci Number Series” – read the composer’s erudite program notes if you don’t know what that means). But the expressive crux of the work is its central and longest movement, “Stardance,” the first to be written, with “bells ringing in the solo percussion as well as the [orchestra section’s] percussion, positioned around the stage.... Inspired by the poetic physical motion of Evelyn Glennie when she performs,” Brouwer writes, “it became an important aim that there be motion as well as sound....The name Aurolucent Circles was inspired by the sparkling and lucent sound of so many of the percussion instruments used in the concerto. That, along with the circling of sound around the stage, brought to mind the aurora borealis (consisting of luminous meteoric streamers, bands, hazy curtains, and streamers of light in the night sky).” As for the virtuosic Ms. Glennie, who has commissioned some 200 works to date in her career, this one is very nearly top of the heap.

Mandala from 2001, in two movements, is an arcane but formally meticulous work for chamber orchestra, with a trombone solo in the opening movement from a Dutch psalm book with personal connotations for Brouwer. In the second movement, the musicians “whisper various texts” reminiscent of Tibetan monks who inspired the work. Pulse, written for the Roanoke (VA) Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary in 2003 (Brouwer had been their composer in residence before she become Composer-in-Residence at Indiana-U, and today is Professor of Composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music), builds from whispers to affirmation in the course of six minutes. The ensuing Remembrances from 1996 is a 15-minute “elegy and tribute to Robert Stewart who was a musician, composer, sailor, and a loved one.” It begins in sorrow but “ends in a spirit of consolation and hope” – a lovely piece, straightforward in its expressive means and ends. The concluding five-minute Sizzle was composed in 2000 as part of The Fanfares Project, 10 pieces commissioned from women composers. A choir of three trombones and horn, apart from the rest of the orchestra, is deliberately “earthbound” while the rest of the orchestra represents the fast pace of 21st-century life. The notes tell the rest, yet almost nothing about the composer, who began her musical career as an orchestral violinist (reminiscent of Taafe-Zwillich). She may seem to have come late to composition, but her creative impulses are precious indeed, and promise a further body of work as distinguished as any by her contemporaries.

Comparatively, Glass is a latter-day celebrity verging on iconhood – if you can abide his long, static, simplistic trademarks without either dozing off or suffering apoplexy. He composes prodigiously – since 1994 alone, Symphonies No. 2 through the new “Toltec” Seventh. No. 6 on this disc, a.k.a. Plutonian Ode, was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Brucknerhaus Linz (where Dennis Russell Davies is the current Chief Conductor) to celebrate Glass’ 65th birthday – a setting of Allen Ginsberg’s 1978 poem likewise entitled. It was premiered in Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra (Davies’ stateside base) on February 2, 2002, and the principal reason for its being listened to (and listed here) is the soprano soloist, Lauren Flanigan, who delivers a murderous tessitura, in both high and lower-middle voice, magnificently. Her conflation of intensity and musicality almost overrides the fact that the text at concert volume is unintelligible. Only after the performance has been completed on disc 1, and on disc 2 the late Ginsberg reads his sparsely punctuated text with the music sotto voce in the background, is Ms. Flanigan’s diction clarified.

The poem is predictably “a passionate outcry against nuclear contamination and pollution” in the first of three parts, followed by “a turn towards healing” in the second, and finally “an epiphany arrived at through personal transformation.” The reading was made on a tape Ginsberg gave Glass. This recording, however, is undated although Davies, Ms. Flanigan and the Bruckner Orchestra performed it in Linz on September 15, 2002, and were “recorded with the kind support of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, ORF.” But not until October-November 2004 and March and May 2005 was it “mixed and recorded at The Looking Glass Studios by Michael Riesman,” with “vocal recording produced by Riesman and Lauren Flanigan.” The credits go on from there like a latter day film trailer – or, you could say, like Glass’ music, which I was beginning to find not only tolerable but in some cases listenable. Not here, though. If you see it on a shelf, the cover photo is Ginsberg in a stars-and-stripes party hat, with a plaid scarf poking out from under his fuzzy coiffure and beard. Solely for Lauren Flanigan does Plutonian Ode have merit; for damn sure I’d never buy it, nor am likely to keep it.

R.D. (January 2006)