American Orchestral Works

CD Review

American Orchestral Works: Works by Kolb, Kernis, Hersch, Corigliano, Harbison.

Grant Park Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, conductor. Cedille Records CDR 90000 090

Composers appear to be under a great many obligations these days, perhaps more than at any time in the past.  Classical music is more fragmented than ever, though this is certainly not a time of contentiousness.  A period and place such as late nineteenth-century Germany may hold that honor; the battles between disciples of Wagner, Brahms, and Bruckner being the stuff of legend.  Would that this were such a time; would that enough people cared to really start the kinds of debates that were legion back then, for these were debates that in many cases not only changed music but deepened it.  The music produced during that age is still some of the most important we have, as are the (ongoing) debates.

With little debate about what is good or bad in contemporary music, obligations rather than awareness of critiques come to the fore.  These include: the obligation to write in a virtuosic manner, to meet the demands of modern performers and instruments; and the obligation to be eclectic, in the sense of having the entire weight of common-practice music combined with the diaspora of twentieth-century music on one’s head.  Musical language, once the great obligation in music (and one imposed upon the great composers from within) is now fractured.

Many of these contemporary obligations may be observed in the works on this CD. That is why these works are particularly illustrative examples of contemporary music written for the most demanding of ensembles: the orchestra.

Perhaps this is the place to laud the performance of the Grant Park Orchestra and Carlos Kalmar, who bring the professionalism needed to this wide variety of styles, and most notably give a definitive performance of the Harbison, a complex and challenging work.


Barbara Kolb: All in Good Time

Minimalism. Much loved, much reviled; however, in the hands of a composer of consistency and consistently good and original ideas, it is as useful and important as any style of the past.  This reminds us that it is not the style but the composer which determines the quality of the music.  Kolb’s All in Good Time makes a good case for a technical defense of minimalism, and the proof of the above dictum.

What is good about this piece?  Tightly written, it starts out sounding like a good John Adams piece.  It is very colorful orchestrally (Kolb has written extensively for orchestra).  The main ideas are a blueprint for successful minimalist writing in terms of pacing and development. The middle section presents a strongly contrasting free texture for winds and percussion–a skilled compositional move.  Strings augment this spare texture effectively with lush chords; then the strings become percussive, and the minimalist texture returns to bring the piece to an effective dramatic conclusion.

So what–in my opinion–is not as successful?  There is a strong emphasis on virtuoso gesture: the opening flourish, and the lengthy parts of the A sections which often seem little more than a showcase for instrumental flash and dash, and to which the musical substance seems somehow subservient.   The Headrick and Lanman works I have reviewed in this issue each showcase a very individual harmonic and melodic language in a minimalist context; whereas the Kolb might well be John Adams, with little to distinguish it from that composer.  Although the effect of the music shows that minimalism works as a genre, the actual music itself leaves something to be desired from the standpoint of originality and quality.

Aaron Jay Kernis: Sarabanda in Memoriam

The Sarabanda is an arrangement of a piece I have known for a number of years–the second movement of Kernis’s String Quartet No. 2.  I have never really sat down and listened closely to this work until now; however, after listening more carefully to it in the current arrangement, I see that to some extent the reason for my previous lack of interest was that it appealed to me in its original form largely as background music.  In its arrangement for strings, it has moved more into the foreground.

The piece certainly belongs in the line of American works helmed by the Adagio for Strings, and could become well known as an  hommage to Sept. 11.  It shares the modal harmony of the Adagio as well, and breaks little new ground as such. It is skillfully written for its new ensemble, and is about twice the length of the Barber.

This is largely good old-fashioned music; it is well-constructed, and written during an earlier time in Kernis’ career when he likely was not saddled with as many obligations as he is now–a very successful commissioned composer–and the music appears to come from the heart.  As valuable as its contribution is as a memorial work–and among the more traditional musical elegies for 9/11, it is the best I know–it breaks little or no new ground, and I do not find myself returning to it for further enlightenment.  Perhaps this is music that could use a touch of obligation: to be at least a little new.

Michael Hersch: Ashes of Memory

This work is a second  hommage, this one to no one thing in particular. The work is interesting in that it does go beyond the Kernis in terms of musical language.  There is more chromaticism and  mood change, which is perhaps one reason it was included on this CD.  As sometimes happens with works that are more adventurous, there is also less consistency in a traditional sense.  Is this good?  In the hands of a skilled composer, pastiche actually works (see my review of the Harbison below).  In the first movement, Hersch uses seemingly incongruous musical passages to stress the elegiac nature of the slower music. For me, however, the pastiche seems more about chaos for its own sake than about evocation. That said, Hersch has an excellent sense of drama, and the end of the first movement is a spine-tingler.

In the second movement, pastiche gives way to a more consistent elegiac texture reminiscent of some of Honegger’s better work.  Here, the style feels more like that of one composer, and Hersch’s dramatic sense is shown off more consistently and effectively. As for the music itself?  Perhaps the drama ultimately gets in the way here. Although the music is more consistent, it is still hard for me to hear a strongly individual voice among the notes.  It is as if that very talent for dramatic gesture obscures the music; as if a desire–or obligation–to seek drama through disjunct eclecticism takes precedence over the music.  It becomes apparent at this point that Hersch’s kind of musical theater likely derives from George Rochberg, who felt an obligation to reflect the substantial past of music in his eclecticism.  Unfortunately for subsequent generations of composers, such an approach may make it hard to define or express an individual style.

John Corigliano: Midsummer Fanfare

In many ways, this piece is the most contemporary work of the set.  I am glad that it was premiered outdoors, as much of it is reminiscent of the best Ives “outdoor” pieces, many of which I wish might have had outdoor premieres (and more contemporary outdoor performances).  This is music of originality and verve, yet which never sacrifices the musical.  Listening to the CD tracks in order, and having heard music which meets obligations ranging from virtuosity to theatricality, I have the sense that Corigliano is primarily using his ear to compose. This is where his musical language originates, as sonically it is a wonderful work.  Because he is using his ear, the music is also highly individual; the theater and virtuosity seem to grow out of musical needs rather than obligations.

After about three minutes of this marvelous sound, Corigliano gives us a more fragmented texture, alternating the “sound” music of the beginning with more traditional interplays of instruments which, while excellent music and in keeping with the general mood, are perhaps a bit of a disappointment after the originality of the beginning.  However, not to cast aspersions this is a marvelous piece of music and one I return to, because Corigliano’s main obligation appears to be to his musical language. This shows that all that is old becomes new again.

John Harbison: Partita for Orchestra

This is the most ambitious work of the CD.  Contrapuntal writing appears to be much more in force here than in many of the other works–in keeping with the Baroque forms–which gives the music an immediate impression of structure.  This is an important and musical work, and deserves to be programmed more often.  Harbison brilliantly and carefully combines traces of closely related styles–styles which one feels should have been brought together in the past–and not just as pastiche, but in a true synthesis.  A case in point is the fabulous miniature second movement (Rondo-Capriccio), where the flip neoclassicism of “Les Six” is combined with the more serious neoclassicism of Stravinsky, and through which a mood uniquely Harbison’s is achieved.

Harbison is one of the few contemporary composers who can draw extensively on his knowledge of the past, creating passages that echo and combine the past yet are completely his, and combine that with a sure architectural skill and high technique, all the while truly hearing the resultant music in the context of a consistent musical language.

He is very good at channeling Stravinsky, especially in the third movement (Aria-Sarabande); yet here it is a warm and American Stravinsky: Harbison himself.  Devoid of the strange coldness that sometimes permeates the older Master’s work, it is at once more approachable–still with echoes of the French–and possesses a harmonic plaintiveness more akin to Roy Harris.

What of a more thoroughly original Harbison style, though? This is the work of the first and final movements.  The highly focused brass fanfare of the first movement is followed by music of insistent (and consistent) melody and harmony, which eventually recombines with the fanfare in a marvelous polyphonic climax that dies away with the same consistency and insistency as the rest of the movement.  The beginning of the final movement returns to this world of brash contrapuntal coherence, and begins to bring in the moods of the second and third movements.  Here, I feel that to some extent Harbison has been perhaps too thorough in his consolidation of entities from the rest of the piece, sacrificing the quality of the music to a pastiche of his own piece.  Perhaps an obligation to the “musical past” of the piece itself is working a little here, but with a reentry of the always compelling brass fanfare, the piece ends in a hair-raising and wonderful fashion.  This is a piece for repeated listening.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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