ORCHESTRAL MASTERS, VOLUME FOUR • Mikel Toms, cond; Brno PO • ABLAZE 00033 (77:46)
RICHMOND Ctrl + Alt + Del. O’DELL Refractions. BECK Serenade. McNAIR Hopyard Overture. LOWRY A Cypress Prelude. HUANG Red Moon. QIAN Cosmic Overture. WIELAND Sinfonietta. AKHAVIJOU Vasna. PERCOCO Involutions of an Abyss
Ablaze Records has been presenting powerful new music to the record buying public for some time now. The orchestra used here, the Brno Philharmonic, is a splendid ensemble (Brno is a city saturated in music, so that hardly comes as a surprise) and the engineers have captured a rich, full, yet detailed orchestral sound with a real sense of space and perspective.
We begin with the wonderfully named Ctrl + Alt + Del, a key combination I imagine most of us know as a way to get out of all sorts of trouble with Windows. Given that the combination is of three keys, Jason Richmond set out to score the work in groups of threes: As the composition process expanded, so did the composer’s version of the “Ctrl + Alt + Del” process itself; it also took on metaphorical meanings of dumping what one does not need in life. The score is urgent, and unrelenting in its intensity if not in its dynamics, itself possibly a reflection of the world we live in. Pounding repeated chords towards the work’s end are heard against held high and low notes reminiscent of the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony. A lecturer at the University of Northern Kentucky, Jason Richmond has a powerful voice.
Adam O’Dell’s Refractions is a tone poem inspired by white light flowing through a prism and the resultant transformations. There is indeed a kaleidoscopic aspect to the movement of combinations of lines, while a background tonal basis enables dissonances to take on real power; and enables the tonal, or mainly tonal, sonorities to take on a sort of internal glow as well as, at the climactic moment, a real sense of triumphalism.
A reimagining of the second movement of his Fifth String Quartet, Jeremy Beck’s Serenade is a refreshing palette cleanser, performed with a light touch here. Named after a state park in Connecticut, Hopyard Overture by Jonathan McNair is a cleverly constructed, really rather powerful piece. McNair describes how he used the “storyboarding” technique of film, applying it to sonorities derived from sets with limited pitch-interval content; the latter part might imply a severity that is far from the whole story, though. There is tenderness here, and the Brno strings flourish in just those moments. Christopher Lowry’s A Cypress Prelude, a depiction in music of a southern cypress tree but also a tribute to that tree, is delightful and wrought with an incredibly sure hand. The voice is pure American, and all the better for it. The Brno orchestra seems to immerse itself in Lowry’s language.
Taiwanese-born composer Ssu-Yu Huang contributes a piece, Red Moon, inspired by the Chinese legend of the lunar eclipse in which a flying dog eats the moon. That is a terribly simplistic synopsis, of course, of a tale that includes a Jade Emperor and the Gates of Hell, no less. The point is that Huang’s piece is superbly atmospheric. It is highly programmatic, but like the best program pieces, it stands perfectly well on its own. Huang’s grasp of sonority is exceptional; and she implies an Orientalist feel to the whole while working within Western contemporary sound and with Western instruments. The confidence of the performance implies generous rehearsal time.
A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Liang Qian contributes Cosmic Overture. Nothing like aiming big: In eight minutes the work seeks to explore the Universe itself, human nature, and truth. There is a decidedly neo-Romantic slant to some of the melodies in this well-crafted piece that does not quite live up to its own, self-generated expectations.
The Sinfonietta by Suzanne Wieland is the first part of a larger projected piece. This time it is Neoclassicism that is at play. In her own notes she mentions Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, and there is something of that composer’s language hiding underneath the work’s more active sections; Copland influences yet other moments beyond a shadow of a doubt. And yet for all that referencing other composers, there is a language here waiting to emerge that could be very individual. It will be interesting to hear how the rest of the piece pans out.
Iran-born composer Ramin Akhavijou graduated from the University of Tehran in 2015. A multiple award winner for his compositions on an international platform, he is currently investigating, scientifically, the sound of nature itself. The title of the present piece, Vasna, comes from the primary collection of texts in Zoroastrianism, and means “everywhere.” Setting up a number of strata, Akhavijou aims towards a “multi-dimensional” time, a technique that on one level seems to reference Birtwistle. Akhavijou has less of that composer’s chthonic earthiness: Flights of fantasy in the form of avian woodwind seek to take us upwards, whether registrally or spiritually (or both). The harmonic basis of the piece is incredibly consistent and as a result the musical surface can sustain extremes easily (and, indeed, does so). The performance is remarkable in its understanding of the processes at work and also in its ability to convey the crushing power of Akhavijou’s dissonances, not least at the very end when a single simultaneity is used to halt a seemingly ongoing rhythmic process. Remarkable.
Finally, Bryan Percoco’s Involutions of an Abyss is a piece that debuted via a recording in Ostrava in 2015 which has yet to reach Fanfare Towers. Percoco presents a muscular work that, metaphorically, moves in and out of the “abyss.” It is not quite the Lovecraftian frightener the title may imply but it is a superbly orchestrated work and one that seems perfect to close the disc.
Comprehensive notes and a superb recorded sound confirm this disc as of the top drawer. Colin Clarke
This article originally appeared in Issue 41:4 (Mar/Apr 2018) of Fanfare Magazine.