American Record Guide
September 1, 2014

Deeply drawn to the theater and to the theatrical, Lewis Spratlan (born 1940) is best known for his opera Life Is a Dream (it won the 2000 Pulitzer) and has written several other major works for stage production, though his interest in musical drama also extends to his purely instrumental compositions. My favorite of these is his clever, entertaining, sometimes hilarious 1986 sextet When Crows Gather, recorded, with three other very enjoyable (and also extravagantly uninhibited showpieces) on Albany 725 (July/Aug 2005). Even in his works for quite small ensembles, like the 2009 Trio (for clarinet, violin, and piano) on Albany 1467 (May/June 2014, p 199), Spratlan treats each instrument as a character in a sonic drama -- in this not-untypical case a comedy -- with all sorts of playful surprises, startling contrasts, arresting gestures, and unusual timbral mixtures.

The three orchestra works on this new very-well-played-and-recorded BMOP release show Spratlan's fertile imagination working with larger forces, generating lots of pizzazz and a wide range of psychological, emotional, and even metaphysical variety. A Summer's Day, from 2008, might be thought of as a sort of loopy contemporary descendant of John Alden Carpenter's Adventures in a Perambulator. Its 16 minutes depicts -- with, surreal, sometimes dreamlike exaggeration -- a series of eight scenes from the composer's daily routine: 'Hymn to the Summer Solstice', 'Pre-Dawn Nightmare', 'High Humidity, Moist Sheets', 'Pick-up Basketball at the Park', 'Nap', 'At the Computer', 'Serene Evening, Soft Breezes, Crickets, a Distant Storm', and 'Starry Night'. Despite the prosaic headings Spratlan must live a pretty exciting inner life; from the get-go wildly incompatible episodes are abruptly juxtaposed, or superimposed, with Ivesian abandon and bizarre stylistic clashes. The opening 'Hymn', for instance, a gently lilting pseudo-English pastoral, lasts a mere 28 seconds before it is brutally interrupted by the brass's raucous shrieks and howls of his (the music, however mangled, keeps trying to return). Eventually things settle down, and nightfall brings a contemplation of the stars in their serene, remote, eternal mystery. Though I can't help feeling that Ives covered this territory more persuasively, and certainly more efficiently, in The Unanswered Question, Spratlan enlarges its scope and contributes some touching moments, as in the lovely melodic strangeness that emerges in his afternoon nap.

The Saxophone Concerto (2006) presents another sort of dramatic protagonist who traverses a bewildering expanse of much-varied territory embodied in the soloists, from the spiky and much-fragmented opening to the bluesy jazz-inflected central ballad and on to the high-octane finale that gradually returns to the pensive slow music of the opening, having ranged from moody questioning and disturbed restlessness to bluesy soulfulness and giddy exuberance and finally almost-tranquil acceptance.

The two musical characters who inhabit Spratlan's 1987 Apollo and Daphne Variations are mythic figures from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Daphne is a nymph who escapes Apollo's lust by being transformed into a laurel tree (a scene captured in marble by Gian Lorenzo Bernini's astounding 1625 sculpture pictures on the recording's cover). As in the other two works here, the music enacts its story by feverishly rooting through disparate emotions and styles, including lengthy (mis)quotations from Schumann and Strauss and even a somber fugue that sounds like Kurt Will on dope.

As the reader may have guessed, I'm not completely convinced by any of these efforts, though each certainly offers many oddball curiosities and fantasies. As whole pieces they are too collage-like for my taste -- too much music that seems meant to accompany theatrical productions. Listeners happier with style mixtures and the surreal will like them more. Whether or not you go for this release, I urge anyone even remotely interested to seek out Spratlan's dandy When Crows Gather. It's sure to "caws" you to smile.