We'll call it in the air: 2015 is going to end up being a great year for music. The albums that have impressed us the most over the year's first six months are a varied lot. There's enormous ambition on display here, epic works crafted to bust boundaries or reshape at will (check out that three-hour debut album), but also intensity in small gestures: a pair of devastating albums about loss, two more anchored in the sounds of sisterly harmonies. As we reach the year's mid-point, take a moment to listen with us, ears wide open to a great six months of music.
Saddening news. Gunther Schuller has died at the age of 89. A musical polymath, Schuller was active as a composer, conductor, arranger, historian, educator, arts administrator and, earlier in his career, French horn player. He pioneered the concept of “Third Stream” music: works that combine influences and materials from jazz and classical music.
"Curious, isn’t it, that the last really great symphony…was Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, date 1945, exactly coincident with the end of World War Two? It is as though that apocalyptic bomb had demolished not only Hiroshima but, as a side effect, the whole tonal symphonic concept as well.
And so for the last thirty years we have had no real symphonic history."
The title of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's superb disc of music by Elena Ruehr is 'O'Keeffe Images', which refers to her triptych of works inspired by paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. They are wondrous pieces, abounding in sonorous awe, grandeur and imagination, as befits the images that stimulated the American composer. A similar sense of urgent brilliance pervades the three Ruehr works preceding the O'Keeffe collection.
Elena Ruehr studied with Persichetti at Julliard and Bolcom at the University of Michigan. These are all her works for orchestra.
Shimmer (1995), for strings, moves in harmonically static blocks of diatonic counterpoint. It is a glowing (shimmering) dance with grace and a folk-like feel, elegant and Coplandesque, with a dash for minimalism for flavor.
Andrew Norman (b. 1979) studied at USC, where he currently teaches, and then at Yale. He lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, traditionally the most dangerous part of the city (I guess it's been gentrified by now). He has been a contributor to New York's Bang On a Can group as well. The combination of those locales tells a great deal about Mr Norman's work, for which he was a recent Pulitzer Prize finalist.
When Elena Ruehr (b. 1963) received her musical education (University of Michigan and The Juilliard School) in the late 1980s, melody wasn’t even considered as a part of modern music theory classes. Fortunately, one of her teachers—George Balch Wilson—recognized her gift for it. Now she sees melody as “the most complex and human of musical experiences.” Raised in a family of amateur musicians (her mother sang folk music and early jazz standards), she learned the piano at age five. Her passion as a dancer infuses her music with a distinctive rhythmic pulse.
I have already mentioned a few times here of the extraordinary work of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its leader Gil Rose and its label (41 discs since 2008!). This time, it offers us the music of Andrew Norman, an explosive composer in his mid-thirties, which was developed during a two-year residency with the orchestra. The 46-minute Play explores brilliantly the possible modes of play of the orchestra, playing the musicians either together or against each other, for example.
Irving Fine, Complete Orchestral Works
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor
BMOP Sound 1041
This disc is a most welcome retrospective of American composer Irving Fine, who died in 1962. Fine was a member of the so-called “Boston Six” or “Boston School.” Other members of the Boston School included Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Harold Shapero.
When preparing to webcast 24 hours of orchestral music written in the 21st century, it is advisable to seek out expert opinions. For Q2 Music's Symphomania: 24 Hours with the 21st-Century Orchestra, we turned to champions of the field for their take: What are the thrills and challenges of conducting this music? Have any trends emerged among new works? How, if at all, is the symphony orchestra evolving?
The four orchestral works of composer Elena Ruehr that are assembled on this alluring disc by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project are striking for their combination of rhapsodic, almost sinful lushness and a robust force that keeps the effect from cloying. Her signature orchestrational move is to pull you in with the strings and then let the brass punch you in the gut, and it works every time — even when you know it’s coming. Even the overall course of the disc works that way.
“Play,” which the Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned from the fast-rising composer Andrew Norman in 2013, is being talked about as the most important long orchestral work of the 21st century. That kind of hype can often be misleading, but in this case it’s quite likely accurate. The 45-minute, three-movement work, which encompasses various meanings of play — some lighthearted, some sinister — begins in an almost spastic fit of energy; musical ideas ricochet off one another furiously, almost too quickly.
Disastrous winters live long in historical memory. For example, there is the blizzard that hit the Great Plains in January of 1888, which caught many who lived in the Midwestern territories unawares. Known as the Children’s Blizzard, the storm trapped students and teachers in their one-room schoolhouses where they remained for days. Many who ventured out into the storm succumbed to frostbite. Others froze to death. In conservative estimates, several hundred people died.
If you’d like a glimpse of the future of symphonic music — or if you just want to know what devilish majesty the New York Philharmonic will shortly unleash — this two-year-old YouTube video from the Proms in London is a good place to start. It shows the world premiere of Thomas Adès’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), which the Philharmonic will perform March 12 through 14.
To the list of those such as Toccata who fill the gaps of neglected music, I’m happy to add the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Some of their releases have been too avant-garde for me, but there’s nothing about these recordings of the music of Irving Fine to scare the horses. In fact much of the music is as direct in its appeal as fellow American composers Aaron Copland – Fine’s older contemporary – and Leonard Bernstein.
Boston's Jordan Hall was host to a concert version of Tobias Picker's 1998 setting of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox on December 7. A good-sized crowd from very young to older folks had assembled to hear Gil Rose lead his two ensembles, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera, in a costumed semi-staged performance of this "family opera". Picker prefers to use this term to describe his morality tale, fearing that "children's opera" is a term frightened with an assumption of "dumbing-down".
This is one of two recordings from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) of which I received an mp3 preview. I regret that the other was well removed from my comfort zone.
I’m not aware that I have encountered the music of Elena Ruehr before, though there are two recordings of her music on Avie, one of which, also recently released, with the generic title Lift, contains chamber music (AV2319). The earlier CD, of music for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra was well received, though we seem to have missed it here at MusicWeb International (AV2263).
Irving Gifford Fine (1914-1962) was an American composer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Fine studied with Walter Piston at Harvard earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. He studied conducting with Serge Koussevitsky and composition with Nadia Boulanger. At the time of his death at age 47 he completed only a handful of works for orchestra, chorus and various chamber ensemble and solo works. But what he lacked in quantity did not lack in quality. The Irving Fine Society maintains a very useful web page which can be found here.
The composer and New Kensington native William Thomas ("Tom") McKinley died on Feb. 3 at the age of 76. Born on Dec. 9, 1938, Mr. McKinley is best known for concert music composed in the jazz idiom but had forays into neo-classicism, atonality and electronic music. He attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1956, where he met his longtime friend and colleague David Stock, a local composer and the founder of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, who describes him as "one of our most important Pittsburgh artists of any kind."