Phillip Scott
February 27, 2009

In Fanfare (31:2), I reviewed a Naxos release of chamber music by Robert Erickson (1917-1997), a California-based avant-garde composer and respected teacher. I found the music on that disc uncompelling, with the glowing exception of a late work for piano and chamber ensemble, Recent Impressions. In it, Erickson’s obsessions with sonority, Asian music, Schoenbergian Klangfarbenmelodie, and Cage-like purity came together to produce something quite individual.

The same synthesis occurs in three of these four orchestral works. Roughly the first minutes of East of the Beach (1980) are taken up by an E-natural played by various instruments or sections of the orchestra, morphing from one tonal color to another. It is just beginning to try your patience when the music overflows (as it were) into a section of atonal scene painting. For reasons that baffle me, the strings really do conjure up the tang of the Pacific Ocean. A quick, light-footed final section ends the work with a burst of highly controlled, delicately scored activity.

Erickson’s music from the 1970s onward often seems to grow from or coalesce around a single tone. Night Music (1978) is constructed over a drone on F, then C, and back to F - all of which takes 20 minutes. From those harmonic starting points, melodic tendrils spread out, creating freely polyphonic patterns. Erickson’s interest in microtonality is evident in some of the thematic lines, notably those of the trumpet. With its improvisational feel and bent notes, the trumpet sounds not unlike a free-flying Miles Davis solo. A simple drumbeat functions as a structural link, underlying both the introduction and epilogue. This is definitely Californian night music.

We are in quite a different world with the Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra of 1954. This work came at the end of Erickson’s 12-tone period, and was his last piece to use what he labeled “the old methods” (that is, traditional European thematic counterpoint). Expressionist and atonal, but still accessible, it resembles the music of Rochberg and is expertly written for the soloist.

Auroras (1982, rev. 1985), Erickson’s last orchestra piece, opens strongly with brass fanfare figures built on the interval of a fifth rather than a single tone. Though stylistically similar to the other tone poems, it makes a grander statement overall, and is more diverse in form. The pentatonic harmony and preponderance of open fifths recall Copland - at least to begin with - while the luminescence of the orchestral texture brings to mind recent neo-Impressionist composers. (I apologize for all these isms; they may imply a density that is completely absent from Erickson’s work. The composer himself described his music as “simple; easy for listeners, though not so easy for the performers.”)

Clarity and atmosphere are the bywords for these expert performances by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under their indefatigable director Gil Rose. Perfectly paced and stunningly recorded too. Popper-Keizer is decisive and sensitive in the Fantasy, as is the unnamed trumpeter in Night Music. As is usual with New World, the CD comes with detailed notes, these by Alan Rich and former Fanfare contributor Robert Kirzinger.

This is unquestionably the kind of music that draws you in and eventually grows on you. I suspect it may grow on me to the extent that it reaches my 2009 Want List.