Phillip Scott
September 1, 2008

Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) teaches at Tanglewood, so it is reasonable that his music should appear on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s label. This band, under its music director and conductor Gil Rose, is dedicated to the performance and promotion of contemporary American music. The members have successfully recorded several CDs for other companies, but this program and a recording of John Harbison’s ballet Ulysses are the inaugural releases on their home label. The fact has been a while in the offing. Well, it is here now, and the results are brilliant.

Gandolfi writes intelligent music. In each of these works the composer puts his impressive technical facility at the disposal of a specific idea. In Y2K Compliant, an orchestral triptych, his stated aim was to compose “computer music” that could be played on conventional instruments. Hence, some rhythmic phrases wittily suggest the tendencies to skip and/or repeat which bedevil digital machinery to this day.

As we know, dire fears of a catastrophic Y2K network shutdown turned out to be unfounded; computers, as usual, failed to act as predicted. The composer presciently ignored the gloom and doom scenarios: his work is bright and smart, borrowing some of the language of minimalism to make its effect. The central movement, “Analog Dreams,” brings warm string sonorities, lyrical lines, and even a violin cadenza—things a computer could only ever dream of achieving.

Themes from a Midsummer Night utilizes chamber forces. It is a suite of 10 movements, some very short, taken from a score commissioned to accompany a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Aside: This play continues to fascinate composers. I am glad to see that Henze’s Eight Symphony, also inspired by the Dream, has at last appeared on CD.) Gandolfi’s suite is unified by the instrumentation—piano, for instance, plays an integral role throughout—and also by what I can only term a magical quality. This is delicate, subtle, and supple music. Because of deadline pressures, some of it was lifted from the composer’s earlier works inspired by Pinocchio, but were it not for the invaluable notes by Robert Kirzinger, I would have never suspected.

There is much here that is conventionally tonal. The movement “Apotheosis…Morning” is basically all major triad or sixth chords accompanying an unvarying pentatonic motif on trumpet.

The keys beneath this theme modulate at random, bringing a suitably unsettled, unanchored feel to the piece. The penultimate movement, “Time Dream,” pits repetitive phrases of unequal length against each other—five notes against six and so on—over a walking figure in the piano. These are among the simple but effective methods Gandolfi uses to evoke a world where perceptions of time and place are fluid.

Points of Departure, the final work on the disc, is the earliest, composed in 1988 as part of a commission from the Orpheus CO. In four movements, it utilizes double woodwind quintet and 16 strings as a point of departure to suggest other sounds: high percussion and chimes, for example. Kirzinger aptly describes the tonality as “fundamentally twelve-tone, but with definite areas of harmonic stability.” The faster sections of the first and fourth movements are propelled by a swirling contrapuntal energy. Points of Departure has been recorded previously by the Orpheus CO and DG. That disc is still worth tracking down, not least for the companion pieces by Lerdahl, Druckman, and Bolcom. There is little to choose between the two Gandolfi performances; both are first-class. The Orpheus players are recorded more in close-up than the BMOP, while the latter’s dynamic sound has a brighter sheen to the treble.

In sum, an unmissable release, I hope one of many more from this source, featuring music that marries thoughtfulness and “sheer entertainment value” (Kirzinger again), stunningly performed and recorded.