The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s first in-house recording on its new label, ASO Media, is out this week, distributed on CD by Naxos and as a download on amazon.com and other sites. It’s a strong showing of music co-commissioned and premiered by the ASO from two of its regular composers, Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi. And it is fitting that ASO Media’s debut promotes populist living composers, which has become the orchestra’s specialty.
There are two other ASO Media recordings set for release later this year. Christopher Theofanidis’ “Symphony” — another ASO commission — is paired with Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs,” sung by mezzo Kelly O’Connor. The third release, for this fall and timed to promote an ASO performance at Carnegie Hall, will be a Rachmaninoff disc with the “Symphonic Dances” and Piano Concerto No. 3 with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. ASO Music Director Robert Spano conducts all three.
The ASO Media debut is sure to catch a lot of attention, especially since Higdon is flying so high just now. She’s among the most performed living American composers, with a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto and major commissions stacked up for years to come.
Last June, the ASO premiered Higdon’s “On a Wire,” where the venerable concerto grosso form, popular in the Baroque, meets the 1960s experimental theatrics of George Crumb.
“On a Wire,” a birdie title, was created for orchestra and the new-music sextet called Eighth Blackbird. The members — covering piano, flute, clarinet, violin/viola, percussion and cello — step out from the larger ensemble for brief solos or sing as a unit. At several transition points, in performance, they all gather around the open piano and bow or pluck the strings, giving the concerto an eerie sound element and strong Crumb-like visual component.
Musically, the concerto is pure Higdon, showy, exuberant and beautifully crafted. There are jaunty rhythms that evoke Aaron Copland’s Americana and the melancholy lyricism of Samuel Barber, fused together in Higdon’s bright and energetic style. The concerto’s fragrant, nocturnal middle section includes marimba flutters that sound like a breeze passing through a bamboo forest, with the other instruments offering tender reflections.
The comparison isn’t exact, but the concerto seems like a classical music equivalent to ‘80s pop, with an aesthetic that’s bouncy, boppy, naïve (or at least not world-weary) and fun on its own terms.
As I wrote of the premiere, it “aroused so many of the audience’s hot spots across its 25 minutes that the crowd was prepared to cheer before it was over. At the climactic rush and the thwack of the bass drum at the end, the audience erupted, hollered, stood, smiled, laughed with communal euphoria and — this is key — gave the petite Higdon, when she walked to center stage, the loudest and lustiest ovation of all.”
Michael Gandolfi’s “Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman,” which premiered at the same concert with “On a Wire,” is an unusual misfire, not clever enough by half. There’s a lot of background. Gandolfi had been impressed with the brilliant Nobel-winning physicist’s eccentric memoir “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and rediscovered the mad/wise scientist via compelling BBC interviews on YouTube. These became the musical inspiration, with bits of poetic texts drawn from Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and others. In performance, we watched two brief Feynman interview videos before the orchestra and chorus offered the music. But none of that is apparent from listening to the CD.
Although Gandolfi is chairman of New England Conservatory’s composition department, “Q.E.D.” at times sounds like a turgid student work. It’s his first work for chorus and orchestra, which might (but shouldn’t) explain why the choral writing sounds like choral recitative, with one syllable per note, and why the text setting is often not intelligible. Gandolfi’s orchestra channels John Williams’ Hollywood, and parts of “Q.E.D.” sound like Copland’s “Rodeo” relocated to Walden Pond.