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Joseph Schwantner: Chasing Light...; Morning's Embrace; Percussion Concerto

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  • Posted August 19, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A winner from Naxos American Classics

    The American composer Joseph Schwantner has been called a "gifted orchestral colorist". That might be considered faint praise, with an implication of superficiality. But I don't believe that true mastery of orchestral color can be achieved without delicacy, depth and drive. I'd rather think of the great masters of orchestral color - Debussy or Villa-Lobos, for example - as being colorists in the same sense that Titian was a great colorist of painting. That's raising the bar pretty high, of course, and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements of the music need at least to be along for the ride (as they always are for Debussy, and usually are for Villa-Lobos).

    Judged even by these criteria, though, I would call Schwantner's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994) a major success. I knew the concerto in its arrangement by Andrew Boysen for Percussion and Concert Band, on two different recordings from Calgary & West Texas. This new Naxos CD has the major advantage of having a full orchestra; Schwantner is working with a full palette. And not just any orchestra - the Nashville Symphony is in fine form under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero. Christopher Lamb, for whom the composer wrote this piece, provides an incredible range of sounds from his large battery of instruments. This is a major masterpiece of the last decade of the 20th century.

    Of the two other pieces on the disc, both World Premiere recordings, I was most impressed with Morning's Embrace, an evocative naturescape. Schwantner, like a few other American composers, is able to write music inspired by nature that stays out of the well-worn grooves of the English pastoral tradition and "New Age" kitsch. This is music with interesting "sound environments" (Schwantner's own words) that have a strong underlying musical logic. I was less taken, though, by Chasing Light..., though the work's appeal might just take longer to get through. I'll certainly be listening to this CD more often than most works of new music. Another winner from Naxos American Classics.

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