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Posted August 19, 2011
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.
Posted July 25, 2011
Joseph Schwantner has been one of America's very finest composers and among our best known for quite some time now. My first exposure to his music was hearing his 1979 Pulitzer prize winning "Aftertones of Infinity". Other listeners may know his sweeping Copland-esque "New Morning for the World" utilizing the words of Martin Luther King. All of Schwanter's music is imbued with a keen sense of drama and creation of some wonderful tone colors and sonorities. This new disc in Naxos' ongoing "American Classics" series is indeed another brilliant addition to that series but showcases some of the sounds that Schwantner is best known for. His three movement "Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra" is a brilliant tour-de-force for the soloist; in this case the incredible Christopher Lamb. There are moments in this work that are reminiscent of Holst or Stravinsky but also of Schwanter's other output. He is a composer who has always known how to best utilize the percussion section and the mystery and introspection of the middle movement is met by the drive and energy of the outher two. The other works on this album are just as captivating. "Morning's Embrace" was written in 2005 for the National Symphony and Leonard Slatkin. Like Schwanter's other work, "A Sudden Rainbow", this picturesque work opens with tinkling metal percussion and open, plaintive strings. "Morning's Embrace" very effectively evokes a sunrise and makes great use of majestic harmonies that are commented on or "interrupted" by percussion and piano. Similarly, "Chasing Light" is a brilliant four movement work, each movement articulating some aspect of light, including the last movement that evokes both the title and the mood of "Morning's Embrace". This wonderful work is a product of the Ford "Made in America" commissioning consortium. All of this music makes me realize why I have always liked Joseph Schwantner's music since hearing "...Infinity" in Chicago awhile ago. He is a gifted and accessible composer with a unique voice. The performances on this disc are worth special mention. The Nashville Symphony has been around for awhile and has always, as I recall, been a good ensemble but one without a lot of recordings to bolster their reputation. They rather burst back into recognition with a great "Made in America" CD with Leonard Slatkin and the music of Joan Tower. Now, Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero has his ensemble playing at a very high level on this CD. The solo work is excellent and the sound is clean and balanced. Using American music to gain exposure for an orchestra that more people need to know is precisely what Leonard Slatkin, who I admire a great deal, did in St. Louis. This disc reminded me of those days and it sounds to me like Mr. Guerrero is taking the Nashville Symphony in that same direction. That would excite me a great deal and I look forward to more!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.