Herein is more proof, not that any is needed, that the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music is a remarkable institution. The proof comes in the form of the remarkable series of recordings this institution has produced. Featured on this CD is music by four composers and one arranger (Merlin Patterson, who is well known to readers of this periodical through his frequent contributions). Of the composers, only one (Robert Nelson, as professor emeritus) seems to have a direct connection to the Moores School of Music.
Beginning the proceedings is a symphony by Swiss composer Thomas Fortmann. Like Michael Colina, whose music has received several rave reviews from me, Fortmann first achieved renown in pop music circles, producing a hit at the tender age of 16. Despite his considerable success in that world, by the age of 26 he was ready to move on to new vistas, and undertook formal studies in classical music. By now, he’s the composer of two symphonies, several concertos, an oratorio, and three music plays, among other things. His Symphony No. 2, “Etruria,” apparently draws its title and inspiration from the Greek concept of pertaining to music. I say “apparently” because the notes are a bit unclear, but do seem clear in that the composer is exploring in this work the musical relationship between measure (number) and value (tone), and their audible mathematical proportions.
From the opening tintinnabulatory sounds in the percussion, the composer draws upon interesting sonorities and utilizes a number of interesting devices, including tone clusters in tonal contexts, brass chorales that penetrate through dense string textures, jolting interjections from timpani, and solo strings. This work strikes me as a musical equivalent of a “stream of consciousness” novel, as it unfolds without much obvious formal structure, and with a constant going in and out of focus in its tonality. The second movement is motoristic and percussive, resembling Miklos Rozsa on steroids, while the third opens with sounds that evoke a portion of Le sacre du printemps. To be sure, this symphony is a long way from the pop music aesthetic, and while it is no masterpiece —the work goes on longer than its material warrants—it is worth hearing, and some of its ideas are indeed wonderful.
Next on the docket is the splendid Capriccio of Robert Nelson, a work for violin and orchestra superbly presented by soloist Andrzej Grabiec, whose warm and caressing tone is perfectly suited to it. The treble-rich opening, in which the soloist floats over exquisite harmonies redolent of those of Szymanowski, shortly yields to an energetic and rhythmic section, but it isn’t long before Nelson brings back a beautifully spun lyrical line in the violin. Nelson’s style draws on elements of the music of not only Szymanowski, but that of composers such as Bartok, Piston, and Martinu —masters that one would not normally much associate with each other. Nelson has nonetheless managed to synthesize a unique and personal means of expression, and a very attractive one at that. This is my favorite work on the disc, although I have a real soft spot for the music of both Lieuwen and Grainger as well.
Lieuwen’s Astral Blue has a driving opening, and one that is rather firmly ensconced (for a time) in D Major. This piece draws more inspiration from Minimalism than other works I’ve encountered from his pen, but he succeeds in avoiding the trait of that style, i.e., incessant repetition, that annoys me to no end. There is a filmic quality to this work, because of the visual images of flight that the work brings to my mind. It soars in the most life-affirming and joyous way imaginable, and at this point in writing my review, I picked up the booklet to find that the work is intended to reflect the beauty of our earthly and cosmic environment. So my mental image of flight wasn’t too far off the mark from what the composer intended, and the composer has succeeded brilliantly in his stated goal.
The repast concludes with a delicacy by Percy Grainger as filtered through the lens of Fanfare ‘s resident expert critic, composer, and arranger, Merlin Patterson. Rather unusually in this case, Patterson has produced an arrangement of an original band work for orchestra. Now that’s not unknown by any means (Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music is another example that comes to mind), but I’m willing to bet that for every band work that’s been transcribed for orchestra, there are dozens that go the other direction. Grainger was one of the earlier serious composers of classical music who recognized the musical potential of the wind band, and wrote extensively for that medium. His Lincolnshire Posy, a six-movement suite that is certainly a concert staple of just about every band that exists, has here been transformed most rewardingly into an orchestral suite. The mark of a good transcription is its ability to convince the listener that the work was originally written for that instrumentation, and Patterson certainly meets that criterion here.
I have previously praised in these pages the conducting of Franz Anton Krager and his student ensemble at the Moores School of Music. As in past CDs I’ve heard, the results he obtains from his young people are remarkable, and serve all of these pieces very well. Highly recommended to anyone interested in new repertory.