Picks of the Year: 2013

During the past year there were three recordings that met my criteria for Want List inclusion: a) little-known music of the past hundred years, b) in impeccable performances, and c) represented via the finest audio technology. The last criterion is not hard to achieve these days, but the first two are as elusive as they have always been.

The three composers are American, and range in age from 40 (Leshnoff) to 56 (Moravec), and all might be considered neo-tonal postmodernists. Leshnoff is based in the Baltimore area. His music, largely traditional in style, has only recently begun to surface on CD. The pieces I have heard—especially the pieces on this CD (reviewed in this issue)—display a soulfulness and sincerity that make a strong impression. The work that left me with the deepest impact of all his works that I’ve heard is the Double Concerto (violin and viola with orchestra). All the performances on this CD are excellent. I recommend it highly.

Paul Moravec is a considerably more established figure. I have included recordings of his music on previous Want Lists. He has developed an exuberant, mercurial compositional personality resembling that of no other American composer I know, although some may notice a peculiar and probably irrelevant similarity to the voice of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. What is especially appealing about this recent release (reviewed in 36:5) is that it features largely magnificent performances of four substantial orchestral pieces, including the Cello Concerto, one of the composer’s most impressive and deeply moving works.

A totally new discovery for me was the music of John Fitz Rogers, a versatile composer based at the University of South Carolina. Although he has a background in both jazz and rock, those genres are largely absent from the works on this CD (reviewed in 36:4), which chiefly follow the same sort of neo-tonal traditionalism as the two others discussed above. Also like theirs, Rogers’s music is expertly crafted, expressively meaningful, and meticulously performed. While strongly recommending this release, I look forward to hearing more of Rogers’s work, as well as acquainting myself further with the music on this disc. Leshnoff, Moravec, and Rogers are all composers whose music is rewarding on first hearing, and more deeply satisfying with greater acquaintance.

Although it was discussed at considerable length in 37:1 by me and four of my colleagues, and my own involvement in the production precludes my adding it to my Want List, I would just like to mention Naxos 8.573060, which features two symphonies for wind ensemble—one by Nicolas Flagello and the other by Arnold Rosner—that are essential listening for all enthusiasts of the wind band medium and its repertoire. Three additional pieces by Flagello are included as well, all in fine performances by the University of Houston Wind Ensemble, conducted by David Bertman.

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1. Rush ● Wetherbee/Díaz/Stern, cond/IRIS O ● NAXOS 8.559670

MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Krakauer/Haimovitz/Rose, cond; Boston Modern O Project ● BMOP 1024

J. F. ROGERS Memoria DomiSonata LunarisBlue River VariationsOnce Removed ● Various chamber ensembles ● INNOVA 707 (65:54)

LESHNOFF Double Concerto. Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush

LESHNOFF Double Concerto.  Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” Rush ● Michael Stern, cond; IRIS Orchestra; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Roberto Díaz (va) ● NAXOS 8.559670 (56:33)

Turning 40 this year, Jonathan Leshnoff is proving to be one of the most gifted traditionalist composers of his generation. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is a graduate of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and cites as his most important teachers Moshe Cotel and Thomas Benjamin. He seems to have settled in Baltimore, and is currently composer-in-residence of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, and on the faculty of Towson University.

This is Naxos’s second release devoted to the music of Leshnoff. I reviewed its predecessor favorably in Fanfare 34:3; that one featured a violin concerto and a string quartet. Looking back at that review, I see that I wrote about his Violin Concerto, “Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency.” Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing as I listened to this CD, except that I find this more recent release even more appealing by quite a margin. Like the earlier CD, each piece falls into a slightly different stylistic category, yet each remains satisfying in its own way.

Almost immediately after composing his Violin Concerto, Leshnoff was asked to write a Double Concerto featuring violin and viola. He completed the work later the same year, in 2007. This ambitious four-movement concerto grabbed me immediately. Its style is thoroughly traditional and clearly tonal in the late-romantic sense. That is, the listener will hear nothing that couldn’t have been written by a neo-romantic composer 50 years ago. This is, of course, a bold and courageous posture for a composer to take, because not only does he place himself in direct comparison with many celebrated figures of the recent past, but his chosen language makes it virtually impossible for him to avoid the “sounds like” references that so many critics use to diminish the stature of traditionalist composers and their works. I must emphasize that “sounds like” references in this review are provided solely to give the reader a frame of reference that might facilitate his forming a mental impression of what the music sounds like, not a criticism or accusation of “derivativeness.”

Lasting nearly half an hour, the Double Concerto is a serious, passionate work in four movements. Its opening movement is fraught with a grim, heartfelt pathos strongly reminiscent of Ernest Bloch. The second movement is a lively, exciting scherzo with no shortage of lyrical moments. The third movement is a mysterious nocturne that returns to the somber cast of the opening. The finale is a perpetual-motion affair that calls Shostakovich to mind; despite its continuous vigor, it ends the work on a subdued note. The solo performances, featuring violinist Charles Wetherbee (who excelled in the aforementioned Violin Concerto) and violist Roberto Díaz are truly masterly, while the orchestra, under the direction of its founder Michael Stern, provides the solid, confident support one might expect of a far more seasoned ensemble. The IRIS Orchestra, formed in 2000 as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee, is extraordinarily fine, and Stern appears to be a committed advocate of Leshnoff’s music.

Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by Stern, and is subtitled, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains.” It was completed in 2004—earlier than the Double Concerto—but is more obviously a work of the turn of the 21st century, in its emphasis on sonority and gesture reminiscent of the music of Joseph Schwantner, as well as in its passages of rhythmic stasis. The work comprises five movements, played without pause, and is supposedly a “Brotherhood of Man” sort of statement. Lately I find myself on a campaign against references to extramusical content and meaning that is not borne out by the music itself. I have no particular criticisms of Leshnoff’s symphony, which I enjoyed greatly—I just think that its pretense of “[speaking] to all humanity in an uplifting way” is irrelevant. The symphony opens with a slow introduction that produces a great sense of anticipation that is released in the energetic movement that follows. The third movement—the centerpiece—is the longest, and after an eerie opening, becomes more hymnlike, with quotations from earlier religious music, including Gregorian Chant (presumably for purposes of spiritual uplift), before returning to its initial mysterious character. The fourth movement also includes quotations and, like the second, provides rapid activity through swirling gestures. The finale, “Resolution,” is solemn and chant-like, bringing the work—like the Double Concerto—to a subdued conclusion. Despite my carping about extramusical meaning, this is a satisfying work with potentially broad appeal, demonstrating that there is still plenty meaningful to say within the symphonic genre.

Rush is a relatively short, very animated work dating from 2008 that partakes of the post-minimalist manner of John Adams and Michael Torke. It is quite successful in generating the kind of excited exuberance for which such pieces seem to strive, although Rush offers quieter moments as well.

As indicated earlier, the performances presented here are superb, and the music provides just less than an hour of fully enjoyable listening.

Leshnoff Violin Concerto. String Quartet No. 1, “Pearl German.” Distant Reflections

LESHNOFF Violin Concerto. String Quartet No. 1, “Pearl German.” Distant Reflections ● Markand Thakar, cond; Charles Wetherbee (vn); Carpe Diem St Qt;Baltimore Ch O ● NAXOS 8.559398 (56:34)

Those listeners interested in discovering new compositional voices that mbrace traditional musical values will want to know about Jonathan Leshnoff. He was recommended to me by a colleague for just that reason. Now in his late 30s, Leshnoff was born in New Jersey, and teaches at Towson University in Maryland. His music seems to be attracting an increasing number of admirers among performers and listeners. This recording is the result of the combined efforts of such enthusiasts. That is, the Violin Concerto is performed (brilliantly, I might add) by Charles Wetherbee, together with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra (who provide strong participation and support, and with whom Leshnoff is composer-in-residence). Violinist Wetherbee plays first violin in the Carpe Diem String Quartet, who perform beautifully in the other two works.

The Violin Concerto is the most immediately compelling work on the disc, and is said to have been inspired by the Holocaust (which, as usual, seems to result in whiffs of Shostakovich). Composed in 2007, it is a 25-minute work in five movements. Flagrantly and unabashedly tonal and melodic, its conventional and accessible style calls to mind the music of Lowell Liebermann, though it reveals a greater sense of expressive urgency. It is consistently and intensely gripping, with moments of much excitement as well as passages of great beauty. Despite its accessibility, it is neither shallow nor trivial. The demands on the soloist are considerable, as one would expect from a work of this kind. This is a concerto that warrants widespread attention, and one that would make a stunning impact on any concert audience. With so many first-class violin concertos composed during the past hundred years, it is hard to understand why any serious music lover would sit still to hear the hackneyed warhorses of Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch, et al.—and even harder to understand how violinists can continue to go through the motions, feigning profound feeling, without gagging.

The two other works on the program are less conventional in style and form, though they too warrant attention. Their style might be characterized as “post-modern” rather than “traditional,” due to their emphasis on texture and sonority, while their thematic elements are drawn from a variety of sources, some quite ancient. Composed in 2003, Distant Reflections is scored for violin, piano, and string ensemble, with a string quartet off-stage. This distribution of forces permits a subtle shaping of the resulting elements of sonority into an 11-minute work of haunting, ethereal beauty. Though perhaps not as immediately accessible as the Violin Concerto, it is no less satisfying, as new depths are revealed with each hearing.

Somewhat less compelling is the String Quartet No. 1, “Pearl German.” The subtitle refers to the wife of an important patron of Leshnoff’s. This work was commissioned in 2005, in commemoration of her 80th birthday. It is a “Four Seasons” piece, each movement, beginning with winter, intending some connection with each season respectively. Much of this work commands and rewards attention. However, some passages strike me as overextended, and the expressive balance among the movements seems less than ideal. But most of all, the relationship of the movements to the seasons is quite unconvincing. Nevertheless, though it may be the least impressive of them, all three works are gratifying and together they serve as a promising introduction to the music of this composer. And, as suggested, the performances are superb. I recommend this disc to all listeners on the lookout for new “neo-tonal” composers; and I look forward to hearing more of Leshnoff’s work.