Picks of the Year: 2003

by Walter Simmons



As I reflect on this year’s selections, I notice that for the third consecutive year only four new releases loom for me as worthy of the official Want List (although this probably signifies mainly that I should be listening to more new releases). I also note the coincidence that three of my four choices are Albany releases, which certainly speaks well for that bold and valiant company (as well as indicating some shared values).

This past year Marco Polo completed its survey of the six symphonies of Portuguese composer Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988), bringing his name from utter oblivion outside his native country to international recognition as a “neglected master,” judging from the reactions found in this and other publications, as well as on the Internet. The Fourth Symphony (reviewed in 26:6) is my personal favorite of the cycle, and I would recommend it as the best starting point for musical explorers with a taste for expansive neo-Romantic symphonic epics. Such listeners will find Braga Santos to be a rewarding creative voice with its own distinctive personality.

My Want List this year happens to include two fine examples of late-20th-century neo-Romantic opera. Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (reviewed in 26:5 and 26:6) is my major discovery of the year-a real knockout. In fact, in my review I called it, “simply the most exciting new operatic discovery I have made in the past twenty years,” adding, “What this work has to offer is exactly what opera lovers love about opera…. The performance captured on the recording is all one might wish for…” What can I add to that?

Released nearly simultaneously was Thomas Pasatieri’s operatic adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull (reviewed in this issue). Although at 58, Pasatieri is only four years older than Catán, he is a far better-known figure, having already enjoyed a prolific, if highly controversial, career as an opera composer, which seemed to have come to an unfortunate end twenty years ago. Composed in 1974, The Seagull is the ninth of his seventeen operas. Though it is not my favorite of his works, it is his first to appear on CD, and worthy of attention from all those who profess to enjoy today’s crop of neo-Romantic operas. I have always felt that Pasatieri was treated with unjustified critical venom. This release will give a wide range of listeners the opportunity to hear and decide for themselves.

Although I have listed them as a “set,” the two CDs of music by Arnold Rosner (reviewed in 26:5)-one orchestral, the other featuring chamber works-are really separate issues, released nearly simultaneously. An exact contemporary of Pasatieri, Rosner is one of the most intriguingly individual American composers working today. With archaic elements flavored by ethnic touches, and features of both neo-Romanticism and neo-Classicism, he is clearly a traditionalist, but without falling neatly into any one of the standard categories. Rosner’s work is quite accessible, and as more and more of it appears on recording, his following continues to increase. Listen to the mysteriously ecstatic String Sextet (my particular favorite on the two discs) or any of the other pieces included, to learn whether this music appeals to you; both CDs offer varied programs, well performed.

Once again, without including it on my list and blatantly incurring charges of conflict-of-interest, I wish to draw readers’ attention to a recording in whose production I was personally involved. Naxos has released, in its American Classics series (8.559148-reviewed in 27:1), the first recording of Nicolas Flagello’s Symphony No. 1, along with three other works of his, played by the Slovak Radio Orchestra, conducted by David Amos. Familiar with this symphony for more than thirty years, I would make a claim for it as the apotheosis of the American neo-Romantic symphonic sub-genre — a category whose best-known examples are probably Barber’s Symphony No. 1 and Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony. I invite those who enjoy such works to listen to this symphony, and decide for themselves whether they share my view.

BRAGA SANTOS Symphony No. 4. Symphonic Variations · Cassuto/NSO of Ireland · MARCO POLO 8.225233

CATÁN Florencia en el Amazonas · Soloists/Summers/Houston Grand Opera Ch and O · ALBANY TROY-531/32 (2 CDs)

PASATIERI The Seagull · Soloists/Gilbert/Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater Ch & O · ALBANY TROY-579/580 (2 CDs)

ROSNER Orchestral and Chamber Music · Palmer/Owensboro SO/Altoona SO/misc. chamber ensembles · ALBANY TROY-548/553 (2 CDs)