MORAVEC: Chamber Symphony. Cool Fire. Autumn Song. Morph. THEOFANIDIS: Visions and Miracles. L. BIELAWA: The Trojan Women. GATONSKA: Transformation of the Hummingbird. (2 CD’s)

by Walter Simmons



MORAVEC Chamber Symphony. Cool Fire. Autumn Song • Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival • NAXOS 8.559393 (45:30)

MORAVEC Morph. THEOFANIDIS Visions and Miracles. L. BIELAWA The Trojan Women. GATONSKA Transformation of the Hummingbird •String Orchestra of New York City • ALBANY TROY941 (59:18)

Now in his early 50s, Paul Moravec has emerged as perhaps the most consistently fascinating and richly imaginative American composer of his generation; since winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, his work has been steadily attracting increased attention and praise. (The premiere of his opera The Letter, based on the Maugham story that served as the basis of a terrific film starring Bette Davis, will be a highlight of the Santa Fe Opera this summer.) Moravec has been described as a “neo-tonalist,” and his music is readily accessible and appealing, yet with a distinctive identity of its own. It is clearly an outgrowth of our current period of post-modern eclecticism, rather than a representative of any established dogma of either the past or present. Moravec has greatly benefited from the advocacy of some of today’s most gifted musicians, such as violinist Maria Bachmann and pianist Jon Klibonoff and the Trio Solisti of which they are two-thirds, eighth blackbird, and the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival (led by flutist Marya Martin) and the String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC) featured here. A graduate of both Harvard and Columbia Universities, Moravec currently heads the music department of Adelphi University in Long Island, NY. He was discovered early on by Terry Teachout (music critic of Commentary and drama critic of the Wall Street Journal). Teachout’s consistent and eloquent championing has made a significant additional contribution to the growth of the composer’s reputation (while making it difficult for other commentators to write about him without seeming redundant). Teachout has noted the Mendelssohnian effervescence of Moravec’s fast music—the aspect of his work that tends to attract the listener’s attention first—as well as a crystalline lucidity to his sonorities somewhat reminiscent of Ravel. However, what has not been observed before, as far as I know (although it will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with both composers), is that Moravec’s closest stylistic antecedent is Bohuslav Martinu—another composer known for effervescent exuberance and crystalline sonorities—although there is a good deal more expressive and contrapuntal density to the younger man’s work. (Born in Buffalo, New York, Moravec is of Czech descent, although I would hesitate to attach more than coincidental significance to this connection, as I don’t discern any ethnic folk reference in his work.)

The new Naxos CD is the company’s third all-Moravec release, and it certainly merits the praise accorded both previous issues (as well as those issued by other companies) for both the quality of the music and the quality of the performances (see Fanfare 28:5 for Robert Carl’s and my comments, 29:6 for Carl’s alone, 30:6 for Peter Burwasser’s, and 31:1 for Philip Scott’s),. The Chamber Symphony was composed in 2003 on commission from the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, a longstanding summer music festival based in eastern Long Island. The 20-minute work in four movements is scored for a mixed septet that includes marimba alternating with vibraphone. The fast movements are brilliant and exciting, offset by a calm, yet mysterious slow movement; the work will be irresistible to those listeners who have already been captivated by this composer’s music. Cool Fire, of approximately the same duration as the symphony, was written two years earlier, and is scored for flute, piano, and string quartet. Teachout relates the instrumentation to Chausson’s Concert in D for violin, piano, and string quartet, although there is really nothing but the similar scoring to link the two works. The title Cool Fire suggests the tension between spontaneous expression and formal control that Moravec identifies as the crucible in which his creative efforts are ignited (as is most great music). The general spirit of the music is generally similar to that of the Chamber Symphony, although this earlier work offers perhaps a touch more euphoric exuberance, with an absolutely scintillating finale. Both, incidentally, offer the faintest passing whiffs suggestive of jazz .

In attempting to characterize Moravec’s music, a number of commentators have used the term “neo-romantic,” while then hastening to assure readers that they don’t mean to suggest the slobbering sentimentality they seem to associate with the term. As an adamant advocate of the “neo-romantic” aesthetic, I would assert that this term cannot be applied simply to any recent music that is tonal, melodic, and seems to strive toward some notion of “beauty.” There is a lot more to it than that. (Put more bluntly, no one would ever confuse Moravec with Samuel Barber or Howard Hanson—with no disparagement of any of them intended.) I prefer the term “neo-tonal” in describing Moravec’s music, as this term places it in the contemporary context where it belongs, rather than linking it with music of the past that reflects very different values.

The foregoing point is readily illustrated by the Autumn Song (2000) for flute and piano, which fills out the Naxos disc. Lyrical and melodic, this brief work, heard in a lovely performance by Marya Martin and Jeewon Park, reveals an austere beauty of its own, independent of any linkage to the past.

The Albany disc presents the leaderless String Orchestra of New York City (SONYC) in impeccable performances of a varied program of recent works. The most recent—and most impressive—is Moravec’s Morph (2005), which reveals a rather different sort of expression than that reflected in the works just discussed. Associated in his mind with both the myth of Apollo and Daphne and with Morpheus, the god of dreams (Moravec is fond of mythological and literary references), this through-composed 17-minute work “morphs” continuously and with great subtlety through a variety of moods, attitudes, and activities, from an abrasively dissonant opening, to a sensitive and delicate final conclusion. With its broader range of expression, and more consistently serious demeanor, not to mention some brilliantly intricate counterpoint, I find it to be a somewhat “meatier” work than most of the Moravec I have heard, and one that invites repeated audition.

The other works on the Albany disc warrant attention as well. The three other composers—Christopher Theofanides, Lisa Bielawa, and Michael Gatonska—are each about ten years younger than Moravec. Although I am not as familiar with his music, Theofanides seems to be another of the post-modern neo-tonalists. Born in Dallas, he studied at Yale, Eastman, and the University of Houston, and is currently on the faculties of both the Peabody and Juilliard Schools, and has enjoyed many awards, commissions, and performances. His Visions and Miracles was originally composed for string quartet in 1997. The first movement, “all joy wills eternity,” is high-spirited and jubilant, with an interestingly non-toxic use of dissonance. With its modal, dance-like melodies, in its re-casting for string orchestra it almost suggests the familiar and much-beloved genre of English string music, although I suspect that this is far from the composer’s own conception. The second movement, inspired by a quotation from Timothy Leary, explores the implications of a major scale through fragmentation and modal mixtures. But it is the last movement, entitled “I add brilliance to the sun” that I find most interesting, with its middle-Eastern-sounding heterophony, and some novel and very effective techniques of ensemble-writing. As a whole, this intriguing piece is likely to be enjoyed by a wide range of listeners, especially those receptive to tonal string music that gently pushes the conventional limits of the genre.

Lisa Bielawa is the daughter of composer Herbert Bielawa, and was associated for some time with the Philip Glass Ensemble, although she has been engendering considerable interest in her own work. The Trojan Women also began as a work for string quartet, based on music originally written in 1999 for a theatrical production of Euripides’s tragedy. Each of the work’s three sections seeks to convey an expression of grief associated with the three respective tragic heroines. As with Theofanidis’s work, the musical means used in the first two sections remain largely within the general vocabulary of early/mid-20th-century tonal string music: The first is dolorous and lugubrious; the second draws upon lively, irregular rhythmic patterns. The third section, however, dispenses with audible rhythmic pulse and displays much use of slow portamenti and other microtonal techniques, creating a very eerie effect, and giving the entire work a broader compass.

The final piece is Transformation of the Hummingbird, by Michael Gatonska. Gatonska, who appears to have been born in Poland, is another figure on the scene who has received a variety of auspicious grants and commissions. Though not an invariable guide, pretentious and deceptively meaningless program notes so often signal pretentious and meaningless music that I approached this work with a strong negative bias, which was initially confirmed by my listening experience. However, further immersion changed my impression considerably. Showing some influence of the leading Polish composers of the late 20th century, the 14-minute piece unfolds as an extremely varied and imaginative series of brief episodes that embrace a wide range of musical vocabularies. Some of these episodes are not terribly appealing, and I wasn’t always sure I detected an over-arching aesthetic meaning to the work, but the more I listened to it, the more convinced I became. It is certainly a much better piece than the program notes suggest; he should do himself a favor and junk them.

This is my first exposure to the ensemble SONYC, and I am extremely impressed by their vigorous, committed, and incisive playing, as well as by their flawless precision. As a result the CD is an excellent overview of some of the intriguing and appealing music composed in America during the past few years, in this case highlighting repertoire for string orchestra. It provides a most encouraging impression of an especially fertile creative period.