by Walter Simmons
MORAVEC Northern Lights Electric. Clarinet Concerto1. Sempre Diritto! Montserrat—Cello Concerto ● Gil Rose, cond; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; David Krakauer (cl); Matt Heimovitz (vc) ● BMOP 1024 (70:42)
It’s almost a decade since American composer Paul Moravec won the Pulitzer Prize, and throughout the intervening years a fair number of recordings of his music have appeared, most receiving rave or near-rave reviews in these pages (and not only from me—see Fanfare archive). However, some readers may be surprised to learn that there are many out there who are interested only in orchestral music, and pass by recordings of vocal, chamber, or solo piano music regardless of how highly it is praised. For those listeners who have been holding off on Moravec until they have the opportunity to dig into some substantial orchestral works, this new release is the one they’ve been waiting for. Here are two orchestral works of moderate length and two full-length concertos—and, performed with both proficiency and conviction, all four provide highly rewarding listening experiences.
Moravec’s music is typically notable for its busy textures, produced by generous use of tremolos and similar figurations, combined with soaring melodies—lyrical, but without obvious tonal centers, accompanied by consonant, triadic harmony also free of tonal obligations. As suggested by that description, the result often suggests an updated Bohuslav Martinu, evoking a similar sense of passionate exhilaration. For example, Northern Lights Electric was written as an octet in 1992, but was expanded to full orchestral proportions in 2000. Supposedly inspired by a viewing of the Aurora Borealis and an attempt to provide an aural analogue to the experience, the piece impresses me as one of Moravec’s most fully realized works, engrossing and delightful throughout its 12-minute duration.
Sempre Diritto! is another very satisfying work. It takes its title (“straight ahead”) from the street directions often given by Italians to tourists. Composed in 1992, it begins slowly, with rather austere, chromatic, neoclassical counterpoint along the lines of David Diamond or Quincy Porter. Although obvious tonal centers are avoided, dissonance/consonance resolutions are not absent. Gradually the music builds in intensity and the tempo quickens via diminution of rhythmic values, until it launches off into the composer’s characteristic flight of agitated motion, above which soar lyrical melodies, creating a kind of exuberance slightly reminiscent of Carl Nielsen. Eventually the work comes to a conclusion whose tonality is emphatic and unequivocal. In his notes to this work, scored for chamber orchestra, Moravec acknowledges the influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, although my own reaction was that this was the first Moravec piece I’d heard that sounded as though it might have been composed sometime around 1955-60 (not that there’s anything wrong with this).
Montserrat is a full-length cello concerto in one multi-sectional movement, composed in 2001 in homage to Pablo Casals. The work seems to evolve spontaneously, but while it may create a rhapsodic impression, it is all based on a short motif heard at the beginning. It is especially beautiful—lush and melodious, with that feeling of exultation that is never far away in a Moravec work. Matt Haimovitz plays the solo role with impeccable precision and expressive conviction. This would be an engaging point of entry for a listener not yet acquainted with the composer’s music.
Moravec’s Clarinet Concerto (2008) is more conventional in its formal outlines: three movements, the outer ones more lively, flanking a very soulful, deeply reflective slow movement. The work was written for clarinetist David Krakauer, who has played and recorded the composer’s music before. The first movement balances active, busy material with more lyrical elements, in a manner that suggests sonata-allegro form. Despite the solemnity of the slow movement, the finale returns to Moravec’s familiar evocation of triumphant jubilation. My only quibble is that I found Krakauer’s tone a little crude at times, with a vibrato that pulls too strongly on intonation.
Now is the time for my one major gripe—and it isn’t really all that “major”—one that I’ve raised before with reference to other composers: It seems to me that as part of the “new accessibility” of which we have been the beneficiaries for the past 25 years or so, composers have (sensibly) renounced the dehumanized kinds of titles foisted upon us by the New Music community during the period of “High Modernism”: Synchronisms, Relata II, Structures—you know the sort of thing. That was a time when extramusical associations or references were anathema—a contemptible slippery slope that slid perilously close to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fine. So now we find composers willing to use extramusical references in their titles, and to relate those associations to the music at hand. The trouble is, I have been finding most of these picturesque explanations and references to be largely irrelevant, useless, and—worse—distracting, prompting directions of thought that are not borne out by the music to any extent. This is not true in every case, and I’m careful to pick on only those with whom I have had this experience. But in the case of Moravec, Northern Light Electric is a fantastic piece—but as a musical corollary to the Aurora Borealis, … maybe that’s what was in the composer’s mind, but I don’t think it enhances the listener’s experience one iota. And the same is true for Sempre Diritto!, an expression that has no bearing on an otherwise delightful piece. This is something composers just might consider—what about titles like Orchestral Fantasy or Concert Overture?There’s nothing wrong with them; but unless the composer really expects the listener to follow some sort of a program, such specific references can interfere with the spontaneous absorption of the musical experience. Having said that, I will just add that the visual image that occurs to me throughout much of Moravec’s music is that of a gas-filled balloon gradually ascending into the sky, its passengers drifting over the land below in ecstatic exhilaration.
Highly recommended as a point of entry for those who have yet to discover the music of Paul Moravec.