ASIA Piano Concerto. Black Light. Gateways.

ASIA  Piano Concerto.  Black Light.  Gateways – James Sedares, cond; New Zealand SO; André-Michel Schub (pn) – KOCH INTERNATIONAL  3-7372-2 H1 (51:57)

Now in his mid 40s, Daniel Asia is one of the most prominent American composers of his generation, with quite an array of auspicious awards and commissions to his credit.  He is based in Tucson, where he heads the composition department at the University of Arizona, while serving as composer-in-residence of the Phoenix Symphony, whose conductor James Sedares, has been a vigorous champion of Asia’s music.  Like Richard Danielpour and others of his contemporaries, Asia seems to be attempting to forge a new American symphonic style that is reasonably accessible and enjoyable to the general listener, while identifiable as music of today.

A graduate of the Yale School of Music, Asia studied with the late Jacob Druckman, among others.  Like many of his peers, Asia was initially drawn to the dense, highly concentrated post-Webernian serial approach that dominated college music departments in America from the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s.  Then, during the mid 1980s, he moved toward a more relaxed, expansive language that displays affinities to the American adaptation of Stravinskian neoclassicism that was fashionable during the late 1940s and early 1950s, but updated by the shimmering, translucent sonorities and pulsating textural background of minimalists like John Adams.

A number of Fanfare critics have responded favorably to previous recordings of Asia’s music.  Paul Snook (17:5) described Asia as “one of our country’s most up-and-coming younger composers,” and found his Second and Third Symphonies (New World 80447-2) to be “formally coherent and emotionally satisfying additions to the growing body of American symphonies by composers in their middle years.”  Peter Burwasser (19:1) responded similarly to a Koch disc (3-7313-2H1) featuring solo piano and chamber works, which he found “deeply satisfying on an emotional and intellectual level.  Asia transcends the sheer technical demands of his craft to achieve a powerful sense of expression.”  On the other hand, Martin Anderson (19:2) was somewhat more guarded in his comments about the same Koch disc:  “I don’t yet share all the enthusiasm of some of my colleagues, though I can imagine that [Asia] is capable of some pretty impressive sounds.”

My own reaction is mixed.  The work of Asia that I have found most satisfying is the Symphony No. 3 of 1991, a lengthy (41 minutes) effort that seems to integrate the various elements described above into a coherent statement of some individuality and substance.  But other works I have heard seem to offer too little individuality and substance along with too much Stravinsky, whose language, after all, has been mined pretty exhaustively by now.  One complaint I have about the “under-50 generation” of symphonically-inclined American composers is that their exposure to the vast range of achievements of their recent predecessors is woefully inadequate.  (Christopher Rouse is a notable exception to this generalization.)  So when they turn to models among 20th-century tonal composers, their frame of reference is usually limited to Bartók, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky—a triumvirate whose influence has been so disproportionately large as to have become quite tiresome by now.

Black Light is a 10-minute orchestral work based — as was Asia’s Symphony No. 1—on his 1987 Scherzo Sonata for solo piano.  The score, which was completed in 1990, bears a dedication to Leonard Bernstein, who had died earlier that year and for whom Asia seems to feel a sense of kinship.  However, this affinity is not reflected in any real similarity of language or — especially — melodic style.  The chief appeal of Black Light is its active interplay of imaginative sonorities.  However, the absence of a real aesthetic raison d’etre — an arresting expressive concept or idea — prevents the work from sustaining one’s attention.

More successful is Gateways, a five-minute overture composed in 1993.  Its brazen pillaging of Stravinsky’s remains is mitigated by its brevity and by a brash exuberance more readily reminiscent of the spirit of Bernstein.

Certainly the centerpiece of the disc is Asia’s 37-minute Piano Concerto, commissioned by pianist André-Michel Schub in conjunction with a number of major orchestras, and premiered by him and the Grand Rapids Symphony in 1995, the year following its completion.  Quite an ambitious work, the concerto comprises three movements, of which the central slow movement is — at 20 minutes — longer than the outer movements combined.  It is a little difficult — not to say presumptuous — to come to a conclusion about a work of this scope without allowing a reasonable time to assimilate it.  Therefore, I qualify my initial impression as tentative.  It is certainly the slow movement that I find most interesting:  very contemplative, but psychologically and expressively complex — built around a slightly Hebraic melodic fragment that recurs hypnotically in an eerie, Shostakovian manner until it eventually reaches a massive climax.  This is the deepest, most personal music I have heard from Asia.  However, the outer movements are rather like Stravinsky with post-Modern glitter — lively and playful but strangely uninvolving and not very interesting.

André-Michel Schub lends a rather delicate sensibility to the concerto, without apparent compromise of power or technical accuracy.  The New Zealand Symphony acquits itself adequately, but without the razor-sharp precision and coordination of ensemble that would be ideal.