MUCZYNSKI Symphonic Dialogues. GRIFFES Three Poems of Fiona McCloud1. BRANDON Celebration Overture. OSBON Liberty. KLESSIG Don Juan: Meditation. LAMB J.B. II. FELCIANO Overture Concertante – Paul Freeman, cond; Czech National SO; Louise Toppin (sop); Jean-Michel Bertelli (cl) – ALBANY TROY-322 (62:58)
This recent release is a rather odd grab-bag of styles and periods in American music, from an “old master” like Charles Tomlinson Griffes to a composer still in his 30s, like David Osbon. And the entire production is introduced by the conductor himself, who reads nearly six minutes of program notes before the music begins (a little strange, isn’t it?–I wonder what the thinking was).
The most notable entry on the program is Robert Muczynski’s Symphonic Dialogues. As well represented as Muczynski is on disc today, very little of his orchestral music has been recorded. Truth to tell, there isn’t that much of it, and what little there is tends to lack the urgency, conviction, and distinction so characteristic of his chamber and solo piano works. Composed in 1965, Symphonic Dialogues exemplifies the lively, syncopated, but generic neoclassicism that was the lingua franca of American composers during the 1950s. (The title refers to the prominence of dyadic interaction among the instruments throughout the work.) The piece is well crafted, with a darkly driven quality that gives it some real bite. But its expressive range and character seem a little too comfortably contained within the parameters of the medium. Listeners who have developed a fondness for Muczynski’s chamber works will no doubt want to hear this piece for themselves. Freeman leads an incisive performance that represents the work quite effectively.
If Muczynski’s piece sounds a bit dated, consider the fact that Sy Brandon’s Celebration Overture sounds exactly as if it were written for a Midwestern college band in about 1955 — yet it was actually composed for orchestra forty years later! Lively, robust, and exuberant, it was written to honor the anniversary of a local FM radio station. According to the program notes, Brandon, now based in Pennsylvania, earned his doctorate at the University of Arizona, where Muczynski was Professor of Composition for many years. In view of their stylistic affinity, it is not unlikely that their paths crossed in one way or another. Let me be clear about one thing: in discussing these two pieces, I use the term “dated” as a point of socio-historical description — not as criticism. As regular readers know, I do not adhere to a view in which the acceptability of a musical style is determined by the calendar. My only criticism of either of these works follows from their generic, rather than individualistic, personalities.
The short-lived (1884-1920) Charles Tomlinson Griffes was probably the most artistically successful American composer of the first two decades of this century. His Three Poems of Fiona McCloud, dating from 1918, constitute by far the earliest and best-known music among the motley assortment of pieces on this disc. Along with the Piano Sonata, composed at about the same time, the McCloud (aka William Sharp) settings are his greatest works, exhibiting an opulent intensity that call to mind Strauss and even Barber. North Carolina-based soprano Louise Toppin has a lovely voice and offers a fine rendition of these wonderful songs, although listeners who are chiefly interested in the Griffes are likely to turn to other recordings that offer more compatible programs.
The other fairly ambitious work on the disc is the Overture Concertante for clarinet and orchestra, by Richard Felciano, who is currently based at USC Berkeley. This 14-minute piece was written for clarinetist Jean-Michel Bertelli, who gave the premiere in 1996. If one were to be glib and facile, one might dismiss the piece as a small-scale knock-off of John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto, as it partakes of a similarly wide-ranging eclecticism, built largely around coloristic and gestural ideas, but not without a moment or two of surprisingly touching lyricism. It is the kind of piece that can be effective in a live performance, but is not likely to sustain interest with deeper acquaintance. Soloist Bertelli does a fine job, however.
Perhaps the oddest selection is the brief “Meditation” from jazz pianist Richard Klessig’s 1996 ballet score Don Juan. This is a very simple, but very pretty fugal excerpt in a neo-Baroque style. The performance is less precise and polished than most of the others, but the music achieves its effect.
Somewhat interesting is the 8-minute tone poem JB II by Marvin Lamb, currently the Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Oklahoma. This 1985 work was supposedly inspired by Archibald MacLeish’s play JB, but whatever relationship between the two works may have been in the composer’s mind is not apparent to this listener. The music is a rather haunting contemplation in a language of attenuated tonality, and features extended woodwind solos. But the work fails to hold one’s attention in its attempt to sustain a reflective mood. This performance also is a bit rough and ragged around the edges.
Least successful of all is the 7-minute overture called Liberty, by English-born, American-trained David Osbon. The piece is supposed to be a deliberately ironic and ambivalent commentary on the history of the city of Philadelphia. However, the music itself is just raucous, unpleasant, and unconvincing.