SCHWANTNER: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra.. Velocities. New Morning for the World

SCHWANTNER  Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Velocities. New Morning for the World. Evelyn Glennie (perc);Vernon Jordan, Jr. (spkr); Leonard Slatkin (cond); National SO – BMG/RCA Victor 09026-68692-2 (61:19)

Among those American composers who reached maturity after the early 1960s, a chief concern has been the creation of music with an appealing enough surface to leave an audience with a positive first impression. However, in much of this music, further exposure seems to offer little in the way of significant content. This is especially perplexing in the case of Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943), because the initial impact made by his music is often quite sensational — an impression further confirmed by this recent release. In fact, on many levels this recording is an absolute knockout– especially in the two works featuring the phenomenal percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie, whom I coincidentally had the opportunity to hear in a live performance just a few days ago, an experience from which I am still reeling. The other work — New Morning for the World — is no less impressive in many ways.

But Schwantner’s music has left me with ambivalent reactions since I first heard it. More than fifteen years ago, in Fanfare 7:2, I wrote, “On the one hand, an authentic musical sensibility can be discerned, together with an impetus toward direct and clear communication, and a gift for combining highly imaginative sonorities with affecting  melodic/harmonic motifs. . . . On the other hand, . . . one begins to realize that Schwantner’s range is quite narrow, relying on a small number of different devices: richly colored ascending arpeggios that are subsequently fragmented and re-articulated through staggered, interlocking effects; delicate use of percussion; lusciously orchestrated pyramids that build dramatically, often to solemn quasi-chorales, which cut abruptly to hushed, awesome, slightly elegiac quasi-hymns, squeezing every last tear from poignant appoggiaturas.”

By now, New Morning for the World, an orchestral composition that incorporates spoken passages from the speeches of Martin Luther King, seems to have become Schwantner’s best-known work. It is also probably his most accessible, and this is its third recording — quite remarkable for a piece in existence a mere sixteen years. It projects King’s eloquent words against a sumptuous sonic backdrop of glittering orchestral resplendence, formed from essentially simple melodic and harmonic material, without including any elements of vernacular Black music. It is not at all unlike Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in aesthetic concept, while reflecting a late 20th-century sensibility. Reviewing its first recording, I wrote, “I suspect many will be quite bowled over by it. . . . Here . . . Schwantner embraces the symphony orchestra’s capacity for richly romantic expression, thereby enhancing the almost hypnotic intensity of King’s words. The work builds to a climax of great emotional power, which some listeners will liken to a corresponding point in Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra.” Indeed, one needs a pretty hard heart not to be swept away by it, although at the time I found the experience of listening to it “somewhat like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response.” Nevertheless, twelve years later, I found the work to have retained its power, writing (in Fanfare 18:5), “It is an enormously effective work, as satisfying in its way as Copland’s enduring memorial to Lincoln. . . . The brilliantly scored music combines elements of an urgent, exhortatory nature with hushed, fervent, hymnlike passages, which ultimately merge in an ecstatic climax whose effect is hard to resist.”

Obviously, I have done this much self-quoting because I find that my earlier words continue to apply today. What needs to be added is the statement that of the three performances — all of them excellent — this new one is the best with regard to orchestral playing and sound quality. However, narrator Vernon Jordan (a much more familiar figure as I write this today than he was a few months ago when the disc was released) is the poorest of the three, with a flat, constricted, “corporate” sort of delivery, lacking the pathos and nobility imparted by both Willie Stargell and Raymond Bazemore respectively. For this work I would recommend the Koch disc that also contains Nicolas Flagello’s equally moving Passion of Martin Luther King, with the Oregon Symphony under the direction of James DePreist. Though as a bass-baritone, Raymond Bazemore cannot do justice to Flagello’s sometimes demanding arioso, as a speaker in the Schwantner he is quite eloquent.

Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto was written in 1993-94 on commission from the New York Philharmonic and was dedicated — as were a number of works at the time — to the memory of composer Stephen Albert, whose life had ended prematurely the previous year. The concerto is nearly half an hour in duration and features some twenty different percussion instruments. Schwantner has a very recognizable “sound,” deriving from a rather distinctive combination of harmony, gesture, and timbre, and this piece is identifiable as his within the first ten seconds. Interestingly, the harmony and gestures call to mind the heavy progressive jazz of the early 1950s — say, the sound of the Stan Kenton band, or of the filmscores Henry Mancini was writing at that time — while a strong predilection for metallic sonorities (even in pieces in which the percussion section is not explicitly highlighted) clearly dates it as post-1975.

The concerto is a tremendously exciting showpiece, involving the featured instruments in lots of activity, well organized into a coherent statement.  The long, elegiac second movement, “In Memoriam,” makes the strongest impression, as the concert bass drum, playing a reiterated motif that symbolizes a heartbeat, is used (somewhat unconventionally) as the point of focus, building to quite a moving climax. But the outer movements, as much fun as they are to listen to, do not really leave a substantive impression.

Velocities, a seven-minute solo for marimba composed in 1990, is a virtuoso showpiece in perpetual motion, featuring a rapid interplay among irregular note-patterns. It fulfills its purpose nicely enough, but, similarly, doesn’t make that much impact.

Many readers are probably already familiar with the extraordinary talents of Evelyn Glennie, a Scotswoman, deaf since adolescence, who is well on the way to becoming the first classical percussion superstar. She displays a profound sense of almost mystical union with her music-making, a sense that performance is a desperate life necessity for her, so that in observing her one almost feels as if one is intruding on a personal act of religious devotion. This is the sort of music-making one may feel fortunate to witness even just a few times in one’s life.

The conductor of this new BMG recording, Leonard Slatkin, has been a consistent advocate of Schwantner’s music for quite a few years now, and reveals his affinity for it in these brilliant performances.