by Walter Simmons
AVALON Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 10. Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 31 Larry Rachleff, cond; Foundation for Modern Music Orchestra; Robert Avalon (pn); Megan Meisenbach (fl); Mary Golden (hp) CENTAUR CRC-2484 (65:13)
Robert Avalon has been creating something of a stir since last year, when Centaur released the first recording devoted to his music. Fanfare’s John Story, reviewing that CD, which featured a violin sonata, a flute sonata, and a song cycle with chamber ensemble, wrote in 23:3, “Speaking as someone who loves the complexities of 12-tone and serial music, …I can honestly say that I absolutely love this well-recorded disc of intensely melodic, firmly tonal music by composer/pianist Robert Avalon. This is, for me, Want List material.” And Mark Lehman, reviewing the same disc in the American Record Guide (January/February, 2000), described the music as “old-fashioned, lovingly crafted, and direct in appeal, with richly tonal harmonies and soaring melodic lines that might have come from the pen of many a late-romantic composer of a century ago…. This is a full hour of consistently engaging music that bypasses questions of anachronism by virtue of its dramatic sweep and authentic emotional power.” While such comments seem to herald a new figure on the scene, this Texas-based composer — born in San Antonio in 1955, now living in Houston — has been gradually developing a grassroots following of remarkable proportions. Without an academic affiliation or any other institutional association that might have helped to spread his reputation, he seems to have been attracting enthusiastic partisans simply on the basis of his own engaging, energetic self-confidence, and the authentic appeal of his music itself. In the process he has been developing an ensemble of performers in Texas committed to his music, and more recently, a similar group in Europe; he has also formed a non-profit Foundation for Modern Music with its own orchestra, and a competition for young composers, not to mention assembling a host of benefactors who believe enough in the value of his work to provide support for his ventures.
As can be gleaned from the comments quoted above, Avalon is a real traditionalist, one of the relatively few members of his generation — the better-known Lowell Liebermann is another—to follow in the general aesthetic footsteps of Samuel Barber. While the previous compact disc introduced us to Avalon’s chamber and vocal music, this new release presents two works of considerably larger scale. The piano concerto, composed in 1986 on a commission from the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, is a work of Brahmsian breadth — four movements lasting 45 minutes — although its actual musical language is closer to that of Prokofiev and even Shostakovich. (I mention these composers as general points of reference; Avalon’s music doesn’t really resemble anyone else’s very much.) A work of such scope is not easy to sustain, but Avalon does fairly well for the most part. The 20-minute first movement is the strongest, built upon a distinctive motif introduced at the work’s stern, portentous opening. The movement is dramatic in character, with a sort of “doomed hero” quality. The consistent focus on the main motif provides coherence in a movement that might otherwise seem sprawling. The scherzo that follows is effective; echoes of Prokofiev are most noticeable here. The third and fourth movements, however, posed some problems for me. The third movement is evocative and moody, but a stronger melodic identity would serve to focus the listener’s attention more successfully. The fourth movement seems diffuse to me. Its material is not characterized strongly enough nor is it sufficiently distinguished from the previous movement. Lacking strong thematic or expressive contours, neither movement holds the listener’s attention during initial hearings. Avalon is an accomplished pianist, and he serves as a strong advocate for the concerto; conductor Rachleff has collaborated frequently with Avalon and the two seem to work comfortably together.
Avalon’s Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Strings is a much more recent work — composed in 1998 at the request of the two soloists heard here. Despite the genre indicated by its title, its structure is more suggestive of a “fantasia,” though that is not to suggest that the work is lacking in real musical substance. Yet again there is something elusive about its expressive content. As one would expect from the instrumentation, the concerto has many quasi-Impressionistic features, though its textures are lush without being rich — paradoxical as that may seem. Without diverging from its overall Neo-Romantic aesthetic, it is nevertheless rarefied in its susceptibility to apprehension, with an attenuated sense of tonality. This work also would benefit from more strongly characterized thematic contours. The two soloists fulfill their roles admirably.
Greater familiarity and deeper acquaintance with Avalon’s music are necessary, before the true depth and durability of its perceptions can be assessed. But his is clearly an authentic sensibility, with sound, solid musicianship. But a distinctive personal voice is not yet apparent. Avalon is currently at work on a major project: a full-length opera based on the fascinating story of Carlota, wife of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, during the mid-1800s. I am most eager to discover how he handles a work of this nature.