LENTINI: Orchestra Hall Suite; El Signo del Angel; Five Pieces for Cello and Piano; East Coast Groove; Scenes from Sedona; Montage. Paul Ganson, bssn; Geoffrey Applegate, Harvey Thurmer,vln; James Van Valkenberg, Mary E. M. Harris, Cynthia Fogg, vla; Marcy Chanteaux, Pansy Chang, Tom Flaherty, vcl; Jaquelyn Davis, harp; Siok Lian Tan, Robert Conway, pft; Velvet Brown, tuba. Naxos 8.559626. 58 minutes.
What is “academic” music? For most people who think about the subject (and those tend to be composers), it’s the music that dominated the composition department at whatever school they attended, if they didn’t write that way themselves. Others see it as music studied in theory/analysis class. (How being chosen for analysis in a class or a studio makes the music itself “academic” is a little mysterious.)
As a long time observer and sometime participant in the college music scene, albeit outside the big music centers, it seems to me that there is a more meaningful and less charged way of looking at academic music. That is, academic music is music written for and played by faculty and students at music schools. That’s not meant to say that the music itself has limits that make it artistically unable to thrive outside the academy, rather that the market outside the academy is generally limited to certain kinds of ensembles. The composer of this kind of academic music writes for established types of ensembles (such as string quartets and piano trios) when they are available, but as often as not, they write for the idiosyncratic, ad hoc combinations available amongst colleagues and students.
In terms of style, this kind of academic music is neither uptown nor downtown, but it partakes of aspects of both. It is largely tonal, of the expanded variety, but is not afraid to partake of more astringent harmonies from time to time. It often shows a distinct influence of jazz and/or pop, both in melodic/harmonic materials and in rhythm. The originality in the music is most present in its orchestration, where instruments (bassoon and tuba, for example) are asked to carry roles they rarely have in orchestral music. The result (depending on the skill and vision of the composer) is appealing and accessible, without being cloying or patronizing.
James Lentini writes this kind of music, and he does it very well. He deftly combines unusual groups of instruments and makes the listener feel that there should be an entire repertoire for them. This is most immediately true (for me) in Orchestra Hall Suite, for bassoon, violin, viola, and cello. After hearing this expressive, well-made piece, one wonders why the “bassoon quartet” is not a staple of chamber music series.
Lentini, who is Dean of the School of Fine Arts at Miami University (Ohio), has a thorough understanding of instruments, how they work and how they work together. The unlikely duo of viola and harp sounds great in El Signo del Angel (The Sign of the Angel). East Coast Groove, for tuba and piano, sings and swings.
The performers, many of whom are Lentini’s colleagues at Miami, are outstanding executants of this fine music. Naxos, with this outstanding release, continues to be one of our most important record companies.
 Remember, “academic” is always a pejorative.