Posts Tagged “orchestra”

Earlier this year I chatted with Chip Michael about the social media based ensemble TwtrSymphony. At the time, only a single movement of Michael’s Symphony No. 2: “Birds of a Feather” had been recorded. The full symphony is now complete and you can hear the complete work on their website.

The music is rather attractive, rhythmic stuff with a general tendency for thick orchestration and conventional harmony. The four movements (each 140 seconds in duration, a play on the Twitter restriction of 140 characters) takes the traditional classical approach to structure (1. Moderate, 2. Slow, 3. Dance, 4. Fast) and as a whole, the music is rather charming and well constructed. Such a short time restriction creates difficulties but Michael has a way of making each movement sound like the length is appropriate and not simply arbitrary. At around 10 minutes, Chip Michael manages to cover a nice amount of ground.

The biggest obstacle to be worked out by TwtrSymphony is in the mixing and mastering of the recording. With each part recorded in isolation by each performer using whatever materials they have on hand, assembling and crafting a master mix is a technological nightmare. At its best, the ensemble sounds pretty good (the first movement, “The Hawk Goes Hunting,” is the most successful to my ears). At its worst, the group sounds like software playback from a moderately priced set of virtual instruments. I found the strings particularly troublesome in this respect. Also, the panning is too severe and ends up highlighting the unnatural nature of the group. I think Chip Michael’s music is quite pleasant and I am willing to bet that this piece will get a fair amount of play by other ensembles. I’m also still intrigued by the nature of the TwtrSymphony and I look forward to hearing them address these sonic issues in future releases.

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music of Tod Machover

Odense Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Mann

iO Quartet

Bridge Records

  • Sparkler for orchestra and live electronics
  • Interlude 1 – “After Bach”
  • Three Hyper-Dim-Sums for string quartet
  • Interlude 2 – “After Byrd”
  • …but not simpler… for string quartet
  • Jeux Deux for Hyperpiano and orchestra (Michael Chertock, Hyperpiano)

The intersection of music and technology is one that is constantly fraught with peril. The balance between these two elements is difficult and when both elements click some sublime music can be made. Tod Machover’s career has been largely built through the application of technology onto musical environments (or the application of music onto technological environments). This disc shows that sometimes the balance is just right but sometimes technology can seem superfluous or, even worse, a detriment.

Sparkler is an appealing orchestral work that riffs on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” with Coplandish harmonies and orchestration. The live electronics are balanced well in the orchestral textures but more often than not they are overshadowed by the colorful instrumentation Machover uses on his various gestures. I don’t find that the usage of live electronics really enhances the piece to a point that they are wholly necessary.

The string quartet portion of the disc is very well handled. Two interludes, one based on Bach and the other on Byrd, are fixed media pieces meant to sound like an augmented string quartet. The textures to both of these pieces is interesting and each interlude matches up well with the following acoustic piece. The timbre of the instruments does have an edge to it that denies a purely acoustic origin. Instead of the thickening texture emerging as a surprise, an unexpected moment of “I thought I was listening to just four people,” that virtual instrument sound serves as an aural obligation for the work to build into something that the performers alone could not create.

When Machover is entirely acoustic, the pieces work quite well. The 3 Hyper-Dim-Sums are charming miniatures for string quartet, played with vigor and nuance by the iO Quartet. …but not simpler… transitions beautifully from the Byrd interlude and continues to be colorful and engaging. Machover certainly knows color and he uses all means of string sounds in this floating 14 minute movement.

Jeux Deux, a three movement concerto for Hyperpiano and orchestra, has wit and energy about it but again the technology is more often a sore thumb than an ally. It could be that piano virtuosity has reached a state where I simply can’t tell when the piano is using technology to supplement the performer but the times when the technology is ouvert, it is painfully so. Mechanical trills, devoid of humanity, are just irritating. The concept behind the piece, one that uses a computer to augment and enhance the piano’s material in real time, is an intriguing one, but to my ears this is a case of the technological idea winning over the musical implementation.

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CD cover artThe Pulitzer Project

Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus

Carlos Kalmar, Conductor; Christopher Bell, Chorus Director

Cedille Records

  • A Free Song – William Schuman
  • Appalachian Spring – Aaron Copland
  • The Canticle of the Sun – Leo Sowerby

Cedille’s initial release of The Pulitzer Project comes across as one of those great ideas that you can’t believe hasn’t been done before. With all the pomp and circumstance that revolves around the Pulitzer, it is a real shocker to find how few of these pieces are commercially recorded, much less have entered any sort of regular programming rotation. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus seek to correct this startling issue by recording early Pulitzer winners and, in two out of of three cases on this disc, provide world premiere recordings, to boot.

William Schuman’s secular cantata A Free Song won the first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943 and the piece is a contemporary of his better known Symphony for Strings (Symphony #5). The choral writing is full of strong and richly scored harmonic writing with a few excited sprinkles of contrapuntal writing. The text, From Drum Taps by Walt Whitman, seems made for Schuman’s setting. Part I is somber and solemn with an almost ritualistic quality. Part II begins with boisterous imitative fugal counterpoint in the orchestra which quickly catches fire in that typical Schuman way.

Leo Sowerby’s The Canticle of the Sun is the last work on the disc and is comprised of 11 shorter attaca movements based on text by St. Francis of Assisi. Sowerby’s music is lush and dramatic at the opening but Sowerby easily transforms the mood from segment to segment. The music is equally playful, tender, rhapsodic, bold, and joyful. While the chorus dominates the musical activity, the orchestra deftly balances its activity and blurbles so as to never get in the way of the voices. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus have created an exemplary recording of these works.

In an interesting choice of programming, this disc skips Howard Hanson’s 4th Symphony, the Pulitzer winner in 1944 and skips on to Appalachian Spring and The Canticle of the Sun, winners of the 1945 and 1946 prizes, respectively. I take some issue with this exclusion of the Hanson but I can see all sides of the situation. Cedille is aiming the disc at as broad of a market as possible. Librarian/collector folks will be interested in hearing the world premiere recordings of lesser known (or completely unknown) works. Appalachian Spring, the single most performed Pulitzer winner in the history of the prize, is going to attract a broader audience who are simply interested in that piece. Since the Schuman and the Sowerby each use chorus and orchestra, it does make a certain amount of programming sense to have those two works on the same disc, too. Personally, I would rather have a Grant Park Orchestra recording of Hanson’s Fourth Symphony than another recording if Appalachian Spring.

Appalachian Spring is, in some ways, a bit of a let down. The performance is solid and the orchestra does a great job with the piece, but this is the same Appalachian Spring that I’ve heard hundreds of times before. If the GPO would have recorded the work in its original 13 instrument form, with the full ballet score and not the shortened suite that has become so popular, then I would have been exceedingly interested in the disc. Furthermore, the longer version with its original instrumentation was the piece that won the Pulitzer, not the popular orchestral suite. There would be no better time to record that version of Appalachian Spring than this very disc.

As it stands, the disc gives good performances of lesser known works and one warhorse. It is interesting to hear how the sound world of a “Pulitzer winner” has changed in the last 70 some years. I hope the series continues and might consider putting Concerto Fantastique alongside the 1992 winner The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark due to the notoriety of the Shapey work. That isn’t going to happen, I know, but a guy can dream.

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