David DeBoor Canfield
Momentum 21, the title of this CD of new music written for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, is meant to suggest the forward motion that this group has achieved in its artistic mission. The four composers heard herein all have individual compositional voices, and each of the featured works displays imagination and craft by its creator. The CD also is produced in tribute to music director Kirk Trevor, who recently announced his retirement after a 29-year tenure with the orchestra.
The recital opens with Triptych: Musical Momentum by James Aikman, who was appointed as the first-ever composer-in-residence with the orchestra. Aikman’s concept for this piece was a work that would serve as a musical “snapshot” of the ICO as it navigated through the changes mentioned above. The first movement, “Fanfare,” doesn’t actually begin with anything recognizable as a fanfare—the piece begins with a whispering, irregular melody in the strings—but interestingly, Aikman gradually “builds” one, even using pounding on a two-by-four punningly to portray the construction of the piece.
Aikman describes the second movement as “themtronic,” which he seems to define as “music created from musical elements of the live, written parts, and interactive with the orchestra.” Since that definition didn’t mean much to me, I Googled the term, and found exactly nothing to help, although I admit I didn’t look beyond the first two pages that were pulled up. Regardless, the gently lyrical opening spins out a nice tune over an undulating accompaniment. Instruments and textures come and go, apparently being the composer’s attempt to portray musical “particles” along the lines that his physicist colleague at the University of Michigan, Gordon Kane, did in his book The Particle Garden, the title of which Aikman borrowed for this movement. The third movement is entitled “String Fields,” and begins with a subdued passage in the harp. Shortly afterwards, the string sections of the orchestra enter with their own subdued lines, which are themselves augmented by the other instruments in an increasingly busy and dynamic fashion. Triptych is truly a remarkable work: Its dance-like quality, its pulsating rhythms, and its overtly “American” harmonies combine to suggest Aikman as a worthy successor to Aaron Copland as the quintessential composer to remind us of our nation’s musical heritage.
Heard next is Derek Bermel’s Ritornello: Concerto Grosso for Electric Guitar and String Orchestra. Bermel is an American composer, clarinetist, and conductor who has won a number of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the prestigious Rome Prize. His studies were undertaken at Yale University and The University of Michigan, and in his music, he seeks to blend various facets drawn from world music, funk, and jazz, while utilizing mainly classical instruments. (Not that an electric guitar, mind you, is necessarily the first instrument that comes to mind when one thinks of classical music!) This 15-minute concerto begins with an extended guitar solo, seemingly extemporizing along quasi-Minimalist lines, over a chord. The strings enter, at first with figurations similar to that of the guitar, but soon go their own way, while the guitar part takes quite a different turn, apparently drawing influence from the prog-rock band King Crimson, a favorite of the composer in his teenage years, and a thrash-metal (think Metallica, Slayer, et al.) solo. (Lest you think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to such groups, I hasten to dissuade you from that notion: Here, I’m forced to rely upon the program notes.) I do find this work an attractive synthesis of styles and effects, which include the distorted sound often heard in electric guitars. The skilled playing of guitarist Derek Johnson adds to the impact of the piece, and I’m glad to encounter his name and artistry, as I knew him some years ago, when he was a student at Indiana University. He is a talented composer in his own right.
Michael-Thomas Foumai’s Lady Dark inhabits quite a different world from those of the preceding works. It paints a rather Impressionistic and French-tinged tone picture, utilizing subdued and slightly astringent harmonies over which solo lines (especially in the solo flute) cut through the texture. Colors are dark, and I hear an ominous quality in this music. The composer has attempted to explore the emotions of desire, lust, and forbidden love that are found in the Shakespeare works known as the “Dark Lady” Sonnets. The piece won the 2014 Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Contemporary Music Competition, and indeed is an exceptionally strong work. Foumai received degrees in composition from the University of Hawaii and The University of Michigan, studying with Bright Sheng, Michael Daugherty, Syd Hodkinson, Paul Schoenfeld, and others.
The Concerto for Bassoon and Chamber Orchestra of Christopher Theofanidis brings the recital to its close. The work was written for Martin Kuuskmann, who performs it most brilliantly here, and begins with an extended solo, which takes the bassoonist over his entire range (up to an F in altissimo). The orchestra enters with an up-tempo accompaniment, over which the bassoon engages in flights of virtuosity, including tonguing that is quicker than I would have thought possible on the instrument. The fact that this display of virtuosity is drawn from a live performance (as are all the pieces heard on this disc) makes this performance all the more impressive. While tonal, the piece evinces little in the way of functional harmony. This is instead the tonality of, say, Lutosławski in his earlier period. Theofanidis’s use of orchestral colors is likewise most remarkable, given the relatively limited resources of a chamber orchestra, and he varies textures and moods (extending to the Middle-Eastern flavor of the second movement and the growling opening of the third), balancing everything in a most ear-pleasing way. This concerto is a most rewarding exemplar for its instrument, and should be explored by bassoonists—at least those with real chops, given the technical demands of this knuckle-buster.
Considering the excellence of both the music and performances, this disc rises to the level of the “not to be missed” category for anyone with the remotest interest in the music of our time, and is strongly recommended accordingly.