CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS: Symphony No. 1; PETER LIEBERSON: Neruda Songs – Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-sop./ Atlanta Sym. Orch./ Robert Spano – ASO Media

CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS: Symphony No. 1; PETER LIEBERSON: Neruda Songs – Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-sop./ Atlanta Sym. Orch./ Robert Spano – ASO Media CD-1002, 66:45 [Distr. by Naxos] ****1/2:

It seems that the Atlanta Symphony is not wasting much time in trying to catalog the so-called “Atlanta School” of composers, something that Robert Spano has expended no little time in trying to document. Christopher Theofanidis is a popular composer in the city, and with good reason: his stunning The Here and Now to texts by the pseudo-mystical Sufi poet Rumi, was nominated for a Grammy award with the Atlantans, and remains one of the most remarkable choral/orchestral compositions in the last 30 years. This is his first symphony, and knowing of his penchant for highly colorful scores and swirling, fireworks-like textures, I wondered how in the world the genre would react to an assault from such a composer.

Actually, very well. Or at least, in terms of the purely musical expression found in the work, it is immensely satisfying, with the four movements playing off one another in a structured and consistently manicured manner, and with a sense of drama and curvature. But you won’t find anything here even remotely similar to the great German line of symphonic utterance; this is not a developer’s delight. Instead, as the composer mentions himself, it is “types of energies.” This doesn’t mean that his music lacks the more traditional “hooks” that we latch on to; there is melody aplenty, albeit shortly snipped. Yet one does not listen for melody but instead the effect of the whole, and that effect is quite beautiful.

As interesting and rewarding as the Symphony is, it is the presence of Lieberson’s Neruda Songs that most whetted my appetite. This incredible score, which I consider the foremost orchestral song cycle of the last 50 years, was written for the composer’s beloved wife Lorraine, and serves as a tribute to her life’s work and marvelous artistry. The recording premiere by James Levine and the Boston Symphony was spectacular and as moving as anything you will ever hear. But one of my favorite mezzos, Kelley O’Connor, whose stunning work in Golijov’s Ainadamar first drew my attention, is no slouch even in comparison with the immortal Lorraine Hunt. There is not the affectedness of Hunt’s performance, who was in the midst of severe illness and transfigures the text into something so immensely private; O’Connor’s effort is more forward, even bolder in tone and discernment. But Rumi’s texts and Lieberson’s music—with whom O’Connor spent a lot of time learning this piece—is pliable enough to establish itself universally and not just as an obituary. O’Connor is young and on her way up, and this had to take a lot of guts to throw herself in the ring—but we are all better for it.

Spano and forces play this music as well as anyone, the conductor’s always keen ear for detail giving us a recording of great clarity and very good balance. This isn’t a substitute for Hunt’s Neruda—there will never be one—but it is a great second take, and the Theofanidis work only adds to the desirability in excellent sonics.

—Steven Ritter

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