JENNIFER HIGDON: On a Wire; MICHAEL GANDOLFI: QED.: Engaging Richard Feynman – Eighth Blackbird/ Atlanta Sym. Orch. and Chorus/ Robert Spano – ASO Media

JENNIFER HIGDON: On a Wire; MICHAEL GANDOLFI: QED.: Engaging Richard Feynman – Eighth Blackbird/ Atlanta Sym. Orch. and Chorus/ Robert Spano – ASO Media CD-1001, 48:55 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Jennifer Higdon is another branch of the “Atlanta School” that is making probably the biggest splash across the country today. With important teaching positions, over 200 performances a year, and a Pulitzer Prize in her pocket (for her Violin Concerto), she has risen as one of the most beloved contemporary composers anywhere. And it’s no wonder—her music is optimistic, full of life and color, soaring in its dramatic lines and bubbling rhythms, and ultimately exhilarating. On a Wire, an easy reference to six “birds”—of the chamber group Eighth Blackbird, for whom Higdon has already written two works—is actually a concerto for these six instrumentalists. With their varied capabilities of unique sounds and timbres, Higdon has a field day offering tutti and solo opportunities for the ensemble, in a delightful mix-and-match with the orchestra in a piece that is engaging, exciting, and instrumentally opportunistic. In other words, it’s a lot of fun, and substantial fun at that.

Michael Gandolfi has already made a major appearance in the recorded legacy of the ASO with his The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, inspired by Charles Jenck’s garden in Dumfries, Scotland. Another member of the Atlanta School, this piece was given a Grammy nomination for “Best Classical Contemporary Composition” in 2007, and is one of Telarc’s last SACDs.

His penchant for scientific inspiration continues here, the title referring to “Quantum Electrodynamics”, yet Richard Feynman, a Nobel Laureate, was also, according to Gandolfi, “theoretical physicist, bongo player, raconteur, practical joker. “ Feynman had a 1981 BBC interview from which the ideas of this work are drawn. Immersed in the midst of these commentaries are a series of poets like Dickinson, Stein, Whitman, and Emerson, adding a degree of high poetry to emphasize the other ideas. The work is quite the stunner with its concurrence of texts that serve as an element of unity, and Gandolfi, with his robust eclecticism and mastery of orchestration seems to improve with every new outing. The ASO Chorus is spectacular and the ASO hardly less so in this piece of great substance and deceptive simplicity in its engaging textual associations.

Great, vibrant sound only adds to the package.

—Steven Ritter

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