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Kenji BUNCH – The Snow Queen: A Ballet in Two Acts – Orchestra Next/Brian McWhorter (cond.) – innova

Kenji BUNCH – The Snow Queen: A Ballet in Two Acts – Orchestra Next/Brian McWhorter (cond.) – innova #977 (6/23/17), TT: 102:33 ****:

Fantastic musical interpretation of this fairy tale classic. 

When I was asked to review these CDs, I interestingly did something that I normally don’t do. I chose not to read the liner notes until I had listened to this in its entirety. Growing up in the land of 10,000 lakes, long and cold winters were something that I knew all too well. I have my own aural preconceptions of winter “should” sound like in my own head, and I genuinely wanted to be surprised as to how Bunch and Oregon’s own Orchestra NEXT brought this classic Hans Christian Andersen tale to life for the Eugene Ballet Company.

Since the ballet is divided into two acts, there are two discs in total. Although I was not able to watch the ballet choreography while listening to the music, I honestly didn’t need to see it—the music tells the story quite well.

What I was impressed with right away on disc one was how Bunch was able to show the subtle complexities of winter compositionally. It would be easy to make the orchestration sound cold and brash, but that’s not what winter is all about. Winter is about finding the beauty and warmth around you when everything seems lifeless, and Andersen’s story of enduring friendship shines throughout this performance.

But not everything is beautiful in this winter land as we all know. While I was listening to “The Snow Queen’s Palace” and “The Snow Queen’s Dance,” I could immediately hear the influence of Stravinsky in this piece. I thought in my head, “If someone were to compose the Rite of Winter a century after the Rite of Spring, this would be it.”

Disc 2 (i.e. Act 2) starts off with a warm atmospheric sound. It hearkens back to winter Prologue on the first disc, but we can hear that the Icy Queen’s grip will be loosened soon. Each scene afterwards unfolds slowly; little by little, we can hear this world thawing. Favorites on this disc were “Gypsy Camp” and “Arrival of the Crows.” Conductor McWhorter and the exceptional 31-piece chamber orchestra do a phenomenal job from start to finish.

As I finished listening to the ballet, I finally read the liner notes written by the composer. He shares that his musical inspirations were the masters of orchestral ballet, he lists them off, and this list includes Stravinsky of course. The other quote that I was surprised to read was, “Helping to tell this hauntingly beautiful but entirely wordless story for close to two hours was, simply put, the largest undertaking of my career to date, by a longshot.”

Your efforts have paid off Kenji Bunch, and I sincerely hope you do more works like this in the future.

—Cecelia Otto

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