STEVEN STUCKY: Rhapsodies; American Muse; Concerto for Orch. – BMOP/Sanford Sylvan – Naxos

This important American composer left a rich legacy you should get to know.

STEVEN STUCKY: Rhapsodies; American Muse; Concerto for Orchestra – Boston Modern Orch. Project/Sanford Sylvan, bari./Gil Rose – BMOP multichannel SACD 1050, 56:34  (11/15/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The gifted American composer Steven Stucky just passed away last year and fortunately he left behind a rich myriad of music in nearly every genre for us to enjoy and to appreciate his talents for orchestration, harmony and – that most elusive of “modern music” qualities – melodic line.

The BMOP and its dedicated and talented director Gil Rose have done Stucky’s music many times and has its own rich legacy of recordings of modern music to marvel at. This present recording is well worth having both for it being another well-done collection of contemporary American concert music but for being an important addition to the Steven Stucky recording compendium.

These three works are all quite interesting and attractive. Rhapsodies was written in 2008 for Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic to take on their pending European tour. This relatively brief (nine minute) work is, indeed, ‘rhapsodic’ and the work is filled with the most exquisite harmonies and voicings that seem to channel Debussy in places. This is a very rewarding work.

My favorite work in this collection is the middle selection; the absolutely transcendental song cycle, American Muse. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999 – an orchestra with which Stucky was closely affiliated for many years – this a collection of four songs for baritone and orchestra on themes of Americana. The four poems which serve as the text are “American Lights Seen from Off Abroad” by John Berryman, “Buffalo Bills” by e.e. cummings, “Delaware Water Gap” by A.R. Ammons and the often set to music “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman. The quality and impact of Stucky’s writing are bolstered by the performance and vocal timbre of the great Sanford Sylvan, best known for the number of John Adams scores he has premiered. American Muse is a simply wonderful piece of music and Stucky’s setting of the Whitman is the finest I have heard.

This collection close with Stucky’s appreciable and powerful Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1988 with Riccardo Muti and the Philadelphia Orchestra as part of a series of commissions in celebration of the bicentennial of the Unites States constitution. With the earliest work in this set, I agree with BMOP booklet annotator Donald Crockett that the three-movement Concerto does contain some stylistic similarities to the work of Witold Lutaslawski, a composer who Stucky admired a great deal. This very  exciting and compelling piece stands its ground as one of the truly impressive works in that genre and titled as Concerto for Orchestra; including Lutaslawski’s own. In fact, if we examine works of this genre just by American composers I place Steve’s on a short list of the best along with those by Joan Tower, Christopher Rouse and Jennifer Higdon.

I have been a fan of Steven Stucky’s music for many years now and was saddened when he died rather suddenly. I recommend this wonderful and sonically pure recording to all those who already admire Stucky’s music but also enthusiastically to those who have never heard it before. It is truly rewarding.

—Daniel Coombs

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