MICHAEL G. CUNNINGNAM, “Sonic Flight” = Violin Concerto; Dialogue for Orchestra and Wind Trio; Diaphony for Orchestra and Wind Trio; Wakefield Autumn; Kaleidoscope; Venus and Adonis – Slovak Radio Sym./Kirk Trevor /Ondrey Lebr, violin/Moravian Sym. Orch./Vit Micka – Navona Records NV5946, 69:06 (3/25/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:

Michael G. Cunningham is not a “new” name in music. He has been a veteran of the Midwest collegiate scene for awhile now. He was born in Warren, Michigan, and holds music degrees from Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Michigan, and Indiana University. Since 1958 he has concentrated on creating a large music catalog of various types of music for all manner of performance combinations. From 1973 to 2006, he was professor of theory/composition at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Clare. During that time, and since, he has created a number of theory, composition and pedagogical workbooks. Additionally, he has written books on jazz and jazz interpretation.

I am grateful for this new CD of some of his work and kudos to Navona, yet again, for issuing music by talented composers whose name might not be in the forebrain of most listeners. Cunningham certainly deserves to be better known and this is a great place to start. The center piece of this collection is the stellar Violin Concerto from 1995. This is a beautiful but dark work; filled with a sense of mystery with plenty of long line violin melody and some unsettled harmonies. This is a fairly compact three movement work that never loses your attention for its beauty and sense of something foreboding.

The other works in this collection are just as intriguing. Cunningham has written a number of works for wind instruments and there are two very interesting pieces for wind trio and orchestra (basically in concertante style): Dialogue is a dark, introspective work that has featured lines for – at various moments – clarinet, flute, bassoon and oboe (both within and without the trio.) There is a kind of dark, jazzy feel throughout but the work retains its somewhat “noir” mood.

The shorter Diaphony for wind trio and orchestra is a bit more spritely and has some decidedly spiky rhythms and a harmonic palate that carries us off in different directions.

This very nice collection closes with three separate orchestral works. Wakefield Autumn, from 1992, is a very peaceful and lovely little idyll to the northern peninsula of Michigan, but also in response to a depiction from a good friend of Cunningham’s who was from Wakefield. Kaleidoscope is a more recent work (2003) that, as the composer describes it, seeks to be “as absolute and abstract as possible.” It is a constantly changing work but one in which the ‘abstraction’ does not impede its interest and approachability.

The closing Venus and Adonis is a full ballet score based on the Greek legend and is filled with excitement, romance and the mournful sound of lost love at its conclusion.  It is a splendid work that would make a great live performance ballet as one part of a program, perhaps on similar themes. Ballet is a genre that Cunningham has written successfully for a few different times.

What I have heard of Michael G Cunningham’s music over the years, I have greatly enjoyed (he has written many other wind pieces that have yet to be recorded, including a really neat Clarinet Concerto). All I can say is that I think you would enjoy this music a great deal; especially the spacious and eery Violin Concerto!

Cunningham should be better known and more often played outside his own environs and congratulations, Navona, for making his music available!

—Daniel Coombs