JOHN CAROLLO: Starry Night for string orchestra; Anguish in Every Household for orchestra; Quartet No. 1, “A Worded Grey Enigma”; Moravian Sax in the Afternoon for sax quartet; Transcendence in the Age of War for concert band; Nothing Shall Come of This for string orchestra – Vit Muzik, violin/ Marian Pavlic, cello / Lucie Kauka, piano/ Ales Janecek, clarinet/ Brno Saxophone Quartet/ Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra/ Petr Vronsky – Navona Records NV5844 [Distr. by Naxos], 69:51 ***:
The Navona label seems to be CRI (Composers Recordings, Inc.) for the twenty-first century. Navona recordings are made with composer participation, sometimes with the composer as producer, and thus give contemporary artists a viable way to get their music before the public. The recordings often emanate from Eastern Europe, where costs are decidedly cheaper, but that should in no way prejudice a potential buyer: all of the performances I’ve heard are highly capable and committed. That’s certainly true for the Czech musicians who lend their services to composer John Carollo on the current Navona disc.
Like at least one other Navona artist I’ve read about lately, John Carollo has had another life that did not involve music. Taking his M.S. in psychology, he worked as a mental health counselor, retiring from the Hawaii Department of Health in 2006. While he’d composed for solo instruments and chamber ensembles before then, retirement meant he could devote himself full time to composition and to establishing his own music business, Musica Baudino, which produced his first CD. Carollo is reportedly a prolific composer, so I suppose the recording industry has a lot of catching up to do as far as his output is concerned. Navona helps to bring us somewhat up to speed with this varied program, which includes chamber and orchestral works.
Starry Night, which gives the album its title and suggests its cute but hardly appropriate cover art, combines highly dissonant atonal music with diatonic polyphony in a strange mix that somehow sounds starry—at least the slow atonal opening and closing music does, with its widely spaced intervals and chilly, intergalactic dissonances. But I couldn’t help thinking I’d heard something very much like it before. That thought returned to me when the CD cycled through to Transcendence in the Age of War, a slightly grim processional for concert band that manages to coax a lot of unusual sounds from the instruments. Again, the work is dissonant, almost irritatingly so, though Carollo has the good sense to intersperse the more hard-edged music with slow ruminative bits. As the work unfolds, it seems to devolve into an overbearing parody of band music, like some out-of-control military march, and I end up thinking that if the title isn’t ironic, I don’t really get the point of the piece. The work concludes with a truly wacky cacophony of the kind you hear in many of Charles Ives’s pieces, where wild polyrhythmic accents rip through the fabric of the music.
In fact, that is the influence I heard in the first piece, Starry Night. Ives’s influence seems even more apparent in the brief concluding piece for string orchestra, Nothing Shall Come of This. If you’re not reminded immediately of The Unanswered Question, then sentence me to a music appreciation class! The same strange extraterrestrial chill falls over this music as you experience in Carollo’s Starry Night. It’s atmospheric and well done, but you can’t help thinking that you’ve heard it done before, and more memorably.
The chamber works seem to me to have more individuality and frankly make a more lasting impression. Quartet No. 1 is a restless maze of atonal instrumental lines that does seem to be enigmatic, but hardly gray. Carollo exploits the contrasting colors of his ensemble of strings, piano, and clarinet effectively throughout. Moravian Sax in the Afternoon isn’t as much fun as its title, but it is as close to whimsy as Carollo gets, and its roiling bubbling figurations, with fleeting jazzy overtones, manage to divert and engage.
The recordings, all made in the Czech Republic, are very good—powerful, highly detailed, with a convincing sense of stereo depth and spread. But if you set the volume at what is usually a comfortable listening level, be ready to cut back or else get more than you bargained for. I had to cut back a couple of times in the course of listening. [Certainly sonically better than the CRI recordings ever were…Ed.]
I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear John Carollo’s music. He’s a deft orchestrator, he manages instrumental textures very well, and he has some interesting things to say, especially in the chamber music vein. I think he’s still working to find a truly distinctive voice, but he certainly has the technical chops to make himself heard.
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre