LEE ACTOR: Concerto for Alto Sax and Orch. – Debra Richtmeyer, alto sax/Slovak Nat. Sym. Orch./Kirk Trevor; Dance Rhapsody; Celebration Ov. – Slovak Nat. Sym. Orch./Kirk Trevor; Con. for Horn & Orch. – Navona

by | Jun 8, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

LEE ACTOR: Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra – Debra Richtmeyer, alto saxophone/Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor; Dance Rhapsody; Opening Remarks; Celebration Overture – Slovak National Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor; Concerto for Horn and Orchestra – Karol Nitran, horn/Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor – Navona Records NV5848 (Distr. by Naxos), 70:22 ****:


Lee Actor is a new name for me and, based on this new recording of some very compelling music, a very pleasant discovery! Actor is a former violinist with the Albany (N.Y.) Symphony Orchestra and has advanced degrees in both engineering as well as music composition. Actor served as Composer-in-Residence of the Palo Alto Philharmonic in 2002, following his appointment as Assistant Conductor in 2001, and was Assistant Conductor of the Nova Vista Symphony from 2008 to 2010. He has received awards and grants from ASCAP, the American Music Center, the International Horn Society, and the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra. Actor has received commissions from the Palo Alto Philharmonic, the Redwood Symphony, the Mission Chamber Orchestra, the Silicon Valley Symphony, the Saratoga Symphony, the University of South Dakota, and the Skaneateles Festival.  In addition to the present collection of works, Actor became well known for his ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’, written for virtuoso violinist Pip Clarke and the Mission Chamber Orchestra, which was premiered in April 2006.
The first thing that I found very attractive about this disc is Actor’s ‘Saxophone Concerto’. There are not nearly as many classical concertos for saxophone and orchestra as the other wind instruments, owing in part to the relative “newness” of the saxophone in comparison to the long history of the other wind instruments and, also, due to the fact that saxophone is not a regular member of the symphony orchestra, though famous parts certainly exist in Gershwin, Vaughan Williams, Bizet and others. [But there are in France…Ed.] Most classical saxophonists do know the Glazunov concerto (and should know the Michael Nyman among great works by living composers) but place this wonderful work by Lee Actor in that same category. Actor’s three movement Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra is a gem, played beautifully here by Debra Richtmeyer, a renowned teacher and clinician from Illinois who studied with Fred Hemke. The Concerto begins with a dramatic introduction in the strings that leads into the solo saxophone. The whole first movement is filled with a sense of urgency given respite in places by the cadenzas and codas featuring the soloist alone; the music is almost rousing and gypsy like, as the composer points out. The second movement, Adagio, begins with the saxophone playing a plaintive, almost sad, solo line. Actor points out, in his program notes, that it is evocative of a street performer; “a saxophonist playing all alone at night under the light of a single streetlamp”. This mood carries throughout featuring some lovely interplay between the saxophone and some pulsating, swaying string writing. The finale, Allegro molto, is energetic and very buoyant. In structure, it is closer to sonata form than the first two movements. The music contains some more of this ethnic feel, “gypsy-like” and closes with a very lively coda. I found the writing in this piece (in particular) to be a bit reminiscent of Shostakovich in places, some Milhaud in others; but creating a very original and entertaining sound. This really is a wonderful piece that I suggest serious saxophonists should add to their repertoire.
The other “big work” in this collection is Actor’s “Horn Concerto”, performed wonderfully here by Karol Nitran, principal horn of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a fairly concise piece, approximately 14 minutes in duration. The orchestra accompanying the solo French horn is also of modest size, using woodwinds, timpani and strings. Actor explains that he avoided brass instruments in order to allow the solo horn to stand out. The first movement begins with gentle gestures in the strings, followed quickly by the entrance of the solo horn. The solo horn’s initial proclamations are intentionally reminiscent of classic hunting horn calls. A cadenza near the end of the movement allows for some drama and virtuosity from the soloist. The second movement, Adagio, features quiet and very pretty interchange between the solo horn and sustained harmonies in the strings. There is a central dramatic declamation for the hornist, punctuated by tympani, but the movement closes as it began; simply, quietly and plaintively. The finale, Allegro vivo, features the solo horn playing a long line melody in counterpoint to the more rhythmically active material in the orchestra. There is a long build-up, filled with energy and propulsion, to the climax of the movement, during which the solo horn recalls its hunting horn motifs from earlier in the work. The upper strings play a whirlwind of continuous 16th notes. The solo horn offers a brief reflective pause, and then the music rushes headlong to a rousing conclusion. This, too, is a very solid addition to the French hornist’s contemporary concerto repertory!
The three other works on the program also offer much interest! Actor’s “Dance Rhapsody” from 2010, was commissioned by the Palo Alto Philharmonic. “Dance Rhapsody” is a single movement work for full orchestra, intended to depict various dance rhythms. This very nice piece alternates some very rhythmic, punctuated dance sections with two slower, non-rhythmic interludes. The sections in the piece are “Waltz – Interlude 1 – Slow Tango – Fast Tango – Slow Tango Reprise – Interlude 2 – Fandango”  This work is enjoyable and easy to listen to.
“Opening Remarks” is a simple, short, exciting work designed as a concert opener. It calls for a modestly-sized orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The main themes or motives for the whole work are presented within the first few opening measures. There is ample energy in this work and a sudden brief coda brings the music to a near standstill, before an accelerating ostinato drives the orchestra to an exciting conclusion. I envision this work serving very well as a short, exciting and “audience friendly” opener to symphony programs in lieu of the usual opera overture, of some sort.  Lastly, Actor’s “Celebration Overture”, too, is a commission for the Palo Alto Philharmonic is a genuinely celebratory sounding work with much for the orchestra to do, especially the brass section. The composer does some very interesting things with tonal centers, orchestrations and shifts in mood but the piece succeeds mainly for its intent; as arousing concert overture of a very upbeat nature.
I am glad to have become familiar with Lee Actor! His professional resume suggests he is a brilliant guy with talents in many different fields. As a composer, it seems his music is accessible, tonal, interesting and exciting. It offers challenges but with rewards for the performers and does not tax the patience of a “typical” symphony audience. There is a need for composer just like Lee Actor and I am anxious to hear more (especially the well-acclaimed “Violin Concerto”!)  Kudos to conductor Kirk Trevor and the well-trained Slovak musicians in both of the groups represented here. Trevor has done a lot of recording, for Navona and others, of music by living American composers and I thank him for that!  Navona is to be complimented too for another sonically and visually delightful package!   I recommend this to almost anyone interested in discovering another American composer who deserves to be known but, I believe, saxophonists and horn players would definitely find these works very attractive!
— Daniel Coombs

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