To the Point for string orchestra; ANDREW RUDIN: Canto di Ritorno (Concerto for Violin and Small Orchestra); GUNTHER SCHULLER: Concerto da Camera; ROMEO CASCARINO: Blades of Grass; JAY REISE: The River Within (Concerto for Violin and Orchestra) – Diane Monroe, violin/Dorothy Freeman, English horn /Maria Bachmann, violin/Orchestra 2001 /James Freeman – Innova Recordings (Distr. by Naxos) Innova 745, 73:40 ****:
Orchestra 2001 is the string ensemble in residence at Philadelphia’s prestigious Swarthmore College. Founded in 1988 by their conductor, James Freeman, this is an ensemble that specializes in new music, frequently presenting premieres and a vast repertory of contemporary works that are not as widely known as they should be. The present recording features exactly this kind of interesting, high quality programming and played with beauty and dedication.
The program opens with the brief but very nice “To the Point” by Jennifer Higdon, presently composition chair at the Curtis Institute and one of America’s best known composers. “To the Point” is actually a movement from Higdon’s string quartet, “Impressions”, and was rescored specifically for Orchestra 2001. The title itself refers to the tip of a paint brush and the many little bits of color that can be produced in the “pointillism” style of painting (like that of Seurat). “Impressions”, in fact, was written as one of the pieces used in an arts program in San Francisco where school children painted their impressions while listening to this music; and others. Like much of Jennifer’s music – which I greatly admire – this is a buoyant, upbeat and kinetic little work, very pleasant to listen to.
Andrew Rudin’s “Canto di Ritorno” is a violin concerto in one movement that was originally a sonata for violin and piano. The piece does contain three subsections with a very melodic flowing solo line that returns after being out through some chaconne-like treatment (the “return of the song” as it were) The composer, who has taught at the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts, cites some personal issues including medical concerns as an emotional basis to the piece. The “Canto” is, indeed, very dramatic, almost strident, in places and contains some clarity and beauty throughout. Soloist Diane Monroe, for whom the original “Sonata” was written as well, plays beautifully and sympathetically. I was not familiar with Mr. Rudin’s music but this piece makes a very nice introduction!
Gunther Schuller is for many the most recognized name on this program. His music has always had a vibrant unique sound somewhat influenced by the world of jazz. His “Concerto da Camera” was written for Orchestra 2001 in a co-commission with the ProArte Orchestra in Boston. This is a very exciting and interesting work with a slightly unusual instrumentation. Schuller explains that, by eliminating some of the “mellower” winds, such as clarinets and horns, the “Concerto” has a very bright sound. Schuller has certainly created a very compelling work that exists in two connected movements, a slow opening followed by a very brisk second part. This piece represents a very solid addition to the growing repertoire of contemporary chamber concertos!
“Blades of Grass” by Romeo Cascarino presents a very different mood to the other works in this collection. Cascarino was a native Philadelphian and, for many years, a theory and composition teacher at the Combs College of Music. This brief, poignant and moving elegy for English and orchestra takes its title from the equally moving poem, “Grass”, by Carl Sandburg. The poem is a breathtaking reflection on the finality of death through war and the passage of time. This piece is also the oldest on the program, having been written in 1945, just at the close of World War II. I have always found English horn to have a very moving, beautiful, reflective timbre. This piece and its tone reminded me of the famous solo part from Copland’s “Quiet City”. It really caught my attention and the feel of the piece is made more sensitive through reading Sandburg’s text but also in reading the commentary by conductor James Freeman who points out that his phone call to Cascarino to tell him of this recording was met with the news from the composer’s wife that Romeo Cascarino had just passed away the day before that phone call. Incredible. Soloist Dorothy Freeman plays the solo part beautifully and with strong emotion.
This fascinating program concludes with “The River Within” by Jay Reise. This is a full three movement concerto for violin, taking its title from a passage in a novel from 1887 by J.K. Huysmans citing the inexorable flow of a river. In three movements – fast, slow, fast – the structure is pretty traditional. However, Reise describes his use of “rhythmic polyphony”; some use of cells of rhythm derived from both Eastern music as well as jazz. This is a very exciting piece, easy to listen to and propulsive but not at all ‘harsh’. Reise has written many different works in all genres, including opera. He is presently a professor of composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Soloist Maria Bachmann performs the work with technical flourish and style throughout.
Philadelphia has been one of the great cultural centers in the country for over two hundred years with many great composers, conductors and performers claiming it as their base. This disc by Orchestra 2001 under the dedication and vision of James Freeman shows that there are many, many important people and wonderful works to be found that deserve to be heard. I applaud Mr. Freeman and his terrific ensemble for this commitment. Innova continues to provide intriguing lesser known music in wonderful performances met with superb audio engineering. This disc makes me want to find out more about all these composers but especially those, like Reise and Cascarino, whose music was a revelation for me.
— Daniel Coombs
A cascading sweep of keyboard miniatures