September 16, 2016

  • New Americana Orchestral Music

     Grundstrom: An Orchestral Journey
    Omega Studios Orchestra/Erik Ochsner;
    Millenium Orchestra/Robert Ian Winstin
    Navona Records 6047
    Total Time:  78:57
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: (*)***/****

    Brian Wilbur Grundstrom composes for a the concert hall, stage, and screen.  The present album brings together five of his orchestral works from 1999-2013.  His music tends to be fairly tonal with a bit of a cinematic quality to the style as well.  The music is performed by the Omega Studios Orchestra which feels just a tad short of strings at times for the rich music written here, but that is a very small problem.

    Contentment (1999) was the composer’s first orchestral work.  This very gentle piece has a fascinating melancholy that is explored in delicate wind solos against strings.  The piece explores an almost bittersweet melody that is scored almost like what one might find in Carter Burwell.  The music has a rather intimate quality and immediately grabs the ear of the listener.  It is sort of a gentle journey with an almost bucolic feel that suggests peaceful vistas.  Some may even here a touch of Americana in the style.  There is a beautiful waltz moment that has a rather sudden harmonic shift.  One can certainly see how comparisons to Barber have been made about his music at times.

    After this rather lyrical and restrained opening, we head into the more exciting Jubilation! Dance for Orchestra (2000).  The music has a lyrical side as it begins with a variety of meter changes providing some of the interest.  It lends the feel of travel through a variety of scenes.  The piece is quite engaging, though I hesitate to say that it feels like it should move a bit faster at the front end at times.  The melodies are still quite wonderful and there is a nice conclusion.  We are in the realm of Daugherty and Puts here.

    A three-movement Suite for Orchestra (2001-2002) serves as a centerpiece on the album.  “Before the Fall” opens the suite and here it feels like Grundstrom has chosen to revisit the melodic ideas of his earlier concert work but with an almost Baroque-like intensity as the piece opens.  This continues to grow in intensity as the movement moves towards its emotional final bars with insistent rhythmic pulses.  “Avalon” is inspired by the mystical island of the King Arthur legends.  It has a rather somber quality and mysterious feel with a five-note motif idea being moved about the orchestra against a two-note ticking idea.  Of the music on the disc, this feels more like a concert version of some film scene (it recalled Roy Budd’s Sinbad music!), but feels just a bit overlong.  The final movement, “Celebration!” lends a more upbeat conclusion to the work and tempos here feel good.  This movement in particular has a very Copland-esque ballet feel.  The intricate writing comes off quite well here as ideas are explored between the strings and winds building into a wonderful “American Experience”-like conclusion.

    The American Reflections for Strings and Harp (2009) is the one work performed with the Millennium Orchestra.  The composer studied at Gettysburg College and the music here takes on that looking inward sense of one of the key Civil War battles.  Things open with a folk-like idea that starts with a bit of pizzicato string writing before a florid violin line appears.  Beautiful lyricism guides some solo lines as the plucking about them adds some fascinating textural support.  From this somewhat light and airy feel, the music begins to gain a bit more darkness as it shifts to minor harmonies and a melancholy waltz.  The style of the work again recalls a kind of mid-20th century Americana feel.  The more light-hearted music gives the work an upbeat ending, though one wonders if stopping short of this might be a better dramatic move.  There are a number of these harp and string works in the repertoire and it would be great to see this one added to some of those recordings to gain a bit more exposure and to hear Grundstrom’s approach alongside more familiar pieces.

    Chenonceau (2013) closes the disc and is the name of a French castle in the Loire Valley.  In this work, Grundstrom explores different ways to combine metrical stress with in a common meter.  This compound meter exploration (3+3+2) is then also supported by the way melodic threads are tossed about in the orchestra.  A fugue-like section brings things to a close.  This is another fine example of Grundstrom’s command of the orchestra and crafting rather engaging musical vistas.

    Grundstrom’s music is quite accessible with lyrical writing and tonal harmonies that immediately engage the listener.  Even when the music may veer into a more dissonant moment, the dramatic impulse it is following does make sense.  While the music is well-performed it feels very hesitant at times.  It can also lead to some sections feeling a bit clinical.  One wishes for perhaps the likes of Buffalo or Nashville to do this music justice, or even Erik Ochsner’s own ensemble the SONOS Chamber Orchestra which has performed Grundstrom’s music to enthusiastic audiences.  So with a sympathetic conductor, this recording at least gives those of us outside of the D.C. area a chance to enjoy his music.  There are times though when it feels like tempos could certainly move at a better clip.  The slower music comes off very well though.