November 5, 2018
McEncroe Symphonic Poems
Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Anthony Armore
Navona Records 6082
Disc One: Total Time: 58:58
Disc Two: Total Time: 48:20
Anthony Armore and the Janacek Philharmonic have been busy recording the music of John McEncroe the past couple of years with an earlier massive album of music for piano and orchestra. Here, the orchestra explores purely orchestral music. McEncroe tends to compose music that connects with his personal life struggles. One of these, Echoes of a Haunted Past, appeared on the earlier 2017 Navona release is an example of this. Another, A Pageant at the County Fair, was from the composer’s already massive second symphonic suite and was extracted to be this standalone movement. In this collection of ten orchestral symphonic poems, the composer explores further these aspects in two other works. Seven of the pieces are depictions of nature. The music has been orchestrated by Mark J. Saliba.
Disc one focuses on these natural world musings of Fall. Summer’s Last Hurrah has a late-18th Century feel before we move into a more Romantic, filmic flow with a style that seems to be a parallel to Howard Shore’s scores with touches of English Impressionism and mid-20th Century orchestral style. That Old Indian Summer has an interesting combination of repeated motives that bubble along in different layers. This gives way to more full orchestral statements of the little thematic motive. The music of Mid Autumn’s Deep Colours does take on a slightly darker tone with lower registral writing and a sort of somber musical idea. Movements in the Night is a slowly-unfolding work that moves its slight motive across different winds in a slightly more descriptive modern nocturne with moments of mischief in between lighter expressions. A melancholy feel, reminiscent of a Carter Burwell score, opens An Early Autumn Morning. The music moves through this idea with an interesting shift into slightly more open harmonic and unisonal writing that gives the music a slightly different edge than what preceded it. However, at over twenty minutes, it seems just a tad too long. The long, slow walk to the final bars is marked by long swaths of melody and anvil hits which seems rather unusual as the percussion section begin to come more into the texture.
Disc two continues these walks into the forest with the hesitant, Deep in the Wilderness. The orchestration sparkles a bit in this work, though lines sometimes feel almost random. A more impassioned crescendo brings us out of the darkness in The Passing whose primary melodic idea is soon lent to a brief violin solo. Hints of darkness blend with throbs and thrusts that move toward a climax and then pull back to go in a slightly different direction. This particular work is a new reworking from what appeared in an earlier release by the composer. Echoes from a Haunted Past, like some of McEncroe’s other poems here, can feel like a shortened study in preparation for a larger-scale work. Here too is that lyric writing with its folkish quality. The music of A Pageant at the Country Fair does have some slight ancient modal and musical line stylings in this tone picture. All of this culminates in the equally unwieldy A Celebration of the Natural World, a seventeen-minute work with some rather warm melodic ideas. In a sense it is a perfect culmination of what has preceded it with a few more surprising harmonic moments and relaxed attitude. The charming waltz idea is perhaps the album’s greatest highlight in a work that has far more engaging thematic ideas.
McEncroe’s lines and melodies tend to spin in a meandering way picking up energy or transferring across the orchestra with subtle color shades. The pieces feel often like a stream-of-conscious style that stays close to its picturesque intent. Harmonic writing is also simple. He likes to take a small phrase and then repeat this, often verbatim, finding moments to recall what has happened before. This gives the music a formless feel from time to time. One might also say there is a timeless quality to this music as it does not make demands on the listener, apart from the sometimes repetitive writing, and is intended to invite one along on a musical walk through which ever natural or emotional landscape McEncroe wishes to explore. The orchestra does a fine job of working their way through these massive works. Different soloists are given some opportunity to shine as well. As one might expect, some of these symphonic poems work better than others and they do tend to blur together. The listener can perhaps take the title as a departure for creating their own cinematic narrative with the music as support if they are open to following the whims of this Bax-like style. The final work of the album proves to be the finest of the lot though.