American Music

  • Orchestral Journeys Of Water and Celtic Lands


    Legends and Light, Vol. 2
    Royal Scottish National Orchestra/David Watkins;
    Lorne MacDougall, Bagpipes; Ryan Murphy, Uilleann Pipes;
    Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Pavel Snajdr
    Navona Records 6399
    Total Time:  75:08
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Legends and Light is a second volume of new orchestral music in a series whose first volume appeared in 2018.  Navona has upped the game a bit with a move to using the Royal Scottish National Orchestra from the earlier more regional European orchestras.  Performances by that orchestra are featured in the opening four works on this release with the equally adept Brno Philharmonic rounding things off with three final pieces.  The recordings come from March and April of last year.  The album opens with a decidedly Celtic feel and then moves us into more ethereal realms.

    Helen Mackinnon’s The Rinns of Islay takes us on an episodic journey across five short snapshots of Islay.  Opening with a sense of mystery as the sun rises, the piece than moves into a rain shower, a bit of a jig, and some additional colorful landscape expressions before tapering off.  All of this us cast in a filmic modern style that includes some fine solo writing across the orchestra.  Nan Avanti moves us into a more ethnic-specific musical language enhanced by the use of bagpipes and Uillean Pipes for her romantically-tinged Tributum.  The folkish quality of the music makes it a more traditional orchestral tone poem with gorgeous melodic writing and rich string sound (it has that Braveheart/Far and Away quality).  Richard E. Brown’s Voices of the Night takes its inspiration from a Longfellow poem and moves us into a nocturnal fantasy of evening sounds, dancing shadows in the darkness, and the appearance of dawning light in this fascinating piece.  Lost Voices is a reflection of those whose lives have been tragically cut short by violence with a musical exploration to underscore the different traumatic stages as well of those left behind in Deborah Kavasch’s work.  There are some quite touching moments in this work where we move from dissonance into a richer, consonant glimmer of hope with subtle shades of wind color to help against shimmering strings.  The RSNO recordings are all fine, with a sometimes tentative feel to the performances which can feel a bit clinical in spots.

    The Brno Philharmonic is featured in three briefer pieces to close off this ample release of new orchestral music.  First up is Manannan-Legend of the Sea by Anthony Wilson.  The eleven-minute work moves through different scenes depicting the gentleness as well as the power of the ocean with the added attraction here of a mythical Irish character cast in a Neo-Romantic style.  From mythology we move onto to nuclear physics with a musical depiction of the revolving chaos of atomic nuclei in Ben Marino’s Yrast 2.0.  Small motivic ideas swirl about with slow builds in this evocative music.  The album concludes with Kim Diehnelt’s Striadica: A Symphonic Passage with a more abstract programmatic quality that connects somewhat to the approach of the piece that precedes it.

    These orchestral works provide a glimpse into new voices writing for these forces.  The pieces are all well-constructed and the program here moves well from the inviting into some of the more dissonant and abstract works which is a common approach on Navona’s releases.  Some pieces seem to work better than others which is of course a subjective reality for one’s first experience of new music.  In short, it allows a little bit of something for anyone interested in contemporary orchestral music.







  • Blending Old & New Folk Sounds


    Restless Nation: The Music of Andy Teirstein
    Cassatt String Quartet;
    Marco Ambrosini, nychelharpa; Mivos String Quartet;
    Yair Dalal, oud.  Andy Teirstein, dulcimer, harmonica.
    Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiri Petrdlik
    Navona Records 6396
    Total Time:  64:00
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Andy Teirstein is a bit of a modern Renaissance man.  His music may be familiar to some from his various scores for the BBC and PBS, but he has numerous concert pieces including a couple of operas.  He has appeared in acting roles on Broadway, television and film, and also was a musician playing with Paul Simon and Pete Seeger among others.  Teirstein was a composition student of both Leonard Bernstein and Henry Brant.  He seems to have melded the interest in popular music forms into classical genres from the former with a sense of harmonic exploration from the latter.  In this new release, we get to hear three somewhat intimate pieces for string quartet that show this expansion of the genre itself by incorporating folk instruments, rhythms, and melodies.  It lends the music a bit of a global quality that attempts to transcend its source material.  Three of these works demonstrate his approaches in the quartet genre, slowly moving us from a traditional ensemble to an expanded one.  The album also includes a little orchestral suite to wrap things up.

    The opening piece, Restless Nation, is for a traditional string quartet.  A burst of nervous energy has a semi-minimalist feel at first but soon there are echoes of folkish melodic shape and sound.  The former eventually bursts forth as a quotation of the fiddle tune “The Hangman’s Reel” in the final movement.  A bit of that Scottish snap rhythm comes forward in the penultimate movement as we move closer to his source folk tune inspiration.  Moments of calm provide a glimpse at Teirstein’s lyrical writing, but the work is filled with intriguing, syncopated rhythms that provide a continuous sense of forward motion.

    Secrets of the North was inspired by an Isak Dinesen story and this is a suite extracted from a larger work that also included narration and other folk instruments.  The nine brief movements here feature a Nyckelharpa, a bowed Swedish instrument that is a distant cousin of a Hurdy-gurdy.  This provides the music with a distinct ancient feel with its sound adding a more modal harmonic quality.  The music has the feel of ancient Renaissance dances as a result.  It is a distinct shift in sound that again blends the modern sound of contemporary string quartet writing with a more folkish style.

    For Azazme Songs, Teirstein shifts gears to Middle Eastern inflections by incorporating an oud as well as a dulcimer.  The latter is a sort of substitute aurally for another strummed psaltery-like Arabic instrument.  Across the four movements, we get a somewhat intimate set of impressions that explore the unique sounds of these instruments coupled creating an interesting sonic landscape.  The small cells of material provide an interesting, repeated hook that alternate with thematic ideas.  The music here tends to come the closest to popular folk music at times.

    The final work on the album is for harmonica and orchestra.  Letter From Woody was inspired by a love letter that the composer found in the Woody Guthrie archives.  Also from an extended theatrical work, this piece also explores some of the folk performance techniques that appeared in the opening quartet now writ large across a larger ensemble.  The music here starts out quite folk-like but moves more into a contemporary feel.  That said, there are some humorous musical quotations that appear in the score and connect well to the implied story behind the text.

    Teirstein’s music is quite accessible and his incorporation of folk and global music gestures are integrated into a more composite hybrid sound melded into his personal style.  The music has that global music feel while also staying firmly rooted in more contemporary concert music.  Those familiar with the early developments of New Age music that appeared in the 1980s will discover here that next step with music that has its feet in the concert hall but reaches out to expand to new realms.

    Performances throughout are excellent with a nice blend of the quartets with their respective solo instrument.  The nyckelharpa seems like an instrument that has a softer quality and that comes through well here (part of this is also due to Teirstein’s compositional approach that helps draw this out).  An interesting release of mostly chamber music with that global touch.  The album is available in both a physical cardboard blister pack as well as a digital download.