THEOFANIDIS: Symphony No. 1. LIEBERSON: Neruda Songs.
Kelley O'Connor (mezzo), Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano, cond.
ASO Media CD-1002 TT: 66:45.
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Music vs. pretty sounds. Don't get me wrong. I like music that sounds
good, just as I prefer to live in a pretty, as opposed to an ugly,
Theofanidis's symphony prompted all that. His earlier Rainbow Body, on
a Telarc disc with works by Barber, Copland, and Higdon, received a high-profile
sendoff and seems well on its way to establishing a place in the repertory.
I liked the piece, although I thought Telarc did it no favors by putting
it in such powerful company.
I know that boundaries of the symphony have fuzzed up as music has gone
on. Unfortunately, I cling to rather definite ideas of what a symphonist
should do, ideas that have only tangential relevance to things like sonata
form. Some of my favorite symphonies avoid sonata altogether or warp
it to near unrecognizability. Nonetheless, all of them provide some sort
musical argument or narrative.
I should like Theofanidis's symphony more than I actually do. It begins
brilliantly with a germ -- a single line -- that the composer ingeniously
expands for a full minute, until it crashes into an orchestral tutti
of oriental opulence. The opening movement dazzles with one inventive
or theme after another, and the composer makes clear their connections
to one another and to the "germ." A score analysis with pencil
and paper would yield interesting fruit. For me, however, the movement
never overcomes its sectional rhetorical nature. One passage seems to follow
another almost arbitrarily. I wait in vain for what Leonard Bernstein called
Beethoven's "inevitability." For me, the composer has held
the movement together with spit and duct tape.
The second movement, described by the composer as lyrical but not slow,
proceeds even less promisingly than the first. It uses two main ideas,
a fall and an upward thrust, neither one of them all that interesting
in itself. Through most of its length, it leans on color shift more than
development. I was about ready to give up on the movement until about
three minutes before the end, when magic happens. Orchestra members quietly
(as opposed to play) a richly-scored major chord. It's an unearthly moment.
From then on, Theofanidis kicks his game up and keeps it there until
the movement ends.
In the following scherzo, everything comes together: interesting ideas,
true development, and a coherent, driving rhetorical impulse, as well
as yummy orchestration. However, the fourth movement shows the composer
his worst. He seems to want something monumental, hauling around heavy
blocks of sound, a bit like the high-school poet or Pearl S. Buck trying
to rewrite the Bible. It also reminds me of watching Olympic weight-lifting,
where muscled dudes lift impossibly large weights and drop them to the
ground with a clang -- a lot of effort and noise to move not far at all.
Depressingly ponderous. Apparently, there's no shortcut to profundity.
Peter Lieberson, a well-respected youngish composer, met the amazing
mezzo Lorraine Hunt during a production of his opera, Ashoka. They married,
she became Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. He wrote a couple of works for her.
A few years into their marriage, she discovered she had cancer, and the
couple decided to keep the information to themselves for as long as possible.
At this time, the composer wrote one of his best pieces, the five Neruda
Songs, for Lorraine. The poems, beautiful in themselves, all talk of
love and of loss, and Lorraine died in 2006, a year after the songs appeared.
Peter Lieberson died -- ironically, also from cancer -- just this year.
I think it important to point out that Lieberson's songs are more scena than tune. The operatic scena to me lays the trap of formlessness for
the composer, who really hasn't the structure or the expectations of
going for him to impose order. He must find his own. This Lieberson does,
creating powerfully coherent mini-dramas in each song. Musically, one
catches hints of what Jelly Roll Morton called the "Spanish tinge," poetically
appropriate for a Chilean poet. I hear Ravel's Alborada del gracioso occasionally wafting through, but Lieberson isn't appropriating so much
in his own way what's become a piece of his musical self. The songs overwhelm
me -- whether due to the fact that I know the circumstance of their composition
or because they overwhelm all on their own, I can't say. To me, Lieberson
has gotten inside Neruda's poetry and tapped their power.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson made a great recording of the songs (one of her
last, available on Nonesuch 79954, with James Levine and the Boston Symphony
Orchestra), probably classic. Kelley O'Connor, a fine, intelligent singer,
gives an excellent reading, but Lieberson communicated more deeply than
almost every other singer of her time. Her account just about transcends
music and becomes something like wisdom. Spano and Atlanta, in great
sound yet, deliver handsome performances of both the Theofanidis and
In the Theofanidis, their humming is so beautiful, I suspect ringers
from the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. Furthermore, they have quickly amassed
of recordings, especially those devoted to contemporary music, distinguished
by their discernment, their willingness to risk something, and their
S.G.S. (September 2011)