THEOFANIDIS: Symphony No. 1. LIEBERSON: Neruda Songs.
Kelley O'Connor (mezzo), Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano, cond.
ASO Media CD-1002 TT: 66:45.

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, house. Christopher 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 of 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 section 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 on development. I was about ready to give up on the movement until about three minutes before the end, when magic happens. Orchestra members quietly hum (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 at 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, and 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 song-form 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 as expressing 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 the Lieberson. In the Theofanidis, their humming is so beautiful, I suspect ringers from the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. Furthermore, they have quickly amassed a body of recordings, especially those devoted to contemporary music, distinguished by their discernment, their willingness to risk something, and their committed musicality.

S.G.S. (September 2011)