TURNER: Karankawa. Introduction and Main Event. Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. Concerto for Low Horn and Chamber Orchestra.
American Horn Quartet; Kyle Turner (tuba); Charles Putnam (French horn); Sinfonia Iuventus/Dariusz Wisniewski.
Albany TROY 1141 Hybrid SACD TT: 59:47.

I'd not heard of Kerry Turner before. He's a San Antonio, Texas, native. He's been a horn player (studying with Hermann Baumann, among others), and he also has composed a lot of brass music. Indeed most of the works on this disc spotlight the brass. Checking on his web site (www.kerryturner.com), I found the following.

I truly feel that the art of modern composition is going down the wrong path. Composers today seem to feel compelled to paint the ugly and chaotic in their "music". I do not say this strictly from a compositional point of view. I have sat in orchestras for 20 years and have witnessed the loathing with which my colleagues have approached the vast majority of pieces written since about 1970. This attitude has come not only from the players, but certainly the audiences and very often from the conductor himself! Yet we are somehow obligated to play it. I call it "The Emperor's New Clothes Phenomenon". I sometimes wonder if these composers are truly following their hearts or writing on a solely academic level. Moreover, this style of composition seems to have monopolized the funding for modern music. More often than not, performers, sponsors and audience members are neither inspired nor satisfied from this style of "music" and, ultimately, I feel this much-needed funding will disappear from the arts altogether.

One should never fault a composer's music on the basis of his writings about music. Good thing, too. There are so many lazy things about this passage, I don't know where to start. Which composers? Why 1970? After all, people have voiced these sentiments since at least Beethoven's day. Why is 1970 and after any different? Sneer quotes around music don't help. Make a case, if it means that much to you. I have no doubt that Turner and his colleagues have loathed most of the new music they've played. I myself haven't enjoyed most of the music -- old or new -- I've heard with, say, the intensity that I enjoy Bach. Let's not forget that gems are rare. Even so, I've seen people walk out on a Nielsen symphony because it was "ugly." Should we blame Nielsen? What I want is specifics, however. Who are these emperors? I really can't think of a composer who doesn't believe in what he's doing. The external rewards are too small and the work too hard. Never mind the work of composition itself or of physically putting the notes on a page. Hustling for performances in addition to all that takes a lot of effort. At the end, we have, I suspect, what may have prompted this passage. Support money may disappear. At least some of this concern seems to be over turf. With music schools turning out hundreds of new composers each year, more and more people fight for scarce resources.

The disc opens with Karankawa, a tone poem depicting a battle between the French and the Karankawa Indian tribe near the Texas Gulf, in which the tribe annihilated the French. It's prettily scored and pictorial, but it's also about as deep as thimble.

The rest of the program picks up, however. Introduction and Main Event, for four horns and orchestra -- essentially a prelude and allegro -- picks up the American neoclassic idiom of the Forties. Think Copland or Piston, but without the symphonic force of either. This doesn't mean that it's not well-written. Turner provides a tight motific argument and some very attractive music. It grows from two ideas which have the happy faculty of going together head-to-tail and tail-to-head. The Introduction puts them one way, the Main Event the other. There's some flashy counterpoint as well. If I have any complaint, it's that the brass dominate the sound of the piece, so much so that a brief passage for pure woodwind comes as a shock. Nevertheless, the score remains an entertainment rather than a testament -- rather like Schumann's Konzertstück for 4 Horns and Orchestra.

Tuba players don't have a lot of choice in concertos for their instrument, and, frankly, many of those concertos have the whiff of stunt about them. Vaughan Williams wrote the masterpiece for the instrument -- with wonderful tunes, compelling argument, and the genius to see the poetry in what often seemed a second-class instrument. Turner at least takes the instrument seriously. However, the closeness of some of the tunes to cliché shocked me a little, and I strongly suspect that it's not a knowing use of such material, as in Mahler. The rhetoric resembles the previous two pieces, which suggests that Turner possesses a limited range. On the other hand, one finds poetic strokes throughout, particularly the percussion-accompanied second movement ("Andante misterioso"), and the finale ("March") delights, as perky as Prokofieff.

You may well ask about a "low horn." Orchestral French horns are traditionally divided into "highs" and "lows" (cor alto and cor basse, respectively), stemming from the days of the natural (valveless) horn. The high horn specializes in playing the top register and needs a well-developed embouchure. The low horn specializes in the low register and, because of the greater distance between harmonics, required better hand and "falsetto" technique, the latter a micro-easing of embouchure to achieve a lowering of the low harmonics. Even with the modern valved horn, orchestral horn players tend to specialize in this way, seen in the scores of horn-smart Richard Strauss especially.

I preferred this score to the others, although I find it hard to say why -- perhaps more distinguished thematic material and a more sophisticated working out. The concerto runs to four movements: an opening allegro, short slow and scherzo movements, and a quick finale. Loose ends protrude here and there, particular in the allegro's introduction, where, for some reason, the hymn "How Firm a Foundation" sounds once and then is dropped down an oubliette. It strikes me as the composer's personal telegram to himself. One idea used throughout the concerto is a rapid Lydian scalar run from the tonic to the fifth (do to sol -- F G A B C in the key of F). Reminiscent of the Vaughan Williams Symphony #8, the slow movement consists of the horn accompanied only by strings and the harpsichord, while in the scherzo, the accompaniment switches to winds-only plus harpsichord. In general, Malcolm Arnold (particularly in the teetering between two key centers) and the nervous tics of the neoclassic Lukas Foss kept coming to mind, although Turner's music hasn't the preternatural brilliance of Foss or the suavity and elegance of Arnold. Nevertheless, if Turner has more pieces in this vein, I'd be happy to seek them out.

The performers do a very nice job indeed. Kyle Turner, the tuba soloist and the composer's brother, lets this instrument, so often banished to the kids' table or the servants' quarters, become urbane and romantic. Charles Putnam, member of the American Horn Quartet, has the best piece and does well by it. Wisniewski and his Poles play tightly and emphasize the tonal brilliance of Turner's music. It annoys me that an American orchestra couldn't record an American composer, but that's life. Apparently, we've priced ourselves out of the market.

S.G.S. (February 2011)