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.
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
for four horns and orchestra -- essentially a prelude and allegro --
picks up the American neoclassic idiom of the Forties. Think Copland
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
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,
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
the tonal brilliance of Turner's music. It annoys me that an American
orchestra couldn't record an American composer, but that's life.
priced ourselves out of the market.
S.G.S. (February 2011)