HIGDON: The Singing Rooms. SINGLETON: PraiseMaker. SCRIABIN: The Poem of Ecstasy.
Jennifer Koh, violin; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Spano, cond.
Telarc TEL032630 TT: 78:49.

Scattered. Modern music has swung between the poles of outright experimentalism and of consolidation in twenty- to thirty-year chunks. Schoenberg in the Forties is a more conservative composer than he was in the Aughts and Teens. Sometimes, the chaos of experimentalism consolidates around one or two figures, as in the cases of Stravinsky and Schoenberg in the Twenties and Thirties. After the avant-garde activity of the postwar period, including minimalism, the results seem to have gone into composers' standard toolkits to produce not disciples but individuals.

When I first heard Jennifer Higdon's music, it seemed the aural equivalent of Wallace Stevens placing his "jar in Tennessee." The Babel of the current scene resolved around her into music of great assurance and expressiveness. In short, I consider her the bee's knees. I greet every new recording with the enthusiastic impatience of a kid on Christmas. The Singing Rooms began as a commission from violinist Jennifer Koh of a work for solo violin and chorus. Along the way, the work eventually picked up a symphony orchestra as well.

However, despite moments of great beauty and power, the score disappointed me, especially when I consider something like the Violin Concerto. Of course, a composer seldom produces a string of instant classics. The Singing Rooms wanders off aimlessly in several directions. I have no idea what Higdon's getting at with the work. The violinist seems neglected in favor of the chorus and orchestra. The chorus never gets a chance at anything other than simple declamation. I thought Higdon very canny in her selection of wonderful individual poems by contemporary Jeanne Minahan. Unfortunately, I have no idea of what they all mean together or of a "narrative" arc. Higdon's own description of her aims is too vague to help -- too pictorial, rather than dramatic. The problem is that pictures work in space. Drama, like music, works in time. A score can legitimately use the pictorial, but seldom does the pictorial succeed as music's raison d'être. Singing Rooms may very well be one of those works where the artist has hoped that the piece will cohere in the process of composition, but it just never does.

Alvin Singleton's PraiseMaker, for choir and orchestra, uses a much weaker text to much better effect. The composer seems to write only as many notes as he needs, and each one does heavy lifting. One senses an arrow of intention moving inexorably toward its target. Much of it doesn't use melody, but rather narrow planes of color, like a Barnett Newman painting. Again, the chorus doesn't get to do all that much, but that austerity is thoroughly in keeping with the rest of the work. The score surprises you with its range of mood and even, in places, with its tenderness. To me, this work provided the most interest of the disc.

After decades of eclipse, Scriabin's orchestral music came back with a bang in the Sixties, which touted its "trippiness." The Poem of Ecstasy's title also attracted the more cosmic of the Aquarians. Fortunately, its sheer musical interest helped it survive all that. It sounds a little like Debussy, and thus whatever shock value it once had has fizzled. But then so has the hot-house atmosphere that clung to it 'way back when. It remains a handsome work.

Jennifer Koh does her bits well, but Higdon doesn't give her enough. The Atlanta Symphony Chorus, directed by Norman Mackenzie, has a gorgeous tone, although its diction could improve. Again, Higdon doesn't really test them. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony present stylish performances, especially of the Scriabin and Singleton. I particularly liked the trumpet in Poem of Ecstasy. Telarc lays on their trademark creamy sound.

S.G.S. (May 2011)