ROSS: Concerto for Flute and Guitar. Concerto for Oboe d'Amore. Concerto for Bassoon and String Orchestra. Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and String Orchestra.
M. Turner (flute); Radka Kubrova (guitar); Michal Sintal (oboe d'amore); Ramon Mesina (bassoon); Igor Fabera (oboe); Adriana Antalová (harp); Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor.
Ravello RR7854

Mayflies. Now in his seventies, American composer Walter Ross has led a steady, quiet career, mostly in academia. A student of such luminaries as Robert Palmer, Karel Husa, and Alberto Ginastera, he has had most renown as a writer of band and brass music, although he has produced a large catalogue in all genres. His music lies closest to that of Palmer.

Sometimes I get a little depressed about the state of classical music, in that too many people seem to love it not for itself, but as an emblem of prestige. This happens across interest groups, from the No Real Music After Mahler bloc to the All Music More than a Week Old Is Dead folks. Most of us seem to be looking for the next Beethoven and the latest Missa solemnis and ignore other things as not worth the time or, at best, guilty pleasures -- not that a new work as powerful as the Missa wouldn't be welcome. Yet I've always believed that music speaks to many parts of our lives, not just when we aspire to saint and sage. If we listen only to Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Ravel, and Stravinsky, we miss the delights of Vorisek, Theo Kirchner, Brian, Ropartz, and Talma -- pretty much the state of the audience today. At least there are plenty of candidates for revival.

Ross's music harkens back to Piston in the Forties -- handsome, rhythmically vital, lyrical, elegantly crafted. Each one of these concerti delights and satisfies. The music beautifully suits each of the solo instruments. Ross creates wonderful, unpredictable melodies, avoiding commonplace turns and somewhat modal or Hindemithian quartal in sound. The orchestration is streamlined and gorgeous, in an understated way, particularly in the concerto for flute and guitar. The guitar demands gentle treatment from the orchestra in order to be heard at all and gets it. The effect becomes something like hearing three simultaneous planes of music: the flute, the orchestra, and the guitar.

However, Ross may well be too modest for his own good. In none of the concerti do we hear, despite the immense pleasure as we listen, anything specific that sticks in the memory -- no vulgar genius theme, for example. We tend to take away general characteristics. For example, I can remember the main themes of all three movements in the Vaughan Williams oboe concerto (a modest item in the composer's catalogue) and none in Ross's. Oboists, with limited solo opportunities, have lined up to record the Vaughan Williams and seem not to know the Ross at all. Yet the Ross is as fine as the Vaughan Williams and in many technical details better worked. Of course, Vaughan Williams has both name recognition and bona fide hits. Ross doesn't strike me as a composer interested in writing another Rite of Spring, and I have no idea whether such a composer can survive in today's sensationalist, media-driven climate. I can always hope.

The CD's production is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the performances and the recording are quite fine. Trevor and his Slovaks give more than read-throughs. They play with understanding and sympathy. The jacket features a marvelous landscape (by the composer's mother) that I wish I could hang on my own wall. In many ways, it reminds me of Ross's music -- wonderfully proportioned, fine and stylish, and which doesn't rub a viewer's nose in its beauty. On the other, the notes and listings are a mess. We have no idea who the soloists are, and the contents are mislabeled. The jacket lists the pieces in the following order:

1. Oboe d'amore
2. Bassoon
3. Flute and guitar
4. Oboe and harp

The correct order is

1. Flute and guitar
2. Oboe d'amore
3. Bassoon 4
4. Obo and Harp
. Having gone to the trouble of recording this music and lavishing fine graphics on the jacket, you'd think Ravello would want to get the basics right. Oh well.

S.G.S. (May 2014)