Fire and Time.
TARLOW: Kavanah (Remembrance). YIP: The Legendary Phoenix. BRINGS: Short Symphony No. 1. OSTERFIELD: Monadnock. BLOCK: Shadows. QUILLING: From Quiet Beginnings.
St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Titov; Martin Levicky´ (piano); Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Vronsky´; Kiev Philharmonic Orchestra/Robert Ian Winston; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Robert Stankovsky´; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Gil Rose.
Navona Records NV7871 TT: 78:14.

Sheep and goats. Many people stay away from contemporary music because they're afraid to get burned. If you think about it, however, you run the same risk with any unfamiliar piece or composer from whatever period. I had to soothe a friend of mine who really hated an all-Barber concert (hardly counts as "out there") that she attended largely on the basis of my enthusiasm. As far as I can tell, there are no universals about musical worth. Try describing the taste of chocolate to somebody who's never had it before, and, of course, some people don't care for chocolate.

Nevertheless, some contemporary composers have broken through -- John Adams, for example, and Thomas Adès. However, venues and opportunities run far fewer than composers to take advantage of them, and I suspect a hidden wealth of great stuff as well as, honestly, an even larger pile of dreck. For me, the thrill of discovering something new and wonderful has always outweighed the very temporary disappointment of wasting my time with the unappealing. The risk always seems worth it to me.

I approach a disc of unfamiliar music with the hope that something fantastic will reveal itself. I don't ask that of every track and indeed expect to find at least some of the nothing much or even actively annoying. Such is the case here, a mixture of treasure and aural styrofoam. I should say also that none of the pieces here are badly-written. All the composers know their technical stuff.

Gorgeously orchestrated, Stephen Yip's The Legendary Phoenix also stands as the longest piece, and the more one proceeds, the greater the probability of encountering a dead zone. It's a simple statistical chi-function, like waiting for the elevator that will eventually arrive. Yip simply doesn't come up with enough interesting material. Occasionally he falters into mere noodling around, at least from my point of view.

Steven Block writes essentially the same kind of piece as Yip in Shadows, only instead of mythical beasts, his inspiration comes from Jungian psychology. I've read a little Jung and damned if I can see any connection to the music. Block gives us some arresting sounds, what I'm sure is a killer motific argument on paper, and a narrative that goes nowhere, unfortunately.

Howard Quilling's From Quiet Beginnings gives us the most conservative piece, comfortably within the Copland school of Americana. It's pleasant, but not necessary. Again, it's one of the longest pieces on the program and could have benefitted from judicious cutting. I miss a sense of an individual artistic profile.

Allen Brings comes from an earlier generation (born, I believe, in the Thirties). His liner notes are full of unnecessary attitude, as he tries to make the case that his music won't appeal to everyone. That, of course, is true of both Beethoven and Justin Timberlake as well. Actually, his quite intelligible Short Symphony goes down pretty easily. Essentially, he subjects the same thematic group to four movements of differing characters, according to the classical symphonic model -- allegro, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. He builds coherent arguments without providing a wow factor that would actually make one want to listen more than once.

I think the two successes on the disc Paul Osterfield's Monadnock and Karen A. Tarlow's Kavanah. Osterfield's score stems from a hike the composer took up Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire while at the MacDowell Colony. It strikes me as a leaner, meaner Alpensinfonie. One notices a programmatic impulse in places, but the composer firmly keeps it subordinate to a very tight argument using mainly two ideas -- an aspiring, upward-climbing theme and a quick, nervous one. It resembles both the Yip and the Block in its overall procedure, but its strong narrative and sense of drama distinguishes it.

Tarlow's Kavanah (Remembrance) is for me the undoubted star of the program, a piece that has a good shot to appeal to a wide audience. Indeed, Navona makes a ringtone out of it. Subtitled "A Quasi-Quodlibet," the score is more quasi than quodlibet. A quodlibet juggles several tunes, often pre-existing ones, the best-known example likely being the ultimate Goldberg Variation. Tarlow uses a small set of tunes (one pre-existing) more as motifs and manipulates them in standard ways. At one point, I heard something very much like the Dies irae chant, but that may have been an unconscious crib. Mainly, the score "remembers" the world of East European Jewry in a small poem of symphonic klezmer. Packed with arresting, memorable ideas and wit.

Navona heroically toils in the vineyards of contemporary music, seeking out worthy scores, recording them in fine performances with great sound. It issues enhanced-content discs, which include not only the music, but detailed liner notes and study scores as well. How they make money from the enterprise, I don't know, but more power to them. They deserve listener support.

S.G.S. (March 2013)