JONES: Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (2005). Symphony No. 3 "Palo Duro Canyon" (1992).
Christopher Olka (tuba); Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz.
Naxos 8.559378 TT: 47:36.

Respectable. Samuel Jones has worked all over the country, to a great extent in the academy, and he now finds himself in the Seattle area. His music in general is what I would call mid-century American neoclassical. It lacks a distinctive profile, but it can achieve real poetry.

For me, the strong work on the program is the Tuba Concerto, written as a memorial to aviation engineer James Crowder. For me, Vaughan Williams wrote the masterpiece in very sparse company. It fits the instrument beautifully and exploits its capabilities as both a comedy and a singing instrument. Jones has a more ambitious goal: an heroic concerto in three substantial movements, fast-slow-fast. I find in the first movement the greatest interest and focus, both of which decrease with each successive one. The concerto opens with a Hovhaness-like arabesque line. The second movement -- labeled "Adagietto" -- begins with the sound of the one in Mahler's Fifth and the same general character. Jones interrupts the flow with slashing discords, and the rest of the movement tries to get back to equilibrium. It's good drama, or would be if the discords were all that convincing. They just seem tacked on. The third movement flies all over the place, with the minimum cover of classical rondo. That is, Jones pretty much does what he wants and then returns to a refrain. Some of the episodes contain the most interesting music in the concerto. I particularly liked the duos between the tuba and piccolo, which come off without sounding like a stunt, and the allusions to Wagner's Ring (Crowder enjoyed listening to Wagner as he experimented in his home basement workshop). In all, the concerto gets my respect, although the more modestly-proportioned Vaughan Williams achieves more poetry. Nevertheless, tuba players might enjoy taking it up.

Excepting Copland, Siegmeister, Harris, and Moross, the "Western Landscape" genre has never appealed to me. Recent examples strike me as far too "New Age-y," mooning about amidst the Grandeur of It All. To me, good art aims for something specific rather than high-toned and oracular. Copland gives you the wide-open spaces in Billy the Kid, but he also gives you the saloon piano and gunshots. Harris gives you the vast free range, but he also evokes the loneliness of the men who work that range. It's the lesson of John Ford: sure, the scenery's nice in Monument Valley, even monumental, but the really precious things are the lives of specific people who live there. I don't find Jones's Symphony No. 3 all that evocative of the landscape, although I admit I've seen only photos. Jones also carries a lot of extra-musical baggage with him in this symphony, but fortunately it's mostly in his head, rather than in the score itself. After all, the question really comes down to the quality of the work, rather than the intentions behind it. It's a one-movement deal, divided into four mini-movements, and Jones gets a lot of mileage out of mainly two ideas -- a "canyon" theme and a "plains" theme, both well-varied throughout the work. I find only two bumps in the road: a tape-recorded wind in the opening, depicting -- what else? -- the wind; Comanche themes in the third-movement scherzo's trio. The sound effect shows me that Jones doesn't, for some reason, trust his music, which has nothing to apologize for, and reduces the effect to an unnecessary gimmick. The Comanche music doesn't have much to do with anything else in a fairly tight score and thus becomes extraneous and, I think, a little trendy. Other than that, the work will appeal to many. The themes stick in one's head -- no mean feat. The orchestration, although a little generic, nevertheless sounds well.

Conductor Gerard Schwarz has said of both works that they "should be a part of the core of the great American repertoire." I wouldn't go that far. They are certainly attractive, but by no means essential, if you compare them to Copland, Gershwin, Piston, Harris, Schuman, Ives, and so on. I find them both well-written, even inspired to a certain extent, but not really necessary, in the sense that Rodeo or An American in Paris has demanded space in the American jukebox.

Schwarz and the Seattle do a fine job of championing both pieces. I have no idea what constitutes great tuba playing, since I encounter it so rarely, but Christopher Olka convinces me as soloist-hero.

S.G.S. (August 2011)