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.
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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)