SCHWANTNER: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994). Morning's
Embrace (2005). Chasing Light ... (2008).
Christopher Lamb (percussion); Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero.
Naxos 8.559678 TT: 68:00.
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Beat, beat drums! Blow, bugles, blow! Pulitzer prizewinner Joseph Schwantner
always intrigues me. I never doubt his craft, but for me, his inspiration
fluctuates pretty widely. He can thrill you or bore you silly with second-hand
gestures. I have noted Generic Schwantner pieces before. Nevertheless,
I enjoyed two of the three scores here.
I might as well proceed from worst to best. Morning's Embrace and Chasing
Light ... have their inspiration, according to the composer, in the sunrises
at his New Hampshire home. This leads to several possible traps. First,
music doesn't really proceed visually. "Visual" music tends to
stasis, mainly because music proceeds in time, rather than in space, and
better fits drama and narrative than painting. Second, not everyone has
the good fortune to live in rural New Hampshire, so those sunrises probably
don't mean as much to the average listener as they do to Schwantner. They
become something important to the composer and irrelevant to nearly everyone
else, unless the composer can get the rest of us to care. Not everyone
knows the story of Til Eulenspiegel either. Strauss's music won't tell
you all by itself, but the score succeeds without that requirement in purely
musical terms. Morning Embrace doesn't. It meanders too much, and even
if you know the composer's impetus, the music doesn't necessarily evoke
in a listener what it stirs in him.
On the other hand, Chasing Light ... moves musically with purpose. It's
based upon a nothing poem by the composer, high-flown nonsense that means
absolutely nothing. If it were food, it would be a can of Pringles. Although
individual lines provide the titles of the four continuous movements, you
can, fortunately, ignore the poem. The music is another story. The first
movement muscles its way about in triple-time, a bit like the opening to
Ginastera's Estancia. Three main ideas appear immediately: a pedal point;
extremely close contrapuntal imitation; a burst and spray of notes, usually
in the woodwinds. Schwantner virtuosically varies them throughout the entire
score. The second movement shows his interest in minimalism, without him
actually taking a blood oath. One gets a wonderful melody over a John Adams-like
shimmer. The notes refer to the movement as a palindrome, but it's not
note-for-note reversal. Rather the large gestures mirror around a midpoint,
thus making the structure chiasmic, as opposed to palindromic. The third
movement, a slow dead march, showcases the plaint of the solo oboe. The
finale harkens back to the second, with a shimmering ostinato. Again, a
strong tune soars above it. The imitative idea becomes exultant, mainly
in the brass, and the work ends in a pounding that calls to mind the opening
measures of the entire score. This is one beautiful, moving score, and
one which needs no extra-musical help.
The Percussion Concerto has received plenty of acclaim since its premiere
over 15 years ago with soloist Christopher Lamb and the New York Philharmonic.
I think it a fine work, full of Schwantner's characteristically gorgeous
orchestration, although I prefer David Schiff's Timpani Concerto and even
Milhaud's clunky Cubist concerto. Schwantner, I think, didn't want to create
a stunt, but something that had a chance to enter mainstream repertoire.
I think it resolutely ignores (as does the Schiff) the novelty of a percussion
soloist, unlike the Milhaud or even something like Michael Daugherty's
U.F.O., where the composers don't allow the audience to forget the strangeness
of the solo instruments or the ingenuity of the soloist negotiating a path
from one beater to another.
Dedicated to the memory of American composer Stephen Albert, dead in an
auto crash at 51, the work consists of three movements, fast-slow-fast.
The first raises a marimba ostinato, à la Steve Reich, to star status,
with the orchestra providing tasty chords in the background. The soloist
switches to mainly side drum for a rouser of a finish. The second movement, "Misterioso
(In Memoriam)," begins with a declamatory idea on the vibraphone.
Another ostinato ensues, again supported by a mainly chordal background.
While the first movement was bright and even ecstatic, this one uses dark
colors -- basically, a threnody. Although the soloist gets to play many
different instruments, he also gets enough space between switches that
he doesn't call attention to himself. The movement works primarily as an
ensemble piece, and Schwantner loads the concerto's emotional weight here.
The bass drum puts out a "heartbeat" rhythm, most effectively
in a passage in which strings, low and high, quietly duet in concentrated
two-part counterpoint. The piece grows, reaching its climax at a restatement
of the opening vibraphone idea, this time on the brass, and winds down
to the "Ritmico con brio" finale. In what sounds like mixed meters,
it reminded me a little of Bernstein in his 5/4 and 7/4 passages, but without
the tunes. The composer emphasizes not virtuosic technique (although probably
only virtuosi need apply) as much as virtuoso musicianship. Schwantner
takes a huge risk in giving the soloist a roughly five-minute cadenza (nearly
half the work). Remember how boring those interminable rock drum solos
were during the Sixties and Seventies? Schwantner goes nowhere near tedium
and comes up with one exciting passage that thoroughly justifies its length.
With about half a minute left, the orchestra joins the soloist for a satisfying
I keep marveling at how good the Nashville Symphony is. I don't expect
this level of classical expertise in the Country Music capital, and Schwantner
doesn't write down to these players. After all, the Percussion Concerto
was written for the New York Phil. I don't know how much better they did
it or what comprised that "better." I can say that I don't feel
I need to listen to that orchestra. Guerrero and the Volunteers do quite
well, thank you. Christopher Lamb, New York's first-chair percussionist,
plays with real sensitivity. I particularly admire his ability to diminuendo.
Despite Morning's Embrace, one of the really solid Naxos releases in its "American
S.G.S. (August 2011)