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 end.

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 Classics" series.

S.G.S. (August 2011)