McLEOD: The Emperor and the Nightingale. 3 Celebrations for Orchestra. Rock Concerto
Helen Medlyn (narrator); Eugene Albulescu (piano); New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Uwe Grodd.
Naxos 8.572671 TT: 67:35.

Pretty. New Zealander Jenny McLeod studied first with Modernist Douglas Lilburn and then with Karlheinz Stockhausen. She went through an avant-garde phase. However, she also worked as a pop musician, and this changed her thinking. She decided that her music should be fun to play and fun to listen to. There are worse goals.

I recognize her craft. She scores beautifully and has an ability to write infectious rhythms. I just wish I connected with the pieces more.

I found The Emperor and the Nightingale the most successful item on the program. Unfortunately, I don't particularly care for the genre of narrator-plus-orchestra. The voice distracts from the music and vice versa. For me, the most successful examples usually treat the voice as an instrument -- in other words, put the voice on an equal footing in the texture, as in Walton's Façade. Sometimes, the music is so good that I'd have to be a Grinch not to acknowledge it -- Copland's Lincoln Portrait, for example. McLeod doesn't reach that level, although the music is delightfully tuneful and beautifully colored.

The New Zealand landscape inspired the 3 Celebrations, which evoke the country's spectacular mountains, familiar to viewers of the Lord of the Ring movies, quiet bays, and the A & P (Agricultural & Pastoral) fairs. The sense of vast space all around overwhelms you in the first two celebrations. The third is nice, but it seemed too derivative. It bears a strong resemblance to Elmer Bernstein's score for The Magnificent Seven from which it never breaks free.

I've always wondered why concert composers have mostly avoided rock as an inspiration. It seems to me they've missed a source of terrific energy. Considering her background, I held high hopes for McLeod's piano concerto. The concerto disappointed me. First, I think she's been listening to the wrong radio stations and collecting the wrong albums. Except for the occasional blue note, nothing in this concerto reminds me in the least of, say, Booker T. and the MGs, the Five Royales, Motown soul, or, at a lesser level, the Rolling Stones. The rhythm is wrong. The melodic vocabulary is wrong.

Nevertheless, despite its failure to meet my expectations (given the title), does it succeed anyway? Not really. It really comes across as rather shapeless. McLeod points out that the first two movements follow sonata form -- with first and second subject groups, development, and recap -- and I'm sure an examination of the score would bear her out. However, her themes lack sufficient contrast for a listener to apprehend these larger groups. Consequently, most of the concerto comes across as a blob, despite, again, attractive scoring and exciting piano writing.

Uwe Grodd and his kiwis do well and give the music a fair shake. Eugene Albulescu, a pianist fond of Liszt, gives you all the flash you could hope for. Helen Medlyn I didn't particularly care for. She pitched her narration to what she may have thought children liked. There was a near-constant "Isn't this cute?" subtext. To me, most fairy tales deal with themes important to both children and adults.

A pleasant disc, but not essential.

S.G.S. (December 2011)