"CLASSICS AT THE POPS"
HIGDON: Concerto for Orchestra. City Scape.
Classics at the Pops obviously is intended to be an orchestral sonic blockbuster—and to a large extent it succeeds. All performances were recorded May 10-11, 2003 in Cincinnati's Music Hall, produced by Robert Woods. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra plays well enough (and with more enthusiasm than they did in Telarc's Tchaikovsky 1812/Capriccio italien recording); I wish the orchestra had a bigger sound—there simply aren't enough strings. The Greensleeves Fantasia and Nimrod are hardly orchestral showpieces, but the other works indeed display the symphony orchestra. In four of the works (Respighi, Verdi, Weinberger, Shostakovich) we have the added sounds of the College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati Brass Choir, to impressive effect. It's not indicated how many performers are in the brass choir; it doesn't sound like a very large group. Telarc has put some of the brass in the Verdi march in the back channels very effectively, but in the other works everything is in front. It would have been impressive in multi-channel sound to have some of the approaching army in Pines of Rome coming from the rear. In the central procession section of Fêtes the muted distant trumpets would have been very effective coming from the rear, but they don't in these first muti-channel recordings of both the Respighi and Debussy. There's no question that the organ in the final pages of the Schwanda Fugue is over-miked, but it is impressive. Aside from a rather dull reading of Roman Carnival, Kunzel offers spirited performances, and Telarc's sound is excellent. In the Saint-Saëns Bacchanale the important castanets, unheard in the recent Chesky recording of the same music (see REVIEW) are appropriately apparent.
American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) enjoys a successful, distinguished career. She has received numerous major awards and countless commissions from major orchestras. One of these is the Concerto for Orchestra written for and premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra June 12, 2002. In five movements and modeled after Bartók's, it's a showcase for orchestra. Higdon worked closely with members of the Philadelphia orchestra when writing it, with the second movement highlighting strings, the fourth movement, percussion. City Scape was commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony and premiered by them November 14, 2002. The composer had spent ten of her early years in Atlanta, was very familiar with the area, and here offers a musical portrait of the city. There are three movements: Skyline, "river sings a song to trees," and Peachtree Street. Both scores are obviously written with the highest craftsmanship, surely pleasant—and sometimes stimulating—to hear. Whether these will remain in the active concert repertory remains to be seen—I doubt that will happen. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony play superbly and Telarc's engineering is very fine. The label is to be commended for recording two contemporary works and doing it so well.
R.E.B. (April 2004)