RUSSELL: Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra. Middle Earth. Gate City - A Methodist Hymn.
Richard Todd, French Horn; San Luis Obispo Symphony/Michael Nowak, cond.
NAXOS 8.559168 (B) (DDD) TT: 59:25

POWELL: Symphony in A Major "Virginia Symphony." TRADITIONAL Shenandoah (arr. Carmen Dragon)
Virginia Symphony/JOAnn Falletta, cond.
ALBANY TROY 589 (F) (DDD) TT: 58:06

Craig Russell (b. April 3, 1951) has a Master's degree in guitar from the University of New Mexico and a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina. He has worked with the musical group Chanticleer, reconstructing early music from Mexican and Californian archives and assisting in recordings of this music. In 1982 Russell became a professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and since then has won many teaching awards. A classical guitarist, he studied the instrument in New Mexico with Héctor A. García and in Spain with Emilio Pujol.

Middle Earth is a set of nine very short pieces (one is only :32) with imaginative titles suggested by Tolkien'sThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. some of which feature unusual musical effects. Gate City, the second movement of the composer's Symphony No. 2 (American Scenes), a brief and reverent Methodist Hymn, is dedicated to Russell's parents. The major work on this CD, Rhapsody for Horn and Orchestra, was commissioned by the San Luis Obispo Symphony in 1998 and dedicated to Richard Todd who premiered it in 2000 when this recording was made. Rhapsody is long (41:42) with five movements: Morning's Decisions, Dizzy Bird, Wistful Musing, Tito Machito and Flash. The first and third, the two longest (11:26 & 12:51), according to the composer's program notes, "pay spiritual homage to...Barber's...violin concerto, and share a melodic motive or two." The second, Dizzy Bird, suggests "the infectious energy and originality of those amazing bop tunes by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie "Bird" Parker." The fourth, Tito Machito, is rather a tribute to Machito and Tito Puente, while the final Flash is "a merciless perpetuo moto." Some have described Craig's music as "Coplandesque," and indeed it does suggest the American master's music on occasion—but after listening to this CD three times I can find little memorable aside from Richard Todd's incredible virtuoso performance of Rhapsody. Todd is a major figure among today's horn players in both jazz and classical music with an extensive recording career for soundtracks. The San Luis Obispo orchestra has been around for four decades and plays very well indeed under young conductor Michael Nowak, who also has a second career as a master violist. Naxos' engineering is superb.

More seldom-heard American music is found on the Albany/Troy issue which features the Virginia Symphony under its conductor JoAnn Falletta who has led the orchestra since 1991. John Powell was born in Virginia in 1882 and after local musical training went to Vienna where he studied piano and composition. He made his debut as a pianist in Berlin in 1907, toured Europe before WWI and then returned to Virginia. Like Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel (1738-1822) (see REVIEW), Powell was an astronomer as well as a musician, and awarded an honorary membership in the French Astronomy Society for discovering a comet. He died in 1963. His works include concertos for violin and piano, two string quartets, an orchestral suite, music for the piano including four sonatas, and arrangements of folk songs which he collected methodically. Powell was a racist; his reputation has been, as stated in the CD notes, "tarnished by his racial views, which, while applauded by many in the first half of the century, became totally unacceptable later in his life."

Powell completed his Symphony in A in 1945 but revised it in 1951, calling it Virginia Symphony instead of the original Symphony on Virginian Folk Themes and in the Folk Modes. It consists of folk melodies the composer discovered in the Virginia countryside. CD notes advise the general style of the work is "grandiose" employing the late Romantic Germanic orchestration and optimistically state that Powell's style is "reminiscent...of Ralph Vaughan Williams," who was Powell's English counterpart. It's a long symphony in four movements, a parade of pleasing folk tunes with many sparkling lively dances. All pleasant to hear, and very well played by the orchestra under Falletta's dynamic direction. As a filler we have Carmen Dragon's orchestration of one of the best-known of all folk tunes, Shenandoah, in which the strings of the orchestra show a welcome lush, sensual sound. Recorded in Chrysler Hall, Norfolk, Virginia September 7-8, 2001, the sonic quality is excellent. It's unfortunate more of Powell's music wasn't included—58:06 isn't much playing time for a full-price CD.

R.E.B. (June 2003)