Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: Engaging music from Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi

Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire; Michael Gandolfi: Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman
eight blackbird
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Robert Spano, conductor
ASO Media

More and more I'm convinced that the people who don't like contemporary classical music are those that haven't heard it. Atonality and serialism are often cited as the reason for their rejection of current classical fare, but those objections are about a half-century out of date.

Contemporary -- and especially younger contemporary -- composers use the musical language of today to create works that aren't intellectual exercises, but actually connect emotionally with an audience.

A good example is the latest release by the conductor Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on their own label. Joined by the eighth blackbird sextet, they perform brand new works by two fairly young, yet established composers.

The orchestra's had a fruitful association with Jennifer Higdon, and On a Wire continues that trend. The work is a concerto for the members of eighth blackbird and orchestra. It's an exciting piece and one that puts the virtuosity of the sextet to the test. And it's engaging. Sometimes the music is quite lyrical, at other times it's bustling with rhythmic complexity -- but it's always tonal in some fashion.

If you can handle the outré sound of the "Twilight Zone" closing credits theme, you'll have no problem with On a Wire. Higdon's created an entertaining and good-natured work that I suspect is as entertaining to watch in performance as it is to hear in the recording.

The longer work on the disc is Michael Gandolfi's QED: Engaging Richard Feynman. This one's for the orchestra alone, although it uses a greatly expanded percussion section. The work uses two anecdotes of physicist Richard Feynman as its inspiration. Gandolfi's music is much more tonal than Higdon's -- my impression was that of a post-Hovhaness/Copland composition. Choral settings of Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Joseph Campbell are both effective and moving. Gandolfi knows how to write a vocal-friendly melody!

If you're looking for new music, this CD is a great choice. And if you think there's no new good classical music to be found, this disc is even a better choice. It just might change your mind.

Highly recommended.

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