Off the shelf


Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony; Mahler: Symphony Nr. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand” (Self Release)

Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 8 is an oversized piece of music.  This is apparent to anyone who hears a recording of this symphony.  Even more so when you see the piece performed live.  Hundreds (not thousands) of musicians, soloists, and singers are crammed onto a stage.  Whoever the unlikely person is conducting the piece is more often than not feverishly trying to balance the bloated orchestra, soloists, and multiple choruses.  The conductor is spinning plates more or less.  Keeping everything from crashing to the floor.  Because of the difficulties in staging the “Symphony of a Thousand” the piece is seldom performed.

The Seattle Symphony took up the work last September, opening their 2008/2009 season while also simultaneously celebrating the tenth anniversary of Benaroya Hall.  With the help of Martin Selig, the Seattle Symphony was able to record and release the September 2008 performance on a limited edition recording that also includes original album art from local artist Dale Chihuly.

The recording is primarily a document of the occasion.  There are no revelations that emerge from Mahler’s thick mass of sounds.  Schwarz doesn’t generate any new insights.  To be fair, most conductors have a hard time illuminating this piece.  Many consider the 7th Symphony to Mahler’s hardest.  To me, the number of performers involved, make the 8th Symphony harder to interpret effectively.  Anyone who was at the September performance will want this CD.  It is, after all, our local orchestra scaling a mountain of the symphonic repertoire.  There are benefits to the recording.  Vocals and soloists stand out better than they did in the live performance.  Balances, obviously, were helped by the recording engineers too.

The album artwork is attractive and well done.  Chihuly’s non-glass artistic output is an acquired taste.  The longer I am in Seattle, the more it grows on me.  This is, I believe, the first self released title for the Seattle Symphony.  It is a trend that is becoming more common among orchestras in the United States and I hope it isn’t the last for the SSO.


Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony; Arthur Foote: Francesca da Rimini; Air and Gavotte; Suite in E Major; Four Character Pieces (Naxos) ***
Bernard Jacobsen, in his liner notes for this CD, points out American classical music didn’t begin with Aaron Copland.  Composers like Arthur Foote paved the way long before Aaron Copland came along.  Nevertheless, Foote’s music generally sounds more Germanic than American, an unavoidable consequence of composers, orchestras, and classical music boosters in America hewing to the Franco-Germanic tradition.  This album is attractive, conservative, and uneventful.  Not a bad thing because it makes for a CD that is easy to enjoy.

Foote’s “Francesca” lacks the fire of Tchaikovsky’s more famous depiction of the same material.  Tchaikovsky wrote his version two decades earlier than Foote.  You wouldn’t know it by listening to this album.  All of the pieces highlight Foote’s ability to write well for strings, this talent is in abundance during the Suite in E major and Air and Gavotte.  The best piece on the album is Four Character Pieces after Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  Foote had loosened up a little by the time this piece was written in 1900.  The music and playing by the SSO  is expressive, atmospheric, and of course still conservative.


Not long after this album hit the shelves did the Seattle Symphony and Gerard Schwarz premiered another brass concerto by Jones.  That premiere was Jones’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra.  For this album, Naxos released Jones’s earlier Tuba Concerto.  Jones is the composer in residence for the Seattle Symphony.  His music isn’t necessarily trail blazing.  His music is lyrical and tonal.  He doesn’t dabble in microtones or found instruments, but he definitely understands the personality and tastes of the orchestra an it’s audience.  This is made apparent in both of the works recorded for this release.

Christopher Olka is the soloist for Jones’s Tuba Concerto.  The work is robust and imaginative.  Each movement is imbued with its own distinct character, especially the third movement.  Frenetic outbursts by the Tuba are designed to mimic being in a wind tunnel (the concerto is in memory of a wind tunnel engineer).  As Jones’s says in the notes: “The tuba has amazing range, agility, and versatility, and in the hands of a master performer it can command the stage on an equal footing with any instrument. I wanted to write a piece that would exhibit all this to the fullest extent, and that would spotlight [Seattle Symphony Principal Tubist] Chris Olka’s great artistry at the same time as it made an apt memorial to Jim Crowder’s life and work.”

The other piece on the CD is Jones’s Symphony Nr. 3, “Palo Duro Canyon.”  The symphony resulted from a commission by the Amarillo Symphony.  The orchestra wanted a piece based on Palo Duro Canyon.  The symphony is in one continuous movement, divided into four sections.  Jones set out to write multilayered music for “Palo Duro.”  Broad sweeping music gives the impression of the canyon’s enormity and gradual creation by the forces of nature.  These gestures buttress the work’s overriding sense of awe.  There is also wild scherzo filled with brilliant orchestral coloring that paints a motley picture of what it must be like to gaze on the canyon at dusk or dawn when natural light is at its most mesmerizing.  This is an album I look forward to revisiting.


Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony; Bright Sheng: The Phoenix, Red Silk Dance, Tibetan Swing, Lacerations (Naxos) **
Bright Sheng is one of a handful of Chinese-American composers that have been able to create essentially Western classical music influenced by Asian music, culture, and tradition.  Unlike the recent Foote and Jones CDs by the Seattle Symphony, this release is not easy listening.  Contrasting moods are juxtaposed in unsettling ways.  Serene, eastern inclined passages are often broken up and consumed by episodes of unsettled, jagged music.

The four pieces on this album are representative of a composer who came of age during the Cultural Revolution and whose family was persecuted by government authorities.  It is music that tries to make sense of that period in Chinese history and music which is at its most interesting when the composer is drawing on Chinese sounds, instruments, and folk music for inspiration.  Even then, a little Bright Sheng goes a long way.

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