Zack Browning: Venus Notorious
McCormick Percussion Group, Kim McCormick, Jee-Ean Kim, Sunjin Kim, Ann Zettervall, Ling-Ti Huang, William Moersch, Ricardo Flores, Julie Gunn, Edward Rath, Chih-Hsien Chien, Samuel Carroll, Mei-Fang Lin, James Price & Mark Eichenberger
Part of a major series of recordings of works by Augusta Read Thomas being released by Nimbus Records, this recording originates from a concert by musicians of the University of Illinois, which took place on December 9th 2014 in celebration of Thomas’ 50th birthday. The works of Thomas gathered here cover a relatively short span in this composer’s chronology just 13 years from the earliest work (Bells Ring Summer, from 2000) to the most recent (the song Twilight Butterfly, from 2013). Thomas the large-scale thinker is very much on display here, with two substantial orchestral works dominating the proceedings. But Thomas the deft miniaturist is also present, with a brace of vocal and instrumental jeux d’esprit written either for specific occasions or as personal messages to friends and colleagues. If there is a larger theme to be gleaned from this grouping of apparent extremes from Thomas’ output, it would surely be that for this of all living composers, music acts as the ultimate means of communication, be it in the shape of a ceremonial orchestral work such as Radiant Circles, or a surprise wedding gift such as Capricci. The largest work presented here is the gently meditative and brazenly celebratory, Astral Canticle, for flute, violin and orchestra. It was premiered on June 1st 2006 by flutist Mathieu Dufour and violinist Robert Chen under Daniel Barenboim as part of his final concerts as the Chicago Symphonys Music Director. The work’s two soloists are heard only very lightly supported, and their alternation with the fanfaresque sections which showcased the Chicago Symphony’s legendary brass section imparts the work a “”call-and-response”” quality. The music’s harmonic environment moves seamlessly from the open diatonicism of the chant-like solo lines at the opening through dissonances which are bracing without ever being abrasive. Such harmonic flexibility seems to embody Thomas’ own words: Old music deserves new music and new music needs old music.
Just Before Sunrise
American baritone Nathan Gunn has been earning kudos in the world of opera for his handsome voice and appealing looks in operas by Britten and Mozart and as Clyde Griffiths in the world premiere of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy. For his solo debut album, however, he has turned his attention to a program of introspective contemporary songs by the likes of Sting, Tom Waits, Gene Scheer (better known as a librettist), Billy Joel, and others. He’s assisted by Kristin Chenoweth in a song by John Bucchino and backed by prodigy jazz pianist Eldar on some cuts. The intimate arrangements throughout are by David Cullen. The songs are lovely: romantic, nostalgic, and gentle (Jimmy van Heusen’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” a veritable Norman Rockwell painting in song, is included). Fans of easy listening will appreciate Gunn’s nonchalant, pitch-perfect, thoroughly non-operatic renditions of them all. There is nothing classical about this release, however, and Gunn’s true gifts are better heard in opera. –Robert Levine