Lions (A Dream)
Branford Marsalis (alto saxophone) [Williams]
Branford Marsalis Quartet [Rorem]
North Carolina Symphony Orchestra
Recorded January 2008 at Meymandi Concert Hall, Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: September 2009
CD No: BIS
Duration: 75 minutes
“American Spectrum” is a fascinating look at 21st-century composers from the New World, examining the integration of popular music and jazz into classical frameworks and instrumentation.
Christopher Rouse (born 1949), himself a rock-music historian and theorist, has long been open to the idea of incorporating characteristics of pop and rock music into his compositions, and is able to sustain these ideas over long, single movement structures. Friandises (French for ‘bits’ or ‘morsels’) is no exception, a sweeping five-part work that runs without a break for nearly thirty minutes, easily holding attention.
Rouse is able to use a large orchestra to communicate music of extreme power, but has in recent years become similarly adept at writing for much smaller forces. Thus the ‘Sicilienne’ marks a poignant moment of thoughtfulness, stepping back from the excitable first few minutes in which there are brass fanfares and brightly-lit woodwind choruses, punctuated by thrilling volleys of percussion. After a poignant ‘Sarabande’ there is a full-bodied ‘Galop’, Grant Llewellyn keeping firm control but also allowing the athleticism of Rouse’s writing to cut loose, all helped by excellent recording.
Michael Daugherty (born 1954) wears his popular-music influences rather more obviously on his sleeve, embodied in Sunset Strip by a succession of exuberant trumpet melodies. This three-part suite, depicting a night in the life of the Hollywood route, is an enjoyably irreverent work, abundant in melodic interest and pointed in its instrumentation. The third movement (‘7 AM’) has the sort of sweeping melody Leonard Bernstein used to great effect, while the more static first movement works its theme well between the instruments. Daugherty’s scoring gives the feel of a big band rather than symphony orchestra. Something more intimate in the second movement, the two trumpeters briefly flirting with the melody of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’.
Ned Rorem’s juxtaposition of symphonic foreboding and languid jazz interludes is less successful, though does fulfil its purpose of depicting a surreal dream experienced by the composer. Strings and percussion portray a scene rather similar to that of a horror film, but the jazz interludes, despite being well-marshalled by Brandford Marsalis and his Quartet, make it difficult to regroup until a spiky percussive report near the end makes the nerves jangle again.
Also composing to a programme is John Williams, the three-movement Escapades, a concertante piece for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra, adapted from music to the film “Catch Me If You Can”. The sly rush of the first movement, punctuated by finger-clicks, has a nice ebb-and-flow, the clarity of the orchestral forces an ideal complement to Marsalis and his thoughtful solos. The finale is a different story: a headlong chase sequence that rushes from one frame to another, incisive dialogues between soloist and orchestra helping it on its way.
With high-quality performances and recording, this release has a great deal to recommend it, and illustrates for the most part that popular music can indeed be blended into classical forms without the need to compromise integrity.