Mr Hollands Opus – An American Symphony*
The National Symphony Orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra*
conducted by Leonard Slatkin
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: April 2001
CD No: DECCA 467 631-2
I don’t think I’ve previously heard a note of Michael Kamen’s music, which might be another way of saying I don’t get out much, certainly not to the cinema. If you don’t know, Kamen is the composer of a number of film scores including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Mr Holland’s Opus. The latter is represented here by a five-movement, 18-minute suite (symphony, American or otherwise, seems an overstatement). The opening section certainly suggests rolling credits, the movie concerning aspiring composer, Mr Holland, realising that it’s really all about sharing a love of music with other people. Most inventive in the central scherzo, the piano part (Simon Mulligan) seeming to stray from Shostakovich’s First Concerto but with a busier orchestra (courtesy of the composer, Jonathan Sacks and Blake Neely), which captures Holland’s industry as he marks his students’ homework (an off-beat quote from a rather well-known Beethoven symphony in attendance).
Either side of this are two affecting lyrical numbers, the first with Leila Josefowicz (recorded in Tallinn, not that you’d notice she wasn’t in Abbey Road; one wonders though why Michael Davis or Stephen Bryant, the BBCSO’s co-leaders, aren’t playing this violin solo). The other movement features Kamen himself as a mellifluous and sweet-toned cor anglais player attractively supported by harp and harpsichord.
Josefowicz’s appearance raises doubts about Mr Holland’s recording quality. As recorded or mixed, her sound is tonally rather edgy. The final movement, which introduces guitar, bass and drums, seems to me to be excessively noisy, both in orchestration and in the harsh, aggressive recorded balance. To complete the negatives, I have reservations about the booklet. The pleasing colours and lines of the front cover give way inside to small, white print on a brown background that is difficult to read.
The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms is a substantial 40-minute symphonic poem that proves to be richly enjoyable. This CD presents a compilation of the first performances given in Washington DC’s Kennedy Centre in January 2000. The orchestra takes a couple of minutes to arrive – I understand that the opening is pre-recorded and, at the concerts, was played through monitors at the back of the hall: a cello, which should be heard as being placed centrally and above the listener, intones a meditative solo (‘The Eagle Soars’) against an atmospheric background of suggested open-space.
Inspired by the industrious Anasau tribe, which inhabited the American Southwest and ‘disappeared around 1300 AD’, Michael Kamen says his piece ‘evokes the spirit of the people who passed this way a thousand years ago’. The moon – old and new – is a ‘glimpse of the future in the light of the past’.
I have now listened to The New Moon… several times – with increasing admiration. There’s plenty of memorable invention – the fast, rhythmic energy of ‘Tribal Dance’ develops – symphonic reach is established – and the colours and aspiration of the best American music are omnipresent. There’s heart too as the long-breathed melodies, and being-alive sentiment, testify; this is music that – like the eagle – soars gloriously.
The orchestration courtesy of the composer, Robert Elhai and Brad Warnaar is sonorous, kaleidoscopic and always lucid, and makes for a work with a powerful sense of narrative. The drive I associate with Peter Mennin’s symphonies, the orchestration-traits and humanity of William Schuman (beginning of track 3) and the wide cultural base of Aaron Copland all combine with Kamen’s own gifts for melody, description and communication for a score that is both tradition-based and attractively contemporary; the symphonic berth ensures disparate sections are bonded.
The New Moon… should attract a wide audience. Leonard Slatkin knows just where Kamen is coming from, and his orchestra’s performance is committed and brilliantly responsive; the superb recording, being vivid and tangible, involves the listener in Kamen’s expression and the performers’ conviction.