Brian Wilbur Grundstrom: An Orchestral Journey
Navona Records

If the five compositions featured on An Orchestral Journey are representative of Brian Wilbur Grundstrom's work—and it's a safe bet they are, given that they span the years 1999 to 2013—no one will mistake a piece by him for one by Webern or Boulez. Grundstrom, in fact, has more in common with a composer like Berlioz, Holst, or Copland than someone beholden to a particular school or system such as serialism or minimalism. Yet, interestingly enough, Grundstrom's adherence to a traditional tonal style makes him something of a radical in 2016: composing music that's so accessible constitutes some small act of rebellion, though it's important to emphasize that there's no hint of calculation or cynicism in play; on the contrary, one comes away from the recording fully convinced of Grundstrom's sincerity. A versatile and award-winning composer, he's written for orchestra, opera, film, theater, chorus, and chamber ensembles, and is currently writing an opera based on Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

His first orchestra work, 1999's Contentment, Poem for Orchestra memorably captures the melodic and lyrical dimensions of his style, the setting using the conventions of the “tone poem” to explore an abundance of orchestral colour and emotional expressiveness. For eleven minutes, the music flows elegantly, the composer drawing on the polyphonic potential of the orchestra's string, woodwind, and horn sections to paint the scene. As symphonically rich, Jubilation! Dance for Orchestra is suitably celebratory in spirit and rhythmic in design, with this time the resources of the percussion section exploited to accentuate the music's insistent drive. The combination of pizzicato strings and harp give 2009's American Reflections for Strings and Harp an appealingly light-hearted buoyancy during its opening minutes, even if darker shades gradually thread their way into the composition via an ominous waltz theme. The most recent work, 2013's Chenonceau is named after a castle in France's Loire Valley that's known for the beauty of its gardens, and Grundstrom's arrangement vividly conveys the visual splendour of the setting.

But of the five compositions, it's the Suite for Chamber Orchestra (2001-2002) that perhaps best captures the scope of Grundstrom's soundworld, seeing as how its three movements encompass such a panoramic emotional range. Written when he was living in Brooklyn with a clear view of the twin towers, the opening “Before the Fall” grows progressively more turbulent as it advances, as if in anticipation of the horrific event to come. The brooding tonalities that emerge in the first part deepen to Bartok-like degrees in “Avalon,” the title of course alluding to the island of healing King Arthur turned to after battle. In plunging into such dark waters, the movement features the album's most harmonically daring writing and is permeated by the emotional weight of tragedy, even at certain moments verging on overwrought. Not surprisingly, in conveying the joy and exultation that can eventually follow a period of mourning, the closing movement “Celebration!” feels worlds removed from the sadness of “Avalon,” especially when it culminates in a rousing, Copland-esque climax.

In contrast to the brooding portraits of composers typically presented, the photographs on the release's packaging show Grundstrom beaming, and it's easy to understand why. An Orchestral Journey is a recording that not only speaks powerfully of his gifts as a composer and orchestrator, it offers a splendid portrait drawn from fourteen years of creative production. That his music is so easy to warm up to certainly adds to its appeal.

September 2016