Mark John McEncroe: Dark Clouds In Life: Natalie's Suite & Other Works
Navona Records

It's not uncommon for classical composers to explore themes of tragedy and loss in their works, but such themes are often handled in a rather general way that accentuates their universality. On Dark Clouds In Life, Australian composer Mark John McEncroe foresakes the general for music that couldn't be any more particular. Yet in writing material that is so personal, he also maximizes its emotional effect, and as a result, even though the music is rooted in experiences he and his family have endured, it communicates in such a powerful way that others are able to experience vicariously the emotional terrain encompassed by the project.

Certainly one of the things that makes the release so striking is that, conceptually speaking, much of its content deals with issues of addiction and depression. Though Natalie's Suite: Three Faces of Addiction is dedicated to McEncroe's daughter in recognition of her own struggles, it's also a self-portrait of sorts, too, given that the composer himself wrestled with the same issues as a youth. And though three decades have passed since he freed himself from the throes of addiction, McEncroe knows that vigilance must be maintained at every moment to remain free of its grip.

Enhancing the personal character of the project is the fact that the pianist involved is Helen Kennedy, McEncroe's piano teacher who has, according to the composer, “witnessed many of the ups and downs of [his] life and the other person that this work is dedicated to, [his] daughter.” Kennedy's playing is featured in three of the album's four pieces, specifically the opening three-movement work and two solo piano settings. The Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore performs alongside Kennedy on Natalie's Suite and alone on the single-movement Symphonic Poem: Echoes From a Haunted Past. Mention also must be made of Mark Saliba, who has worked with McEncroe since 2007 and orchestrated Natalie's Suite.

Billed as a “Symphonic Suite for Piano & Orchestra,” Natalie's Suite features Kennedy prominently though not to the degree that the piece feels like a conventional piano concerto. Instead, her delicate, heartfelt playing often blends into the orchestra's, even if there are passages when she's heard alone. With strings, woodwinds, and percussion complementing the piano, “Facing the Demons” and “Into the Dark Spaces” plunge into dark territory, their melodic and primary thematic material almost Bruckner-like in impact. Stirring moments abound, among them an episode seventeen minutes into the opening movement where aching themes by piano and violin are voiced.

In this opening work in particular, McEncroe demonstrates an uncanny ability to channel emotion into musical form without apparent filter. The first two movements convey sadness and regret with immediacy; the music eloquently speaks of precious moments lost, and an undercurrent of grief and even despair runs through it, though subtly. The listener isn't overwhelmed by overwrought expressions of anguish; instead, the emotional impression establishes itself like an insistent ache. Amplifying that sense of unease is McEncroe's decision to stay within the home key for the work's entirety, a move that generates a tension that's both considerable and inchoate, something felt more than consciously noted. The effect is something like the feeling produced when the resolving of a chord within a melodic progression is withheld, the key difference here being that rather than tension lasting for moments, it extends for twenty-minute intervals. While darkness does permeate the opening movements, hope and resilience arise during the quietly triumphant third, “Moving into the Light,” in a way that suggests the overcoming of addiction and the promise of future possibilities.

Though the two piano settings originally appeared on earlier recordings—Natalie's Theme on Reflections & Recollections Vol. 2, The Pendulum on Reflections & Recollections Vol.1—their inclusion (in re-recorded form) proves greatly enhancing for the contrast they provide to the orchestral works. The gentle Natalie's Theme, for example, provides welcome relief, arriving as it does after the emotional exhaustion induced by Natalie's Suite.

Considering that the first two compositions already constitute a thoroughly satisfying fifty-three minutes of music, Dark Clouds In Life could have been released minus the concluding pieces and still feel complete. But their presence in no way detracts from the overall impression; if anything, they enhance it by tonally complementing the opening pieces: Symphonic Poem: Echoes From a Haunted Past distills the elegiac character of the larger symphonic work into a compact, nine-minute design; The Pendulum brings the recording to a lulling close with four minutes of metronomic rhythms and pretty melodic filigrees.

McEncroe's Navona debut release impresses on so many levels, it's hard to highlight one at the risk of selling another short. But perhaps more than anything else, it's the music's emotional dimension that proves most affecting in the way it intensifies the poignancy of the material involved. Such remarkable and intensely rewarding music ultimately transcends any category one might attempt to impose upon it.

March 2017