VA: Tomorrow's Air: Contemporary Works For Orchestra & Large Ensemble
Navona Records

Works by six contemporary composers appear on Tomorrow's Air, which is an especially interesting title considering that many build upon styles associated with twentieth-century figures such as Bartok, Prokofiev, Sibelius, and Debussy. In itself, that's hardly surprising—every composer builds on the foundations of others—and it's hardly objectionable either: the six pieces are a thoroughly rewarding lot that speak highly on behalf of their creators, Hilary Tann, Daniel Perttu, Pierre Schroeder, Hans Bakker, Jan Järvlepp, and Paul Osterfield. These emotionally evocative and largely tonal works satisfy, regardless of whether they feel more strongly connected to early twentieth-century traditions than those of its second half.

The longest of the pieces at almost fifteen minutes, Tann's Anecdote also commands attention for being presented first. In contrast to the choral music featured on the Welsh-born composer's recent Navona Records release, the excellent Exultet Terra, Anecdote is a bravura instrumental showcase for cello soloist Ovidiu Marinescu, whose every lyrical move is shadowed by the supple textures of the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Târgu Mures. To fashion the single-movement work, Tann, who lives in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, drew for inspiration from Wallace Stevens's nature musings in his poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” a setting that understandably resonated given her own avowed connection to the natural world. Just as an anecdote involves the sharing of a personal story, the solo cello recounts its own circuitous tale with no small amount of urgency against a dramatic, ever-evolving orchestral backdrop whose strings, horns, and woodwinds convey the lush expressive character of a Mahler symphony or Schoenberg tone poem.

Following Tann's setting is Dutch composer Hans Bakker's sinuous Cantus for String Orchestra, which in this six-minute Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra performance evidences both a Bartok-like mystery in its macabre melodies and the elegance of Stravinsky's neo-classical style in its string writing. Lyrical too is Daniel Perttu's To Spring – An Overture, which in its title alone exudes an air of Impressionism, even if it was inspired by the 1783 poetic ode of the same name by William Blake. Written in honour of his two daughters, the piece is Perttu's attempt to render into orchestral form their Spring-epitomizing spirits; certainly the music, a vivid, multi-hued scene-painting packed with orchestral detail feels like a blossoming, whether it be of youth or the natural world, and a triumphant one at that. Markedly different in tone is the heartfelt string orchestra piece In Memoriam, which sees Ottawa-born Jan Järvlepp honouring his late brother Harry, a victim of liver cancer. By the composer's own admission music that could have been written a century ago, the setting emerged out of the experience as a spontaneously composed expression of grief.

Late Harvest, a somewhat brooding meditation for string ensemble (with Sarita Uranovsky the violin soloist), bass clarinet, and piano by French-American composer Pierre Schroeder, follows, its title derived from the practice of wine making and specifically the idea of waiting beyond the traditional late summer harvest time to achieve a greater richness in the grapes and thus a more exquisite product. Rounding out the release is Nashville, Tennessee-born Paul Osterfield's wind ensemble piece Silver Fantasy, which offers a wide-ranging showcase for the flute and piccolo whilst also providing dynamic supporting passages to the woodwinds, brass, and percussion sections. Serious it is, yet playful too in its Ives-like daring.

Anyone coming to Tomorrow's Air expecting to hear aleatoric, minimalism, or twelve-tone works will have to look elsewhere. All six pieces take their cue from an earlier time when a composer's energy was focused on translating into musical form the full spectrum of emotional states using largely tonal means and highly personalized compositional strategies. But though that might be the case, the material feels no less contemporary for doing so.

September 2017