It’s ambitious for a student orchestra to give four world premiere recordings—three original scores and one new arrangement—on a single CD, but everything here is compelling on its own terms and also different enough to keep the listener’s interest level high. The Moores School of Music at the University of Houston boasts an accomplished orchestra, whose recordings have been favorably reviewed in Fanfare over the years. New music has been a consistent theme, as here. I’d call every work accessible, appealing, and, at its best, engrossing.
At 33 minutes, the longest and most ambitious work is by Swiss composer Thomas Fortmann, whose Symphony No. 2 is titled “Etruria” to evoke the ancient Etruscan culture that inhabited Tuscany. A mysterious people known primarily through tomb sculptures, where remarkably lifelike portraiture typically shows the dead with enigmatic smiles on their faces, the Etruscans appealed to Fortmann, who has long resided in Tuscany—he’s now 64—because of “the formidable status of music in everyday life and religious ceremonies.” “Etruria” is eclectic in the extreme, which is understandable given the composer’s background. At 16 he began as a rock musician and songwriter of pop hits published in 27 countries and widely performed in Germany. He then turned his back on rock and began a serious study in classical composition. Eventually Fortmann developed a style that includes influences from more directions than I can count, including rock, jazz, folk, traditional modal harmonies, and what he calls “complementary dodecaphonic.”
Reading this description and not having an appetite for alphabet soup, you’d be tempted to think that Fortmann’s Symphony No. 2 will be a mélange of ingredients thrown into a stockpot. In fact, “Etruria” is engaging at every moment, and its stylistic drift is toward melody, dance, rhythmic momentum, and even a kind of Great Plains sweep that reminded me of Roy Harris. The four movements bear no descriptive titles, and it’s not necessary to reach for Etruscan connections to absorb a score this lively and inventive. If as a composer you’re going to offer something new around every corner, it’s good to have an intuitive feeling for how they all fit together, as Fortmann does.
Two American premieres occupy the middle of the program. Robert Nelson was commissioned to write a new orchestral work by a conference of music educators, with the proviso that it could be played by talented students. He decided to include a colleague from the Moores School, violinist Andrzej Grabiec, former concertmaster of the Rochester Philharmonic and even earlier a very young concertmaster in his native Poland with the country’s Radio and Television Symphony. In tribute to Grabiec’s “quick wit and marvelous sense of humor,” Nelson chose a traditional genre, the caprice, in order to display his friend’s personality. His sweet-natured Capriccio, at just under nine minutes, reminds me of Bernstein’s Serenade with a warm gust of Samuel Barber’s lyricism. The soloist’s passagework isn’t beyond the skill of a talented student violinist, yet Grabiec gives it an exciting edge.
In Astral Blue , there’s an evocation of planet Earth as beautiful and spectral at the same time—in recent years we seem to have a new subgenre of pieces written in the spirit of ecology. Peter Lieuwen isn’t a strict Minimalist, but Astral Blue takes advantage of motor rhythms, repetition of simple chords, and chorale-like melodies that made me think (in a good way) of Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann. Lieuwen’s melodies gorgeously float in orbit around the planet, and there’s affection in every bar. Woven into its textures is the famous B-A-C-H motif.
Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is a suite for wind band of folk songs from the east coast of England; the material was gathered in the field by Grainger and set down on wax cylinders. In making an arrangement for full orchestra, Merlin Patterson tries to convey the character of the singers heard on these early recordings from 1905–06. A prolific arranger for wind band himself, Patterson has gone considerably further in color, ingenuity, and inventive surprises that won’t be found in Grainger’s original. The six songs suggest a depth of feeling that he amplifies, and although only one folksong, Lord Melbourne , was known to me, I discovered Rufford Park Poachers to be haunting and complex as treated here. Even without their words, these songs are rich in the ambience of a tradition that has attracted many British composers, most notably Britten, but Patterson has achieved something special here.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience, with good, informative notes and up-to-date sound. Conductor Franz Anton Krager (“American born and bred,” as his bio starts out) clearly inspires his young musicians to be at their best.