Two contemporary world premieres paired with Samuel Barber’s masterful First Symphony make this disc a delicious sampling of neoromanticism in American music.
The standout here, and the main reason to buy this disc is the glorious Jennifer Higdon Harp Concerto (2017). Higdon, the third woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (by my count) is clearly schooled in a wide variety of compositional techniques which she uses judiciously. She is unabashedly a romantic but her sound is hardly retro. She, like many well trained and talented composers, uses her many skills and techniques judiciously. Nothing experimental here, just good writing for both orchestra and soloist.
Higdon’s concerto is cast in four movements and grabs the listener’s interest immediately. Using her gift for writing melody and effective use of extended harmonies she crafts a truly great concerto for the instrument. It is bright, playful, and engaging. Her writing for the harp (and Kondonassis’ seemingly easy grasp of astounding virtuosity and lyricism) work well with the orchestral writing making a very satisfying listening experience.
The soloist, Yolanda Kondonassis, is a familiar name to fans of harp music. Her many albums demonstrate a range of interests and skills that keep her name in the public eye/ear. Her recording of the Ginastera concerto was reviewed previously on this blog here. Listeners are advised to explore her web site for more exciting and listenable music.
The second piece, Samuel Barber‘s First Symphony Op. 9 (1936) is an acknowledged masterpiece of the mid-century American neoromantic tradition. Barber’s music hearkened back to the romanticism of the late 19th century at a time that also saw the birth of a great deal of post-Schoenberg modernism. Some of the similarities between Barber’s work and Higdon’s is doubtless the reason for the inclusion of this too little heard masterwork. It is cast in one movement and makes wonderful use of a large orchestral palette.
This is followed by the second world premiere on the disc by one Patrick Harlin, a name unfamiliar to this reviewer but one with, apparently, a similar aesthetic and some serious skills as a composer/orchestrator. Rapture (2016-7) certainly shares some of the sonic fingerprint of the previous two pieces and raises the specter of another talented composer emerging into the light of said American Rapture.
The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is clearly up to the task as is conductor, Ward Stare who is another rising star you’ll want to keep on your collector’s radar. His grasp of conducting and insight into this music suggests he will continue to surprise and please audiences.
The recording on Cleveland based Azica records is well recorded and all the music supports repeated listenings where the attractive surface of the music gives way to more detail. All in all a CD that fans of Jennifer Higdon, Yolanda Kondonassis, and American Romanticism will want to own.