Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, Conductor: Jennifer Higdon (2004)
This recording is auspicious for two reasons. First, it clearly indicates that we should expect the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s fourth musical director, Robert Spano, to take the orchestra in unexpected directions. His three previous recordings at the helm of the ASO have brought the young conductor a great deal of attention, while his recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony netted the conductor and orchestra three Grammy Awards. Not bad. For his fourth recording with the orchestra Shaw built, Spano programs two compositions by contemporary American Composer Jennifer Higdon: one her well-received Concerto for Orchestra and the world premiere of her tone pieces, City Scape.
Concerto for Orchestrawas commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra as part of its centennial celebration and was given its premiere in June 2002. It is a sprawling five-movement work, structurally fashioned after Bela Bartok’s own composition with the same title. Both works have more than title in common. They are both colorful and warm, exuberantly boisterous and expressive. Ms. Higdon studied composition with George Crumb and Ned Rorem, each of who left their indelible stamp on the young composer. However, Higdon restrains her composition to remain extremely accessible and listenable without sacrificing its demand for devoted attention. Higdon shares with Berlioz a superb grasp of orchestration that is evidenced by the deft manner with which she combines instruments or groups of instruments to achieve the rainbow of sound this composition exudes.
City Scapewas commissioned by the ASO and was given its world performance premiere in November 2002. It is a loving postcard depiction of Atlanta, the Athens of the West. The composer was asked for a multi-part composition, who’s pieces could be performed together, as a suite, or separately and alone. Ms. Higdon drew upon her experiences of living in Atlanta during her early life, her experiences giving shape to the three sections of the piece. "SkyLine" is a musical profile of the city texture. It is busy but not nervous, achieving crescendo and diminuendo in all of the right places and conveying a vibrantly alive and living organism in her fanfare horns. The second section of the suite, "River Sings a Song to the Trees" begins with windy percussion, honoring the romance in nature. The violin section provides a lush lawn on which the winds play. Plaintive and meditative, "River Sings a Song to the Trees" recalls Beethoven’s sunny Sixth Symphony.
The final piece, "Peachtree Street" is a bouncy summertime celebration with thundering percussion and lightening strings. Higdon’s phrasing is appropriate, but it also is very smart. This is an exciting time of the ASO. The fabled enfant terrible of American bands has completed its period of mourning following the death of Robert Shaw and has fully embraced maestro Spano and his certain and progressive vision. Bravo!
Track Listing: Concerto for Orchestra (I-V); City Scape: Skyline, River Sings a Song to Trees, Peachtree Street.
Personnel: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, Conductor.