Review by Oakland May 8, 2008 (12 of 12 found this review helpful)
|It is frequently standard operating procedure that when you attend a symphony concert in the San Francisco Bay Area a thoroughly modern work is sandwiched in between the compositions that you paid mucho bucks to hear. And while most often, the works are delightful you wonder out loud (speaking with other attendees at intermission) whether you ever want to hear it again or much less buy a recording of it. Nevertheless, over the last few years I have developed (sometimes kickin' and screamin’) an acquired taste for mid to late 20th century music with more than my share of “West Coast Premiers”.
So maybe it’s due to the modern music symphonic experiences that I have been introduced to that helped me to take to Telarc’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” like a duck to water. But it’s more than that. Because even though my classical music “comfort zone” rests within the confines of Romantic Classical there are some (actually many) composers and compositions outside that zone that I like based strictly on the merits regardless of the period in which that music was composed. American Composer Michael Gandolfi “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” with Spano conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is firmly among those compositions. I am most excited about this work.
The composition is a musical expression that seeks to illustrate the details of an actual garden in Scotland. Although, only in hindsight, except for certain obvious portrayals of clearly identifiable garden characteristics (flowing water, birds, etc.) did I immediately “see” many of the illustrations. But this does not necessarily suggest that the music falls short in its illustrative portrayals. It may suggest only that I focused elsewhere and not on “program” content. With the material aid of the detailed movement-by-movement liner note descriptions, on subsequent listens I easily see that many of the depictions are uncannily three-dimensional and bring key aspects of the garden into focus with sunlit clarity.
For example, the movement (for lack of a more descriptive term) “Willowtwist” clearly, for me, reflects the liner notes and vice versa. And along the way provides the listener with some of the most fresh, exciting, and colorful new music that showcase the entire orchestra, but especially, the horns, trumpets, trombones (including bass), and tuba. Well done!
But let me clear, “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” does not have the illustrative clarity or power of a “Scheherazade” or better yet Ivan Fischer conducting Bartok's "Bluebeard Castle" (see my comments at /showreviews/1404#4181). Two of my favorite movements “Symmetry Break Terrace” and “The Quark Walk”, for me, the liner notes are not helpful in bridging the music to the program. I don’t hear a connecting link between the music and the program description. But I don’t sweat it. "Interpretation" is not my thing anyway. I chuck the liner notes until the next movement and simply enjoy the great music. And that’s one of the key draws of “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation”. I most enjoy music where thinking deeply about the content is optional. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to parse the composition whether popular, classical or jazz.
What did strick me immediately was the infinite palette of interwoven textures of the music. And within the confines of the music “infinite” is not entirely hyperbole. Gandolfi (and Spano) are able to maintain a strikingly high-level of creativity throughout this 67-minute, 3 part, 16 movement, orchestral work. This is not a composition where you get off to a rousing start, then have to pop a couple of No-Doz in the middle sections and hold on to your seat at the finish line (or worse, limp to the finish line). The creativity is sustained from stem to stern.
In one six-minute movement, the “Universe Cascade”, Gandolfi “samples” (in Hip-Hop vernacular) or quotes the music of other composers. This is done in a most imaginative way where Gandolfi traces the evolution of Western music beginning with, of course, a “Big Bang” and then briefly quotes (for a few seconds) or “samples” approximately 28 compositions beginning from 800 AD, Gregorian Chant to the modern era. In addition to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., he includes Miles Davis! But please understand, this is not, *at all*, hokey as I fear my writing skills fall short in describing this truly inspired work.
While there are numerous “types” of Western music that flow through or comprise this composition, this is at the same time thoroughly American music. A “Copland type” flavor makes its presence felt, if only periodically. But a direct Copland influence is not what I hear. Instead, the influence may be more “Americana” that reflects idyllically in the much music of 20th century American composers and serves Gandolfi’s music unfailingly.
What about the performance? Well, since the SACD cover says this is a “World Premiere Recording” I can say with impunity that this recording is the best available, if not “definitive”. No one can say “yeah, should hear the Otto Klemperer vinyl or have you heard the Carlos Kleiber CD? :). But seriously, I would love to know what Gandofi has to say. Also, perhaps someone has heard other performances of this work with other orchestras. Short of that, I must say the performance is very compelling.
This composition requires a very high level of musicianship. Nothing short of a highly skilled and well-rehearsed and well-endowed orchestra (about 115 musicians here) need apply. The virtuosity of all sections, musicians, or groups of musicians is on full display and any individual or section performance that is less than pristine would be blushingly exposed. One only needs to return to the “The Universe Cascade” described above for a foremost example. There each composition quote or “sample” features a group solo from every section of the orchestra (for me it recalled Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”). Spano and the Atlanta Symphony does a *grand* job. And to take *nothing* away from Atlanta, surely this performance must have taken quite a few takes to pull off to near perfection (“near” only because nothing is perfect). But the liner notes suggest that the entire recording was done on a single day (which does not rule out numerous takes but I would not have been surprised if more than a single recording date had been required).
What about the recording/sound quality? A couple of weeks ago the Hi-Rez Asylum had a spirited thread entitled “How far are audiophile systems from real live music”. Discussions like this, while often interesting, usually lead to the proverbial road to nowhere. Heck, I recall reading accounts of similar discussions held 50 years ago by the ancestors of present day “homo sapien audiophila” that strikingly drew many of the same observations and conclusions we came in the Hi Rez Thread. We just have less dots to connect that audiophiles in the past. But what if the question is put in a 2008 presidential election political context? That is, suppose one asks himself or herself, “Is your system closer to live music than it was eight years ago?” My personal answer, especially due to SACD multi-channel, would be a resounding yes!!!! And Telarc’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” is proof positive of my belief. The recording is stunning and is of demonstration quality.
Almost all (but not all) my listening was in multi-channel. But experience has shown me that if the multi-channel sounds very good the two-channel will also sound very good. In this case the two-channel should sound every bit as good as Telarc knows how; that is the sound is top-tier. And while the multi-channel will almost always sound better in my system, most key ingredients to the success (or failure) of a good recording are common to both multi-channel and two-channel. For example, “timbral colors” should be unaffected (although I’m not sure how “overtones” are effected, if at all). But the upside of multi-channel that contributes to increased sound quality is significant. Multi-channel can more accurately portray the 3 dimensional grandeur of the hall that includes “ambience and decay”. It can also more accurately “scale” the music, especially for large orchestral works (but for small works too), with respect to depth, breadth, and height. Thus the dimensions are deeper, the aspect ratio is more life-like. The potential of a more effortless reproduction of dynamics is usually evident, especially for a work like “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation”, if only because there is more driver real estate to help with the wide swings of dynamics.
Robert C. Lang
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