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The University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of award-winning maestro James Allen Anderson, brings us Points of Departure: an all-new recording featuring the works of pivotal American composer Robert Moran.
With crystalline orchestral sonorities, assuredly whimsical craft, and a direct emotional appeal, Points of Departure is a musical journey of a lifetime. If you drew a Venn diagram showing the overlap of Handel, Pachelbel, Haydn, Wagner, Feldman, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass, and John Cage, it would only have one name in the middle: Robert Moran.
This is another in this first volley of new releases from Neuma. Philip Blackburn did fine service by reissuing the out of print the wonderful Argo recordings of Moran’s works and released two new collections from this all too little heard American composers as well as the gorgeous Trintity Requiem (2011) on Innova Records. He now continues his advocacy of this composer in the release on Neuma of two new Moran recordings, The second, Buddha goes to Bayreuth (2015) will get its own review shortly.
The present disc consists of five works, only one of which (Points of Departure) has been recorded before. Composition dates range from 1973 to 2017. Moran’s work is widely eclectic reflecting his early study with Second Viennese composer Eric Apostel, his M.A. studies at (the now lamentably defunct) Mills College where he studied with Luciano Berio and Darius Milhaud. HIs work ranges from graphic scores to post minimalist and post modern/neo-romantic styles doubtless influence at least in part by the various places he has lived (Vienna, Milan, Berlin, Portland, San Francisco, and Philadelphia where he now makes his home).
All of the works on this album are of the very listenable and sometimes unabashedly beautiful category. But these compositions belie the processes that underlie their structures and methods. What is most fascinating is Moran’s ability to use quasi aleatoric procedures (as in Star Charts and Travel Plans I) and produce results so gentle on the ear. This is a beautiful disc.
The all new recordings presented here begin with the titular Points of Departure (1993). It is a work for large orchestra which, according to Philip Gentry’s fine liner notes, is excerpted from a larger dance work. It is a rhythmic and exciting piece which demonstrates the composer’s mastery of the orchestra. One can easily imagine this accompanying choreography but it stands alone successfully as a concert piece.
The second track is Angels of Silence (1973) is seemingly anachronistic given it’s composition date when Moran’s output was arguably at it’s most experimental. Written during Moran’s time in San Francisco, it is one of a trilogy of works (between Messages from 1970 and Emblems of Passage from 1974). This trilogy followed on the heels of such grand experimental pieces as Thirty Nine Minutes for Thirty Nine Autos (1969) and Hallelujah (1971) for the city of Bethlehem, PA.
Here, despite the modernist use of chord charts for soloist and orchestra, we hear a very consonant piece which has an ethereal, gentle quality. To my ears it has much in common with the sound world of Stimmen Des Letzten Siegels (Voices of the Last Seal) (2001). The viola soloist, Romanian Maria Rusu, handles her role beautifully with the university of Delaware Symphony Orchestra under the guidance of conductor James Allen Anderson. This writer’s fingers are crossed in the hopes of hearing the remaining two pieces of this trilogy in the near future.
Next up is the five movement Frammenti di un’ opera barocca perduta (2017). The title translates to something like “fragments of a lost baroque opera” and reflects Moran’s deep interest in early opera. The composer mentioned in an email exchange with this writer some years ago that he greatly enjoys listening to early baroque operas and this influence is in evidence here (in fact the texts he sets are texts from operas of this era). Scored for large orchestra with countertenor, a vocal artistry nearly extinct in the 20th and 21st centuries save for Philip Glass’ (with whom Moran collaborated in the fine fairy tale opera, The Juniper Tree) casting of the lead in his opera Akhnaten.
This gloriously lyrical suite can be sung by a soprano (and on first listen done before consulting program notes my guess was soprano) but it is sung as written by a truly fine vocal artist, Daniel Bubeck. The orchestral intro is followed by three arias (fast slow fast) followed by a brief orchestral epilogue. The piece is in some ways Moran’s Pulcinella, an homage to the past in the garb of the 21st century.
Star Charts and Travel Plans I (2016-17) is yet another example of the composer’s remarkable ability to use non-traditional notation to achieve his compositional goals. This rather meditative piece is very much in keeping with the overall sound of this fine release.
The disc ends with another vocal piece, Yahrzeit (2002-18), described by the composer as a “memory piece”. It has much in common emotionally with his wonderful Trinity Requiem (2011). Yahrzeit is a Jewish custom practiced on the annual celebration of the memory of the honored deceased. It is in memory of AIDS victim Michael Neal Sitzer whose life partner, poet James Skofield, wrote the beautiful text. Commissioned by friends of the couple, it was originally scored for male chorus and orchestra. It is presented here in a version for basso profundo, sung most movingly by Zachary James .
This is another major addition to the still too small discography of this great American composer. It is beautifully performed and recorded, a joy for fans of Moran’s work and a gift to listeners.
If you drew a Venn diagram showing the overlap of Handel, Pachelbel, Haydn, Wagner, Feldman, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass, and John Cage, it would only have one name in the middle: Robert Moran. His working style is the very essence of cosmopolitan: a refined artist with a unique and recognizable voice drawn from an amalgamation of diverse compositional techniques, all in the service of expressive art. Points of Departure gathers five orchestral works together that showcase the composer’s contemporary Romanticism, quirky Baroque-ness, and seductively throbbing Post-Minimalism. In a word, Moran-esque. The University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of award-winning maestro James Allen Anderson, brings us this colorful compendium of works spanning 1973 to 2018. Some selections, like Angels of Silence, employ gorgeous harmonic clouds in a timeless sonic mobile (combined with the floating solo line of Romanian violist, Maria Rusu) or present organic aural forms generated by exploratory graphic notation, such as Star Charts and Travel Plans I. Others are teasingly reimagined arias from putative 17th Century Italian operas (sung dazzlingly by countertenor Daniel Bubeck). A different kind of love song appears in Yahrzeit, written in memory of Michael Neal Sitzer who passed away in 1995 from complications of AIDS. The work takes its inspiration from a poem by Sitzer’s partner, James Skofield. The poignant text blends imagery of nature with the passing of time and seasons, proclaiming that “love outlasts all seasons.” Originally written for men’s chorus and piano, this new version for orchestra and bass soloist (artfully crafted by Zachary James) is especially sublime. The album opens with Moran’s iconic and effervescent balletic romp, Points of Departure. With crystalline orchestral sonorities, assuredly whimsical craft, and a direct emotional appeal, Points of Departure is a musical journey of a lifetime.
Review: Arts and Culture Maven
MORAN Points of Departure. Angels of Silence.1 Frammenti di un’opera barocca perduta.2 Star Charts and Travel Plans I. Yahrzeit3 • James Allen Anderson, cond; 3 Maria Rusu (va); 2 Daniel Bubeck (ct); 3 Zachary James (bs); University of Delaware SO • NEUMA 123 (53:52 )
“If you drew a Venn diagram showing the overlap of Handel, Pachelbel, Haydn, Wagner, Feldman, John Luther Adams, Philip Glass, and John Cage, it would have only one name in the middle: Robert Moran.” Thus reads the opening of the promo sheet I received in conjunction with the review copy of the disc under review. I’m not sure if Robert Moran, a respected composer to be sure, would be the only composer in this imagined Venn diagram, but his musical style surely does admit to influences from a vast array of earlier composers. These he has successfully integrated into a style that is uniquely his own. The concert here contains a good sampling of this composer’s orchestral music, given that its works span the years 1973 to 2018. Additionally, it displays the talents of the University of Delaware SO, its conductor James Allen Anderson, and several fine soloists: violist Maria Rusu, countertenor Daniel Bubeck, and bass Zachary James. I could stop the review here and say, “grab a copy of this stellar CD before it disappears,” but I shall duly substantiate my rationale for that exhortation.
Points of Departure which opens the concert is what one might expect if a truckload of Minimalism collided with a freight train full of tunes, none of which survived the collision intact. Yes, the pulsating rhythms are present through much of the piece, but they are never allowed to sequence themselves into obnoxiousness. Interjections of melodic fragments are ubiquitous, and so are sudden outbursts from the timpani and various groups of instruments, all of which serve to weave together a work that is nothing less than palpably exciting. This purely orchestra piece was extracted by the composer from a larger dance work. Its firm tonality convinces the listener that there is much yet to be said in the tonal idioms.
Angels of Silence constitutes the earliest work heard here, and forms an elegiac work of 22 minutes’ duration for viola and chamber orchestra. A somber introduction sets up a rather eerie and static mood that eventually allows the soloist to sneak in with her own series of extensively sustained pitches. In contrast to the opening work, there are no tunes (or snippets thereof) at all in this work. Its effect, which is considerable, comes from the series of mood-inducing chords and sonorities, some more, some less “tonal,” although any sort of true functional harmony is also absent in this work. You will also listen to a lot of works for solo instrument and orchestra before you find one with so few notes given to the soloist, who fades in and out of prominence with sustained tones. In fact, I doubt the solo viola part has any more notes in it than the ensemble parts do; had the tray card not given Maria Rusu credit, I might have listened to the entire work without realizing there was even a soloist present. I do not deny the effectiveness of the piece even given this fact. I think it’s safe to state that Morton Feldman has had more influence on this work than on any of the others, and this work should appeal especially to his fans. Like other works from this era, the score is written in graphic notation rather than with traditional notes, measures, and the like.
Frammenti di un’opera barocca perduta from 2017 looks back to the Baroque era, not to the pious Germanic academic composers, but to the fantastical realm of 17th-centuray Italian opera. Its texts are drawn from those of several librettists from the era and shaped into a three-part meditation on love. Countertenor Daniel Bubeck floats his lovely voice over the ensemble, emphasizing the beautiful lyric lines found in this indescribably gorgeous work. Bubeck, originally a native of Delaware, attended the University of Delaware for his undergraduate studies, before moving on to Indiana University’s renowned Jacobs School of Music for his Masters and Doctoral degrees. He now teaches at the University of North Texas at Denton. His solid technique and impeccable intonation won him the attention of John Adams, with whom he has toured in the composer-conducted performances of El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Mary. In Moran’s work, Bubeck well captures and projects the varying moods to be found among the movements of the suite.
The Romantic aesthetic of Frammenti continues in Star Charts and Travel Plans I, a strictly orchestral work. In it, Moran takes the indeterminate patterns of the stars and seeks to translate these into a musical tapestry that draws upon the relationship of performer and listener. The score is itself not indeterminate, and evokes beauty and mystery throughout its brief (four-minute) duration. It seems to form an introduction to the CD’s closing work, Yahrzeit, scored for basso profundo, who (counter-intuitively) sings in his upper register throughout; I don’t believe he goes below the C an octave below Middle C in the entire work, in fact. The work is a beautiful elegy for Michael Neal Sitzer, who was a victim of AIDS in 1995, and whose friends commissioned the work from Moran, who set a text by author James Skofield, Sitzer’s partner. Its title refers to a Jewish custom of lighting a candle each year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Bass Zachary James does a splendid job in presenting the beautiful text and music that Moran has used in its setting and strikes a perfect balance between simplicity and profundity.
Throughout all of the pieces, the University of Delaware Symphony Orchestra under its conductor James Allen Anderson maintains the highest high professional and artistic standards, and the rich recorded sound enhances both the music and the sublime performances it receives.
As I said earlier, grab this while you can. University releases are often short-lived.
David DeBoor Canfield
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