Harbison and Stucky Headline a Stirring Naxos CD

Fascinating program from conductor David Alan Miller


A recent CD in the “American Classics” series from Naxos offers a compelling combination of works, masterfully played by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, conducted by David Alan Miller. John Harbison headlines the booklet, but the first work on the disc is the earliest, Sun-Treader, by Carl Ruggles. I have strong, if not exactly fond, memories of this work: among my earliest purchases of Deutsche Grammophon LPs in the early 1970s had Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in this Ruggles piece and Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England. Of course it is the latter work that is the more enduring and far more often programmed, but at the time I was particularly taken with the opening moments of Sun-Treader, with its insistently booming timpani and piling-on brass chords. In the end I was frustrated—first that Ruggles only wrote ten works in a lifetime that spanned 95 years, and then that as I listened a few times to his most famous piece, that I just kept waiting for the occasional reappearance of that opening sequence (and it does return a few times). The quarter-hour work is a dense combination of quasi-atonal colors, and presents as much of a challenge to the players (and the “kids” in the NOIP make it sound easy) as to the listener…but I was glad to hear it again, and to see that the work still has a toehold in at least American repertory.

The recording really gets down to business with the Second Concerto for Orchestra by Steven Stucky. Only in recent months have I begun to realize what a treasure we lost when this composer passed away in 2016. Just last season the Madison Symphony Orchestra had their first crack at his music in performances of his Symphony. On this CD, the 2004 work represents a kind of culmination of Stucky’s work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the fine booklet notes by Robert Linott detail the composer’s myriad “codes” of notes and references in the work. Frankly, I was unaware of them the first time I listened to the piece, and really didn’t think about the second time. In fact, I already feel as though repeated hearings will continue to reveal layers of sound and structure that are the real point of any great music.

The heart of the three-movement work is the second movement “Variations.” These are not the kind of variations that are easy to follow as they unfold, and for that matter, Stucky’s treatment of the orchestra does not remind one of Bartok or Kodaly’s works of the same name. This is not so much about spotlighting individual instruments or even sections in their turn, a la those more famous examples—but it does carry the kind of lasting weight that made it a worthy choice for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music.

One can’t say that producer and engineer Phil Rowlands (who clearly played a key element in the success of this recording) necessarily saved the best for last by placing Harbison’s Symphony No. 4 at the close of the disc, but we locals certainly can be forgiven for rooting for our own Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Fellowship winner. After all, John Harbison turns eighty this December, and a number of major tributes and performances are already unfolding (here in Madison we will be treated to the world premiere of his Viola Sonata in February, among other things).

Interestingly, Harbison’s symphony dates from the same year as the Stucky concerto, the result of a centennial celebrating commission by the Seattle Symphony. The five-movement work (coming in in a lean 25 minutes) has both a fascinating genesis and bracing orchestral palette. It is the penultimate movement, “Threnody,” which was both written first and is the emotional heart of the piece. The preceding “Fanfare,” “Intermezzo” and “Scherzo” lead up to it, and other than the opening, the next two movements certainly belie traditional expectations. There is little that is relaxed about the Intermezzo, and the Scherzo, while containing a great deal of tension, does not operate on the high-energy rhythmic plane we usually associate with the form (this is not a criticism!—just a matter-of-fact description). The Threnody is deeply moving and again, a repeated hearing brought other nuances to light. The Finale may come across as the most traditional formally, but sacrifices none of the invigorating elements that brought us to this point. Here in Madison we have had relatively little of Harbison’s large-scale works (although we are richly compensated by 29 years of he and wife Rose Mary Harbison’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival each August); this taste of his symphonic output makes us eager for the pending Naxos release of his Requiem.

Finally a word about this remarkable orchestra: according to the booklet, “The National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Performing Arts Center is formed each June from the musicians of the National Orchestral Institute.” In other words, a very youthful, quasi-“pick-up” band. Trust me…you have to hear it to believe it. Kudos to them and to maestro Miller.

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