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Record Review


The half century between the dates of the earliest composers heard here, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Aaron Copland (1900-1990), and the later ones, Christopher Theofanidis (b.1957) and Jennifer Higdon (b.1962), emphasizes a dreary gulf in classical music that was filled by "pre-compositional" techniques like 12-tone, serial composition and atonalism. Now it appears modernism in classical music has finally died an unlamented death.

In its place, newer composers can write honest melodies without shame. Higdon describes her Blue Cathedral as "a journey where the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. As the journey progressed, the speed of the traveler would increase, rushing forward and upward." Theofanidis bases Rainbow Body on a medieval chant by Hildegard von Bingen, using a "wet" acoustic to suggest the reverberation of sound in an old cathedral, building to a peak of intensity by the end.

The older composers represent Copland's well-known Appalachian Spring, and one that has long been crying out for an audience, Barber's Symphony No. 1. Both artists are quintessentially American -- simple and direct, reserving intricacy for the development of musical ideas. Copland, especially, seems in tune with words of the Shaker hymn whose melody he quotes: "Tis a gift to be simple, / Tis a gift to be free." Even the more complex Barber economically incorporates the four sections of a classical symphony in one tight movement; a moving oboe solo over a beautiful accompaniment in the orchestra is a highlight here.

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