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CD Review: “American Rapture” showcases three generations of American composers

Date: July 18, 2019
Olivia Kieffer, EarRelevant. Click here for the original review.

On May 17, Azica Records released the album American Rapture, featuring harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra led by conductor Ward Stare. The album contains works by three generations of composers from the United States: Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) and Patrick Harlin (b. 1984).

The album is aptly named; the music is certainly rapturous at times, and it all has an “American” sound to it, though I cannot put my finger on what that is. It’s an excellent album, and a great recording by the Rochester Philharmonic. For strictly classical music fans, the album will be forward thinking. For those more familiar with outside circles of contemporary classical music, it might seem a bit tame.

Jennifer Higdon’s four-movement Harp Concerto is the product of a a fruitful and inspiring musical collaboration between composer Higdon and harpist Kondonassis. Higdon wrote a new type of concerto: one where the harp is amplified and can be the bandleader.

Movement I, “First Light,” meanders like a bird flying low through a magical forest in the early morning. Movement II, “Joy Ride” is sprightly with strong thematic material. The combination of harp with glockenspiel and vibraphone is striking. The harp functions like a part of the orchestra during most of this movement, but at times it leads the way. Movement III, “Lullaby” is dreamy and lighter than the other movements. It reminds me of the early piano music of Peter Garland.

Movement IV, “Rap Knock,” is rhythmically based, with timbral flourishes and clusters between the harp and percussion. This movement has some Star Wars-like tutti moments, which feel like flying quickly through outer space, and it ends with a bang. I hope that Higdon’s “Harp Concerto” will get lots more play by different harpists in the future.

Samuel Barber’s Symphony in One Movement was written in 1936 and has all the parts of a classical four-movement symphony, but shortened into one 21-minute masterpiece. The performance here by the Rochester Philharmonic is outstanding. It’s a moving, exhilarating ride.

The highlight of the album is Patrick Halrin’s Rapture. He draws inspiration from a phenomenon known as “The Rapture” experienced by deep cave divers who spend weeks underground in absolute darkness, absent from normal circadian rhythms. The cavers experience a near crippling onset of emotion and a primal need to escape their environment, and some cavers say it is a deeply religious experience. Harlin writes “similar to extreme emotional states, musical elements in this piece start subtly and are magnified to their extremes, echoing throughout.”

Rapture is reminiscent of the styles of several other American composers, including William Susman, Danny Elfman, and Howard Hanson – yet Harlin’s compositional voice is unique and compelling. There is an inventive use of the clavé* throughout the piece. Sometimes it’s a 3/2 clavé, other times it’s 2/3, or mirrored rhythms between the two, and on several occasions the rhythm morphs into triplets. The music is joyful and effervescent. Cheers to Harlin for writing a piece that is not only rapturous but a rip snortin’ good time.