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Review: American Rapture

Date: September 16, 2019
Marcus Karl Maroney, Concertonet.com. Click here for the original review.

Ward Stare leads the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in a thrilling triptych of works that presents a wonderful cross-section and brief history of American compositional voices. The line from Samuel Barber to Patrick Harlin can be easily heard, with Jennifer Higdon an important stepping stone in between.

Higdon’s new Harp Concerto, commissioned by a consortium of American orchestras and written for and dedicated to Yolanda Kondonassis, is a substantial 20-minute piece in four movements. The composer aimed to “show off the wonderful aspects of this grand instrument,” and does just that. There are many effective and beautiful moments in the piece, notably the tender chamber-music dialogues in the third movement, “Lullaby.” Other moments don’t fulfill expectations, such as the second movement, “Joy Ride.” Here, a compound meter perpetual motion piece, bringing to mind “Mercury” from Holst’s The Planets, lacks that movement’s leggiero voicing and orchestration. Higdon’s simply-planed chords start to sound heavy and less than joyous after only a few moments. Despite uneven moments, the work is a strong addition to a limited repertoire, and Kondonassis plays effortlessly. Stare coordinates orchestra and soloist perfectly.

The old guard is represented by a distinctive reading of Samuel Barber’s First Symphony. The first section is on the edge of being turgid, Stare taking an even more measured pace than Barber’s already-slow metronome marking. Faithfulness to tempo modifications throughout the piece are admirable, and the gradual acceleration in the third section is expertly paced, making the movement’s climax all the more monumental. The RPO’s principal oboist deserves hearty congratulations for managing the movement’s famous opening solo at such a measured tempo, with beautiful tone and phrasing. The wind playing is also fantastic in the contrapuntal second section of the symphony, which similarly builds to a thrilling climax. At times, the interpretation seems oddly rigid, but it is certainly powerful and stands up well to the limited but excellent discography for this important piece of American symphonic writing.

Patrick Harlin, the up-and-comer on the disc, makes a stunning impression with his unabashedly over-the-top Rapture. Harlin has certainly done his homework, and craftily synthesizes the rhythmic wizardry of John Adams, pop influence of Michael Daugherty, blazing dissonances of Christopher Rouse, and inevitable energy gain of Joan Tower (among other influences peaking out here and there) into a riveting, distinctive piece. The composer aimed to musically portray a “universal human experience, the onset of extreme emotion” and does a great job at it. The work could be a soundtrack for one of the currently-popular endless running games, with dastardly sharp turns of tempo and dynamic that present many pitfalls to the musicians. Stare and the RPO are in full command and never falter, making the nine-minute romp enjoyable from downbeat to massive ending.

The live recording is thrilling and detailed, with a few knicks betraying its provenance but also providing the energy of in-person performance. The total playing time is a bit short, especially since the quality of playing and music makes one eager to hear more from these artist. Liner notes are mere reprints of information available online, but that can’t be seen as a serious fault to an otherwise solid recording.