Gold Amid Pyrite On Modernist Disc By Utah Symphony

The nimblle Colin Currie is featured in Andrew Norman's virtual percussion concerto 'Switch.' (Linda Nylind)
The nimble Colin Currie is featured in Andrew Norman’s virtual percussion concerto ‘Switch.’ (Linda Nylind)

Dawn To Dust – Augusta Read Thomas: EOS (Goddess of the Dawn), Nico Muhly: Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra), Andrew Norman: Switch. Colin Currie, percussion, Utah Symphony Orchestra, Thierry Fischer (conductor). Reference Recordings FR-719 SACD

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – Another North American orchestra with an impressive yet lapsed history of recordings has returned to the discographic scene – the Utah Symphony. Maurice Abravanel put them on the map in the LP era, recording lots of American music, the complete symphonies of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, and – most famously – the first all-American Mahler symphony cycle (Bernstein’s pioneering set in New York detoured to London for No. 8). Since Abravanel’s retirement in 1979, Utah’s involvement with recordings has been sparse and scattershot, but current music director Thierry Fischer is trying to start it up again on a regular basis in the orchestra’s 75th year.

Utah album coverThe first release in fall 2015 was a rather routine Mahler First Symphony (Reference Recordings FR-715), designed as a tribute to Abravanel. Though Thierry clearly has brought Utah to a noticeably higher degree of polish than it had 40 years ago, Abravanel’s Mahler First on Vanguard (reissued by Musical Concepts) sounds fresher in spirit and more vivid in color and stereo separation when heard next to the Fischer disc. The second release, though, leaves the memories behind and sets off into new territory with three commissioned pieces that the Utah Symphony performed and recorded last year.

Augusta Read Thomas is, relatively speaking, the veteran of the trio of composers who are featured, and her EOS is a “ballet for orchestra” where Greek mythology is a platform for seven short episodes that progress from a Copland-flavored dawn to a gently clanging, full rising of the sun. In between these poles are dances with some jagged, lightweight rhythms and a central episode of reverie. Brightly scored, the piece sounds as if it is clearing its throat to say something and doesn’t quite get it out.

Nico Muhly, meanwhile, tries to evoke the colorful semi-arid landscape of Utah itself in Control with five soundscapes. It doesn’t emulate Messiaen’s on-location Des canyons aux étoiles  by any means – Muhly isn’t interested in sequels – yet not much in this score cuts a memorable profile of its own. “Mountains” is a static nature scene, with the occasional insect buzzing about; “Beehive,” which is supposed to represent technology trying to shape nature, chatters gently, busy doing nothing; “Petroglyph” pounds at stone, not really getting anywhere. These episodes all end up in the air without preparation, for no real reason.

Utah music director Thierry Fischer (Marco Borggreve)
Utah music director Thierry Fischer (Marco Borggreve)

Switch, by the omnipresent Andrew Norman, is the longest and most interesting piece here, virtually a percussion concerto for the nimble hands of Colin Currie, who is kept very busy with his arsenal of sticks and mallets. As per Norman’s well-known fixation on video games, the percussionist caroms all over the orchestra in a short-attention-span landscape that constantly changes at high speed. There are meditative troughs which give the soloist some much-needed rest, but the pinball machine (in Currie’s vivid description) starts up again soon enough; eventually he finds some peace at the end on a simple E major scale. This score would have been a natural for multi-channel surround sound, but as there was no apparent desire on the part of Norman or the engineers to take advantage thereof, there is just the usual hall ambience on the back channels of this SACD.

In other words, a mixed bag, but give Fischer and Utah plenty of credit for enterprise, joining their orchestral colleagues further west in bringing some new music onto disc. Given the frequency in which Norman’s music is played nationwide, there is shockingly little Norman available on CD (on YouTube, it’s another story), so this SACD automatically becomes a valuable addition to his slim discography.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.