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CD Review

World Premiere Recordings

  • Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire
  • Michael Gandolfi: Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman *
Eighth Blackbird
* Atlanta Symphony Chorus
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Robert Spano
ASO Media CD-1001
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Since ASO Media has seemingly moved away from recording this kind of repertoire, perhaps this 2011 project needs some critical attention. As I've written elsewhere, Robert Spano has created a world-class ensemble in the American South that rivals any major orchestra working today. In new and exciting works, especially those with chorus, they have literally no peer. While recent releases from this label have been more mainstream by focusing on Sibelius and Vaughan Williams (admittedly, these are two composers with whom Spano clearly identifies), the Atlanta Symphony still strikes me as more valuable when they tackle this particular brand of music.

Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi have both had exceptionally productive relationships with the conductor and ensemble, especially on disc. I especially like that they continue to get attention from these forces following the end of the orchestra's supremely fruitful Telarc period. In fact, Spano has championed Higdon everywhere, even with student ensembles, and the recordings he and his players have produced are excellent without fail. This particular Higdon work is a concerto on acid. Composed for the very talented – and very cool – eighth blackbird ensemble, the piece is a concerto for six. Considering that Beethoven's Triple Concerto gets attention simply by being for three, the fact that On a Wire actually works is nothing short of astonishing. The 20-plus minutes are surprisingly tight musically, and since Higdon has previously written music for this group, she has a clear understanding of its strengths. Oh yes, and the Atlanta forces are equally great.

In the Gandolfi, the Atlanta Symphony Chorus proves a real asset. Richard Feynman was a sort of intellectual jack-of-all-trades (though he was best known for his work in the field of nuclear physics), and he himself spoke admiringly of the music before he died. In that spirit, the texts are from all over, and have that kind of quirky weirdness that make geniuses like Feynman so endearing. The result is – as Feynman himself notes – a mash-up of different poets and ideas, and the choice of poetry draws from Feynman's lectures and videos. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus give the work an appropriate feeling of vastness, of true depth and feeling. The liner notes prove just as engaging as the poems themselves, and this is one of the few pieces that I might suggest following along as the music goes.

My only gripe is that the Atlanta team couldn't find a third and final work to give the disc a more ample play time, but the works on this disc – while not especially difficult to love – are not exactly light fare, either. The sound on the disc is excellent, and the packaging is much better than I expect from most in-house labels.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet