There’s one reason in particular why Visions Take Flight, the double-CD debut release by ROCO, the Houston-based River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, nabbed the number nine slot in textura’s 2018 list of top classical releases. It’s not because the performances are stellar, which they are, and not because the ensemble plays magnificently, which it does. No, it’s because when ROCO selected works to include on the release, the musicians selected their favourite pieces from the group’s repertoire and the five chosen from the then fifty-eight available (the total now seventy-five) constitute an incredible sampling of material by living American composers. It’s this that recommends the release most, though the realizations by the ensemble, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, are as impressive. Six works by Karim Al-Zand, Reena Esmail, Derek Bermel, Anthony DiLorenzo, and Marcus Maroney appear, and while they’re all distinguished some leave a more lasting mark than others. The composers are young, the oldest of them born in 1967, and their pieces are marked by vitality, imagination, and an approach to composition that resists simple, by-the-numbers categorization.
Karim Al-Zand’s three-part Visions from Another World draws for inspiration from engravings by nineteenth-century illustrator J. J. Grandville of a fantastical world populated by mutant creatures and animated objects. A lively dance setting in 7/8 time, the suitably titled “Ronde fantastique” introduces the work with vibrant rhythms and splashes of woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion, Al-Zand maximizing ROCO’s orchestral resources in the process. Programmatically designed, the slow central movement “Funeral Cortège of the Silkworm” wends a ponderous, sinuous way through a path of shimmering strings, flutes, clarinets, oboes, and bassoons, after which “The Spinning Ballerina” concludes the work with four minutes of perpetual motion.
In composing the ten-minute Teen Murti for String Orchestra, Reena Esmail drew upon her study of Hindustani music, with the 2013 work presenting three tableaux, each rooted in a specific raag and joined to the others by a short interlude. In Esmail’s masterful evocation, a drone softly intones, its murmur a foundation for the melodies that blossom thereafter, some spirited and others peaceful. The piece truly soars, however, during a moving central episode that sees strings and a solo cello voicing mournful melismatic expressions characteristic of Indian music.
In the three-part Murmurations (also scored for string orchestra), Derek Bermel renders into remarkable musical form the graceful flight patterns of starlings. In the opening “Gathering at Gretna Green,” the strings evoke the dart and swoop of the flock, with the moment when the concertmaster’s heard alone intended to suggest the separation of one starling from the rest. It’s the second part, “Gliding over Algiers,” however, that makes the strongest impression. Throughout this wholly captivating movement, upper strings glide serenely on high, their gentle melodies buoyed by soft arpeggios in the lower strings. Truth be told, the effect isn’t all that far removed sonically from the majesty achieved by Mahler in his “Adagietto” from the Fifth Symphony. Regardless of the differences between the three parts, Bermel does a splendid job distilling into musical form the movements of the birds, their capacity for suddenly grouping and then splintering apart and the way their movements assume a logic that’s undeniable yet also impossible to predict.
The recording’s high point arrives with Anthony DiLorenzo’s magnificent Jabberwocky, a nineteen-minute tone poem that evokes in musical form Lewis Carroll’s fantastical ‘Looking Glass’ world. There’s a natural temptation to identify connections between Jabberwocky and the Carroll-inspired ones by David Del Tredici, but while that could be done DiLorenzo’s work holds up perfectly fine on its own terms. Further to that, one could also draw parallels, were one so inclined, between the musical material and plot details in Carroll’s book. But perhaps the best strategy is to simply let the composer’s material work its magic, which it most assuredly does when its resplendent soundworld, packed as it is with bassoons and percussion, unfolds so entrancingly. The combination of celeste and strings establishes a dreamlike quality in the opening minutes, a Debussy influence audible in the writing and orchestration, after which the piece advances through multiple episodes, many of them whimsical, until the final masterstroke arrives: Carroll’s incredible poem recited with immense flair and feeling (the female speaker unfortunately not identified) during the closing minutes.
Though Marcus Maroney’s Concerto for Chamber Orchestra was written with Bartók’s similarly titled work in mind, it was actually Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony that proved the more influential model. Maroney’s three movements follow the moods of Sibelius’s work, and the former similarly applied his precursor’s handling of pulse, ostinatos, and theme-and-repetition to his own explorative opus. A strong sense of organic development informs the piece, with the melodic patterns in each movement emerging elegantly and one dramatic moment following another with natural and, yes, Sibelius-like fluidity.
Whether by accident or design, the eighty-eight-minute recording unfolds like an ideal evening concert by the orchestra, with the break between the CDs equivalent to the intermission between the concert’s halves. In that regard, the final piece, DiLorenzo’s uplifting Anthem of Hope: Houston Strong, plays like an encore, its Copland-esque spirit consistent with the work’s origin as a work commissioned to honour the resiliency of the Houston community following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey. Certainly any concert featuring Esmail’s Teen Murti, Bermel’s “Gliding over Algiers,” and DiLorenzo’s Jabberwocky would be one well worth attending.