2 Reviews: Symphony No.2 CD

From the January/February 2020 issue of Fanfare Magazine:

Locklair Symphony No.2, “America”.1 Hail the Coming Day.2 Organ Concerto.3 Phoenix4 • 3Peter Mikula (org); 1, 4Kirk Trevor, 2, 3Michael Roháč, cond; Slovak Natl SO • Naxos 8.559860 (Streaming audio: 63:03) https://www.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/item.asp?cid=8.559860

When Wake Forest University composer Dan Locklair’s Second Symphony, “America,” was premiered in 2017 by the Western Piedmont Symphony, the North Carolina Classical Voice summed it up as “soon-to-be-a-hit.” I can understand why, and this release should help make it so. Locklair writes in a tonal idiom and composes without the sneaky embarrassment afflicting most contemporaries in the wake of a welcomely defunct dodecaphonic era.

Twelve-tone composition, after all, held a notorious stranglehold on new music premieres in America for decades. Beginning somewhere around 1950 it had an unavoidable effect on all composers, including those who disliked it. Even Leonard Bernstein and Howard Hanson felt at times impelled to insert tone rows in symphonies, lest they be thought insufficiently up to date. When choking audiences at last began to demand relief from a political correctness musicians irreverently termed “pluck and scratch,” it tended to come under the guise of “minimalism,” which as often as not waterboarded simple chords, repeating and rotating and chugging them along ad infinitum. We went from parched ears to nearly drowned. Another tactic, still very much with us, has been to make music melodic, yes, but harsh and metallic, as if screeching tunes through tin cans filled with nails could achieve originality. You don’t necessarily run from the concert hall. But you wouldn’t want to play most contemporary pieces for consolation the day your dog dies, either. In any case, Shostakovich usually did it better!

So I welcome Locklair’s Symphony No. 2 for sounding like the simple, brassy patriotic work it is, something which could have been written by a populist composer in the 1930s or 1940s. Each movement is based on a well-known tune, America the Beautiful for “Independence Day,” Taps for “Memorial Day,” and We Gather Together for “Thanksgiving.” The melodies are cleverly disguised at first and flower towards the end of each movement with a lovely simplicity. It reminds me of William Schuman’s popular New England Triptych, though it’s even gentler and ends quietly, or something by Morton Gould. Locklair’s style is bouncy and optimistic in the symphony and not significantly different in the other pieces. Hail the Coming Day celebrates the coming together of Winston and Salem, North Carolina and is subtly based on Hosanna. Phoenix is an expanded fanfare piece composed to celebrate the renovation of Union Theological Seminary’s James Memorial Chapel. The Organ Concerto is rare in not making any ugly noises. One appreciates Locklair’s restraint with the instrument. Its slow movement is both humorous and moving: based on a triad dedicated to God and to the reverse of God, spelled dog, given the fact that the composer’s beloved Sheltie was dying at the time he composed it. The composer’s notes are worth reading.

The performances here, under a Slovak organist, two conductors (one British, one Canadian), and a Slovak orchestra, are utterly winning and American-sounding in manner. Naxos has provided beautiful sound. It isn’t often that one can leave the concert hall humming happy tunes. Some may find Locklair’s style too optimistic, as if it were waiting for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to kick in, but I don’t hold that against it. How often do composers bring us joyous music, after all?

Steven Kruger

From the January 2020 issue of BBC Music Magazine:

Dan Locklair, Symphony No. 2, etc. Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, Naxos 8.559860

Full-hearted music from the American composer in a disc of premiere recordings. Hail the Coming Day is a particular pleasure; the Concerto comparatively benign. (MB) – 3 stars