MusicWeb International Review: Symphony No.2 “America” CD

From MusicWeb International
This CD is part of Naxos’ American Classics series, and features the works of Dan Locklair who is Composer in Residence and Professor of Music at the Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

At the outset let me say that all the music presented here is tonal and makes an immediate impact by virtue of its colourful orchestration and, in the “America” symphony, its tunes based on traditional patriotic songs. The symphony opens in a manner which immediately reminded me of Copland in rumbustious ‘cowboy’ mood, and the piece is clearly written for inclusion in concerts that celebrate the ‘ideal’ American life. Thus, the movements are entitled ‘Independence Day’, ‘Memorial Day’ and ‘Thanksgiving Day’, with well-known melodies associated with those holidays being central to each movement. The work is easy to enjoy thanks to these memorable tunes and the composer’s flair for appropriate orchestration.

For me the most interesting work on the CD is the three-movement Organ Concerto which, like PHOENIX and ‘Hail the coming day’, was composed as a commission. The second, Canto movement formed the genesis of the concerto, and its striking subtitle “To God and dog”, initially struck me as rather strange, but it turns out that it was composed with his beloved Shetland Sheep dog by his side, and this dog died in 2009. The movement “celebrates the sacred in all creation through the musical symbolism of the word ‘God’”, with those three letters forwards and backwards creating triads on which the movement is founded. The composer also introduces the 11th Century Plainsong melody ‘Divinum Mysterium’, and these three components of the movement generate a pleasing, largely contemplative design that rises to a climactic final section using the plainsong melody. The orchestration is for strings, woodwind and percussion, and of course, organ.

The two outer movements are very energetic and make use of the triad in their structure. The organ is prominent; indeed, the very opening of the symphony is most striking. I don’t think that the melodic material of the first movement is as distinguished as that of the slow movement, but then it is only 60% of the length. The last movement is a toccata that uses the works uniting triad with an energetic driving rhythm complete with organ cadenza leading to an exuberant conclusion.

PHOENIX (the capitals are used in its title) began life as a three-minute fanfare, but has since been expanded and now exists as a piece for full orchestra and organ. In it there is a dialogue between an off-stage brass ensemble and an identical one contained within the orchestra. As the work continues, the dialogue envelops the entire orchestra. The centre of the work is a stately processional that leads to a triumphant conclusion for the full orchestra.

By far the shortest piece on this CD is the five minute “Hail the coming day”, described as a festive piece for orchestra. It was composed to celebrate the history of the townships of Winston and Salem and their eventual coming together to form a unified town. It is a pleasant piece in five short sections in which the composer seeks to illustrate the commercial and industrial history of the two places as well as the early settlers, some of whom were of Moravian ancestry who were particularly fond of brass bands. Their musical heritage forms a part of the work when the composer uses a traditional Moravian melody.

All in all, this is a very enjoyable CD. I’m interested to see that a Professor of music, in an American University, feels no need to write dodecaphonic music, and I take that to indicate that the serial hegemony which prevailed for so long in Western Universities, has now been laid to rest.

The recording is a good one, although I sometimes feel that the thud of heavy percussion is rather clouded. The orchestra is newish, formed of members of other orchestras in Bratislava, and they play well, although I think that the strings sound rather thin. The booklet is well presented with thorough notes by the composer.

Jim Westhead