jones concertos bmop

Samuel Jones (b. 1935)
Flute Concerto (2018)
Violin Concerto (2014)
Trombone Concerto ‘Vita Accademica’ (2009)
Jeffrey Khaner (flute), Michael Ludwig (violin), Joseph Alessi (trombone)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2020/21, Boston & Worcester, USA
Reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BMOP/sound 1095 SACD [79]

Samuel Jones’ fine Symphony No 3 – Palo Duro Canyon has enjoyed a degree of exposure in the last fifteen years or so, featuring as it does on discs issued by Naxos (coupled with his Tuba Concertoreview) and BIS (alongside symphonies by Piston and Stephen Albert on a spectacularly engineered album from the LSO under Lance Friedel – review); I can only trace one other widely available issue entirely devoted to Jones’ work – an early Naxos American Classics release from 2000 pairing his Cello Sonata with an intriguingly titled orchestral suite Roundings – Musings and Meditations on Texas New Deal Murals (Amarillo SO/Setapen on Naxos 8.559079). Until now I have only heard Friedel’s reading of the symphony, a work whose superior craftsmanship suggests that Jones is an orchestrator to be reckoned with, a suspicion amply confirmed by this trio of concertos from the always enterprising BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) label.

If the titles mentioned above imply that Jones is a purveyor of cinematic Americana the three concertante works on the new disc offer evidence of technical and expressive versatility which extends far beyond that stereotype. As the composer explains in his introduction, his first attempts at concerto form emerged somewhat late in his career and coincided with his appointment as composer-in residence with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (at that time under the transformational leadership of Gerard Schwarz). Jones’ initial twelve month contract ended up lasting fourteen years, a period during which he produced half a dozen concertos! Each of those on the current release adopt the standard three movement design.

A Flute Concerto from 2018 opens proceedings. It was composed for Jeffrey Khaner, principal flautist of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1990 and a prolific recording artist in his own right. Two extended outer movements are serious in caste and bookend a brief central interlude. The first is a Lament whose attractive main theme is proffered by Khaner more or less straightaway and seems to dominate the movement. Various iterations of it (including an imposing variant presented on brass at 6:20) are linked by bridges of varying tempi and timbre. This is serious music imbued with palpable melancholy; indeed Jones’ work on the concerto took place in the aftermath of the passings of both his and Khaner’s brother. Whilst there is a likeable gauntness to the arc of this movement, the central Interludio is spritely, more overtly virtuosic, and the composer again imaginatively recycles the main thematic material. Whilst the atmosphere is more hurried, even agitated, it’s not entirely devoid of sadness in its general mood. One of the characteristics I most admired about Jones’ Symphony No 3 was his apparent aversion to tokenistic garishness, and his orchestration of this piece is similar in its relative sobriety. A scurrying figure dominates the opening of the finale – subsequent interjections oscillate between the militaristic (with a busy side-drum), the pastoral and the nostalgic. If this is unmistakeably American music (in its colour and overall ambience) it is far from ostentatiously so. The finale’s convoluted title – Dream Montage- The Great Bell: America Marching provides a picturesque hint as to how this music might actually sound. A gloomy repeated low bell figure emerges from the finale’s fabric to herald what appears to be a sombre conclusion, but a lively flourish elicits a miniature cadenza from the soloist and a more optimistic end than might have been expected. Samuel Jones’ Flute Concerto recalls Hindemith in the elegance of its shaping, its lyrical impulse, and in the coherence of its architecture. The sonics (stereo and surround) are in the best tradition of the label.

Jones’ Violin Concerto was originally intended for Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg but she sustained an injury to her arm in the lead-up to its premiere in 2016; Jones was fortunate indeed that Anne Akiko Meyers was available and managed to learn the new work in just six weeks. As for the present disc Michael Ludwig makes an accomplished soloist. The initial theme is reminiscent of that which opens Korngold’s wonderful concerto; it’s supported by forceful yet austere accompaniment. This Andante con moto movement unfolds slowly and with pleasing inevitability, its heart-on-sleeve content unabashedly romantic and intense. Jones certainly has a way with melody which easily finds a route into the listener’s memory. At the core of the movement is a modest cadenza which is challenging but eschews superficial showiness. This music may not be earth-shatteringly novel but why should it be? It is satisfying, well-made and seems sincere and heartfelt. A gently tolling bell (clearly one of this composer’s favourite textures) dissipates to reveal another appealing Korngoldian idea in the central slow movement; this is developed with great care and delicacy before the bell returns to herald a more playful central section prior to the recurrence of the wistful atmosphere at the movement’s core. The mood, design and style of this music might seem a tad conventional to some ears, and Jones’ influences may at times seem a bit obvious, yet it’s indubitably an approachable and impressively crafted piece . The finale gets going in a vivacious moto perpetuo manner. Ludwig projects a gloriously sweet tone as it unfolds. It is easy to see why the concerto was such a hit at its premiere –it holds one’s attention through its coherence and memorability. Only time will tell if this continues to be the case after repeated hearings.

One element common to all three concertos is that they were commissioned by the Seattle arts philanthropists Charles and Benita Staadecker. Their initial involvement came in 2009 when they asked if Jones would be willing to produce a work to reflect Charles Staadecker’s carefree undergraduate years at Cornell University. A Trombone Concerto, aptly subtitled Vita Accademica was the result. Its dimensions are an exact mirror of the Flute Concerto with a four minute central panel sandwiched between a pair of more extended outer movements. Jones admits to a programmatic element as the arc of the work traces the journey of “…a brash and showy freshman….” from his optimism and determination upon embarking on his university career, via the struggle to achieve and fit in, romantic attachment and the concluding realisation of confidence and purpose at graduation. In her booklet note Melinda Bargreen identifies the presence en route of “….musical references to a campus carillon, an alma mater hymn, a rumbustious football game, and even a bibulous episode….”; the latter will be obvious to most listeners. Jones’ writing for trombone is especially idiomatic; this is apparent from Joseph Alessi’s first entry and Bargreen points out that the composer actually played lower brass instruments during school. The hymn tune emerges at 3:50 and bears a striking resemblance to the carol While Shepherds watched Their Flocks by Night.  Singable melody is a far more vital component than virtuosity in this movement although a brief cadenza in its final bars is challenging enough. The central Romanza is marked Andante amabile – whilst this is clearly the ‘love interest’ referred to above it sounds neither slushy nor mawkish. It builds steadily at a pace that’s wonderfully suited to Alessi’s gloriously songful tone and passes all too swiftly. The campus carillon dominates the opening of the finale and introduces a high-spirited (but not exaggeratedly so) tune for the soloist. At 2:25 the real high jinks begin. Jones’ orchestration here is a delight, projecting colour and unpredictability. When the boozed up cadenza arrives (a real tour-de-force it is too) it becomes clear that the wise folk at BMOP have saved the best work till last. Jones draws the various threads of the journey together at the work’s conclusion with consummate skill. This is a joyful, unusual concerto that will bring considerable pleasure and merits the widest currency.

Whilst both couplings are well-made and wonderfully played there is a real dearth of works for trombone and orchestra; I suspect it’s considerably more difficult for contemporary composers to produce concertante works for violin or flute which won’t possibly suffer by comparison to more familiar masterpieces in those genres. This disc can be confidently recommended for the quality of Samuel Jones’ craftsmanship in general, but there is far more going for his outstanding Trombone Concerto than that. Sonics in both stereo or surround modes are ideal throughout whilst documentation is well up to the usual BMOP standards.

Richard Hanlon

Availability: BMOP