moravec overlook bmop

Paul Moravec (b.1957)
The Overlook Hotel (2016)
Scorpio Dances (2019)
Serenade (2004)
Brandenburg Gate (2008)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2021/22, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA; Jordan Hall, Boston, USA
BMOP/Sound 1097 SACD [71]

This is the first disc of music I have heard by the American composer Paul Moravec but it is the third collaboration between him and the excellent Boston Modern Orchestra Project under Gil Rose.  The whole presentation of this disc is first class; very well played, well – if a bit closely – recorded in SACD sound, attractively presented but with a truly excellent booklet (in English only) containing very valuable descriptions by the composer himself and liner writer Clifton Ingram.  The latter is especially helpful to the novice listener such as I to contextualise the music.  A couple of sentences from the liner jump out.  Moravec writes; “The four orchestral works on this album crucially involve memory’s role in expressing a wide variety of human emotion and experience.  Later Ingram states; “Moravec’s laser-guided focus on crafting a narrative with his music is a large part of what makes his works so accessible to audiences..”.  Also according to a sleeve banner; “Paul Moravec has been described as a new tonalist” – a description that leaves me little the wiser.

The disc opens with a 15:32 orchestral suite titled The Overlook Hotel drawn from Moravec’s 2016 opera The Shining.  This is of course the Stephen King horror story famously made into a film by Stanley Kubrick which relates the descent into madness of a man looking after a snowbound haunted hotel.  Apparently the opera stays closer to the original book rather than the film and reviews of the 2016 premiere in Minnesota were positive.  Apparently the suite is; “a non-linear collage of musical excerpts from the opera” which means for the listener it sounds like a sequence of contrasting moods rather than having any of the narrative which the composer values.  That it is evocative and very atmospheric is not in doubt but without knowing the thematic context of the opera or having the narrative arc of the story I found that as a new listener I was rather lost once I had enjoyed the interest of the orchestral textures and the quality of their execution.  The Wikipedia page relating to the opera’s premiere quotes a positive review that has some validity for this suite too; “Moravec gets that most people know this story from the iconic, 1980 film starring Jack Nicholson, so he speaks the language of movie music”.  Certainly the two main musical recurring gestures; a brooding atmospheric malevolence and a ghostly dance band are clear and explicit.  The latter is played here with a slightly blowsy unfocussed quality which I suspect is meant to emulate a distant spectral sound. 

Scorpio Dances is another score of similar – 15:21 – length which again plays continuously but in this instance was written as a ballet score for BalletCollective in 2019.  The inspiration behind the choreographic work were the photographs of George Steinmetz – in this case aerial images of deserts.  The opening of the work has a bustling motoric activity which gradually ebbs away over the course of the work.  Ingram describes this as; “the music gain[ing] increasing warmth and expressive empathy as it reduces in speed, causing Moravec’s sonic desert to become more and more human in feeling as the piece progresses.”  The opening showcases the skill of the orchestra with Moravec’s overlapping rhythms and instrumental textures realised with great skill and I did enjoy the easy brilliance of the music here.  Within three and a half minutes the basic pulse has started to slow and by the eight minute mark the score has taken on an elegiac chorale-like quality which it maintains for the remainder of the work before fading into pensive silence.  Tellingly in his contribution to the liner Moravec calls this the “most abstract work in this collection” and again for me as a new listener I found that I enjoyed many moments within the work without really understanding how it cohered together or feeling able to construct my own sense of what the work was about.  But again important to note that I cannot imagine a stronger case being made for the score than the one here by Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

The third work Serenade hides quite a lot of context behind that rather simple and generic title.  This piece is in four movements running to a total of around 20:00.  The work was commissioned and first performed by the Albany Symphony Orchestra and the inspiration behind the piece is specifically the Great Western Staircase at the New York State Capitol in Albany.  As an aside – is there another extended Classical Music score about a staircase?!  Usefully the liner includes a rather nice photograph of the staircase.  At the time of its construction this was considered an architectural wonder adorned with sculptures, intricate detail and scenes of American history and life.  With that context it becomes clear it is actually rather a neat framework for a multi-movement work.  As with the Scorpio Dances this is a chamber orchestra work but Moravec deploys the smaller forces with skill and a sophisticated ear for instrumental textures and timbres.  The four movements are titled; Ascent, Capitol Unknowns (Part 1), Capitol Critters and finally Capitol Unknowns (Part 2).  The “Unknowns” refer to the busts carved on the staircase of significant but not famous figures from American history – immigrant rather than native one suspects given the date of its construction.  The “Critters” refer to further carvings of various animals that lighten the mood of this rather imposing structure.  The opening ascent seems to refer to both a literal going up of the staircase but also a sense of aspirational uplift.  Ingram references “yearning… ever mounting phrases” which is a neat and apt description.  I would add cinematic too – a comparison Ingram likewise makes.  The rather heroic mood continues without a break into the first of the “Unknowns” which maintains the lyrical/cinematic mood with what seems to be a generalised representation of doers-of-good-deeds.  Ingram suggests a quasi-operatic drama in the writing and certainly the step-wise melodic lines unfurl in a near-vocal manner.  This is the longest movement of the four and is well balanced by the work’s ‘scherzo’ – the Capitol Critters which is playful and witty in its scoring and skittering rhythms.  Capitol Unknowns return to complete the work which combines the rising motifs of the opening with the dignified heroism of the second movement.  With about 90 seconds of the work remaining the peak of this final musical staircase is reached and then the music sinks back down into a serene and rather beautiful conclusion.

The final work celebrates the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in Brandenburg Gate.  A secondary/significant influence are the Bach Brandenburg Concertos.  Hence this work – in three movements totalling just over twenty minutes – is a latter day reworking of the genre written for strings plus a concertante group of violin, flute, bass clarinet and trumpet.  In the liner Moravec is quoted as suggesting the title is meant as both a gateway to the musical world of Bach but also the new-found freedom the fall of the Berlin Wall represented.  Whatever the motivation, the result for the innocent-eared listener is an attractive, imaginatively written work where a bustling opening movement stalls with roughly a minute to go before segueing into a central pesante.  The work makes extended use of motifs based on B.A.C.H. which informs but does not dominate the piece.  The central movement echoes Bachian chorales – again beautifully played by the accomplished Boston players – before a final movement which starts with a jerky pizzicato riff that Moravec suggests is meant to represent the sound of hammers and chisels chipping away at the Berlin Wall.  I am not sure I can relate to that sound-image even once I have been told that is what it is but the off-kilter rhythms and jagged melodic motifs are effective and engaging.  The work was commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and it certainly sounds like an enjoyable if demanding work to play.

I have no way of telling how representative these four works are of Moravec’s wider catalogue.  As should be clear all four receive what sound like completely compelling and authoritative performances.  The disc has been compiled from four different dates using two different locations so engineer Joel Gordon alongside Gil Rose acting as producer as well as conductor has done a fine job to make the recordings sound as consistent as they do.  Personally I responded least to the suite that opens the disc and most to the Serenade and closing Brandenburg Gate.  This was not music that swept me away but there is much to admire and appreciate especially in performances as assured as these.

Nick Barnard

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