Arts & Culture
12:58 pm
Fri May 22, 2009

First international CD release by the North Carolina Symphony

"American Spectrum" - North Carolina Symphony

New Bern, NC – INTRO - The North Carolina Symphony and its music director is introducing itself to the international CD buyer with a disc of primarily never-recorded works by American composers. George Olsen has more.

"American Spectrum" presents four works by American composers three receiving their world-premiere recording in this first international release by the North Carolina Symphony. Interpreting these American works falls on the shoulders of the Symphony's music director Grant Llewellyn, who, musically speaking, is about as American-ized as a Welshman might be.

"I've been immersed in the music of this country all my life, very directly from my days at the Tanglewood Music Center working with Bernstein and Aaron Copland and meeting all these great American composers of my generation. So when I then ventured back to Europe I was often requested and required to program American repertoire so I've always, thru my professional career, had a fairly close connection to the music of this country and the composers."

His time at Tanglewood came in 1985 after winning a conducting fellowship there before returning to Europe for various posts including with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He's been music director for the North Carolina Symphony since 2004 and now, through the "American Spectrum" CD, seeks to offer a "calling card" of sorts to his native continent. Toward that end he enlisted the help of Branford Marsalis the Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist, faculty member at North Carolina Central University and North Carolina Symphony board member.

"He is absolutely scrupulous about his musical preparation. I spent time with him out at his house where he practices like a dog. He puts in hours and hours a day practicing his scales and arpeggios and changes. He in such a way when he comes to the rehearsal room and concert hall he is so on top of the technical permutations that he makes it sound completely free, and I think that's a real art and speaks to the professionalism of the player."

Marsalis is a featured player on two of the four works on "American Spectrum." Among them is John Williams' "Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra." The work is adapted from Williams' score to the film "Catch Me if you Can" and features a lengthy solo by Marsalis that, to my ear, at least, sounds as if the orchestra turns the page on the score to read " and now Branford does his thing." As improvisatory as it sounds, its not.

"Because in fact John Williams writes every note that Branford plays in that, and that's an example of the genius of John Williams. It sounds totally natural when Branford plays it but it's all notated so he sort of captured that in manuscript."

Llewellyn was particularly enraptured with "Escapades" because of its source material the soundtrack written for "Catch Me if you Can" which he felt presented a side of John Williams most moviegoers don't see.

"I think this particular movie is quite unrepresentative of the typical John Williams blockbuster movie score in that its not sensationalist in any way and I think he has quite brilliantly come up with a soundtrack which takes you into a particular world. I don't think when watching it I was distracted by the music in the way if you're watching Star Wars or Close Encounters, at times you're almost taken out of the screen by the impact of whatever the music is doing at the time. I don't think that's the case with Catch Me if you Can."

"American Spectrum" opens with a piece by Michael Dougherty entitled "Sunset Strip," a musical imagining of the mile-and-a-half section of Sunset Boulevard that runs between Hollywood and Beverly Hills in California. It's part of a series of pieces by Dougherty inspired by American sites though in "Sunset Strip" you might not hear America so much as you'll hear the American notion of a "melting pot" of cultures.

"To my ear what jumped out was the Latin flavor of the music, the Mexican/mariachi inflection that's obviously part and parcel of that Californian culture as well. But he's managed brilliantly to synthesize in musical terms a sort of musical journey down the strip which takes in the whole spectrum of passing musical influences but he somehow manages to conjure up an incredible atmosphere of the nocturnal life as well as the daily life that's inserted in the score. I think he starts the first movement at 7:00 am and then we have the nocturne, so it takes you right through the day and right through the night, and I guess that's sort of the way people live out there."

The piece on "American Spectrum" that puts the North Carolina Symphony most through its paces is Christopher Rouses "Friandises," a work that Llewellyn describes as a "tour de force for orchestra." It was written in 2005 for the New York City ballet, and in that respect is a comfortable fit for the Symphony Llewellyn says the Symphony has done a number of ballet suites, particularly those by Jean-Phillippe Rameau, in their concert performances. But while Llewellyn says "Friandises" is "inspired by the idea of a French ballet suite," a French ballet suite it is not.

"He stretches the French ballet forms in a way that anybody who's versed in baroque dance would probably be completely horrified, but he's not trying to recreate a baroque ballet suite here. He's trying to take it out of its context and bring it into the 21st century and provide a vehicle that's going to challenge a major ballet company. But I think as so much great ballet does it works purely and simply as music in its own right."

It's somewhat funny that in discussing a disc entitled "American Spectrum" our conversation turns to French ballet and Mexican mariachi. There's nothing here that you might see as sweepingly American as, say, an Aaron Copland composition, who he worked with while at Tanglewood. But the fact that French ballet and Mexican mariachi can come up in a discussion of American music is what makes the music of "American Spectrum" so interesting to the North Carolina Symphony's music director.

"The great thing about American music is that It's not any one thing. It's this dare I say spectrum of styles and personalities and schools of thought, so it's an eclectic world that I've only been too happy to embrace."

Grant Llewellyn conducts the North Carolina Symphony on their first international CD release "American Spectrum" which is available on BIS Records. I'm George Olsen.