The recording industry, long believed to be on its last legs, isn't quite done yet. For fresh evidence, consider these releases, which provide a vibrant aural sampling of what some Baltimore-connected classical and jazz artists have been up to lately.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN: Symphony Nos. 1 and 2. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, pianist; Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos.
No one searched more ardently for the secrets to life, death and faith than Leonard Bernstein. He poured those concerns into several fascinating works, among them his first two symphonies. They are impressively performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with music director Marin Alsop in this addition to a Bernstein cycle for the Naxos label.
Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," finds the composer lamenting, questioning and pleading, using the words of the prophet in the finale. They are sung here by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano with a burnished tone and unaffected phrasing, while the orchestra articulates the score's muscular passages as impressively as its radiant, often Coplandesque harmonies.
In the earlier "Profanation" movement, the BSO is attentive to the constant shifting of dynamics, tempo and palette of the sinewy, restless music. And Alsop ensures an effective flowering of tone and expression for the passages that seem to presage "West Side Story."
In Symphony No. 2, "The Age of Anxiety," the conductor coaxes admirable finesse from the ensemble, especially in the jazzy eruptions. The percussion section sounds particularly pumped throughout. The stellar Jean-Yves Thibaudet brings to the concerto-scale piano part abundant technique and nuance; he's really in his element in the frenetic final sections of this quintessential Bernstein score.
JONATHAN LESHNOFF: "Zohar," Symphony No. 2 ("Innerspace"). Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Robert Spano, conductor. ASO Media.
Baltimore composer and Towson University faculty member Jonathan Leshnoff has increasingly infused his works with references to his Jewish faith. His Symphony No. 2 ("Innerspace") is deeply rooted in Judaic philosophy, specifically that of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, but never sounds dryly academic.
The fast movements are propelled by infectious syncopation and orchestral sparkle. The 12-minute slow movement at the center of the symphony finds Leshnoff in deeply lyrical form, but there's tension, too, underlined by Shostakovich-like growling brass and heavy timpani. The finale is a clarinet note followed by more than a minute of silence — extraordinary and affecting.
Leshnoff's impressive "Zohar" for soloists, chorus and orchestra has its roots in Jewish mysticism; the text reflects on the unknowable nature of God. The score is packed with appealing elements — minimalist reiteration and propulsion; jazzy angularity (Bernstein's spirit seems present); an Elgar-like radiance; a wonderful choral fade-out at the conclusion, a la Holst's "The Planets."
Robert Spano conducts both pieces with evident authority and care. The Atlanta Symphony and Chorus are in top form, as are silvery-voiced soprano Jessica Rivera and eloquent baritone Nmon Ford.
DAVID SMOOKE: "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death." Lunar Ensemble, loadbang, et al. New Focus Recordings.
One of the things that makes a composer notable is an ability to carve out a fresh path, one way or another. On that score, David Smooke registers way beyond notable. There's something almost John Cage-ish about the freedom and variety of his ideas, the richly varied explorations of sound, often spiced with a hip culture vibe.
A Peabody Conservatory faculty member and valued mentor to budding composers there, Smooke takes listeners on an absorbing journey in this recording, which features an assortment of solid musicians from Baltimore and beyond.
In the disorienting "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death," Smooke plays the amplified toy piano solo, joined by the Peabody Wind Ensemble and conductor Harlan Parker. The rattle of the tiny, tinny keyboard is juxtaposed against massive outbursts or ominous rumblings from the other players; an occasional wail from a clarinet suggests an echo from Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique."
"A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, Vol. 1: A to breathing" is inspired by a story by Michael Kimball (writing as Andy Devine) that uses much-repeated words in alphabetical order. The composer's riveting treatment of this linguistic frenzy is performed by loadbang with terrific technical assurance and expressive force.
"Transgenic Fields, dusk," an example of what Smooke describes as an "unreal landscape," has a fuzzy, unhurried, improvisatory feel.
Soprano Lisa Perry and the excellent Baltimore-based Lunar Ensemble, led by Gemma New, do admirable work in the technical and emotionally challenging "Some Details of Hell," which has an unsettling text by Lucie Brock-Broido that evokes a hospital room when it is "time to turn off the devices in the wing and listen to the rain."
The disc also offers the eerie "down.stream" for toy piano and looping pedal, and the outgoing "21 Miles to Coolville," featuring the excellent work of bassoonist Michael Parker Harley.
SYMPHONY NUMBER ONE: Music by Natalie Draper, Jonathan Russell, Andrew Posner. SNOtone Records.
The chamber orchestra known as Symphony Number One adds greatly to the Baltimore scene by regularly commissioning new music from composers local and beyond. Three exampled are featured on this release.
Natalie Draper seeks to evoke something of a film-making technique in "Timelapse Variations." The piece, which begins with a rocking two-note idea and stays centered on it in one way or another, goes on a tense, darkly colorful churn before flickering out.
Jonathan Russell's "Light Cathedral" was inspired by visits to grand old European houses of worship. The prismatic music, with its use of high bells and reverential chords, easily evokes a sense of place and, in the gently receding close, a touch of awe.
There is a polemical point to "The Promised Burning" by Andrew Posner, who cites as an influence the writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry. The composer's stated goal is to capture in music the human-generated toll on the environment "and the profound grief that future generations will feel."
No mistaking the anxiety or plaintive edge in a score that, like the other two, is deftly crafted and strongly performed by Symphony Number One, conducted by its founding music director Jordan Randall Smith.
NICO SARBANES Live in Baltimore. Nico Sarbanes, trumpet/vocals; Antonio Hart and Tim Green, alto sax; Warren Wolf, vibraphone; Winard Harper, drums; et al. (available through indiegogo.com).
Recorded live at An die Musik, this debut release by Baltimore-born Nico Sarbanes captures the dynamic trumpeter/vocalist collaborating with several of the city's eminent musicians, all of them shown off to fine advantage. This is good old-fashioned jazz.
All of 23, Sarbanes (son of U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes) clearly has the chops, demonstrated in such numbers as Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," which also gets great fuel from Warren Wolf on the vibraphone. The performance is capped by a particularly classy trumpet solo.
The program includes an original number, the spirited "Somethin' fo' Smitty," Sarbanes' salute to his family's longtime favorite Baltimore barber. But standards are the main focus, two of them featuring vocals by Sarbanes. His singing can sound studied, but he offers supple phrasing in "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "How About You" (Sarbanes adds his own Baltimore-theme verse at the end).