With the world economy on the skids it’s as well to be reminded of the important work of orchestras founded during the last Great Depression as beacons of inspiration, hope – and employment. Under Grant Llewellyn, the North Carolina band has been setting down its first discs intended for international distribution and, while its sonority may be leaner than that of bigger names, the performances are more than just enthusiastic, with discipline remarkably tight. Throw in the clarity, depth and lustre of state-of-the-art sound engineering in an acoustically favourable hall and the result is a winner.
Previously unrecorded, all four works may be seen as part of the reaction against modernist aesthetics that began in the States more than 40 years ago with the recantation of George Rochberg. Michael Daugherty contributes one of his accessible but diffuse postmodern collages of overheard shards and elegant juxtapositions: there’s not quite enough of “Luck be a lady tonight” or “Fly me to the moon” for the copyright holders to demand a royalty. John Williams’s concert work, derived from his score for Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, has fabulously assured surfaces and gorgeous solo playing from the album’s star guest.
The remaining pieces are more substantial. Ned Rorem’s semi-autobiographical Lions (A Dream) is a Sixties collage piece that now sounds like premature postmodernism. The bejewelled Ravelian calm of its opening is invaded by assorted noises off, ranging from extreme dissonance to the consoling balm of the Branford Marsalis Quartet. The abrupt contrasts anticipate the methodology of Christopher Rouse who is, however, on his best behaviour in a recent New York City Ballet commission. French Baroque movement titles notwithstanding, Rouse does not major in Gallic elegance. His American transcendentalism is on show in the Sarabande, the Passepied galumphs along like updated Hindemith and the Galop pilfers from multifarious dance classics to raucous effect. There aren’t many composers capable of writing music that an audience perceives as genuinely fast and Llewellyn, who previously recorded Rouse’s Trombone Concerto (BIS, 9/96), does more than avoid the pitfalls. Recommended.