I took a chance on this disc of new music from Adam Schoenberg (no relation that I can find to the more famous Arnold) for the simple reason I have admired previous recordings from Michael Stern and his excellent Kansas City Symphony. As it turns out, this is delightful music, not particularly innovative or original, but far more pleasant than a lot of "modern" American music. These three selections can best be described as suites of movie music.
The first two works presented here, Finding Rothko and American Symphony, are student works, dating from when Adam Schoenberg was studying composition with John Corigliano at Julliard. Frankly, they sound rather like student works - they lack a distinctive voice and often a sense of real purpose. They are beautiful for beauty's sake, with rich orchestration, but not really a sense of discovery.
Finding Rothko takes the form of 4 continuous movements. It's really a 15-minute tone poem, but sounds very much like a cross between well-written, but rather non-descript, background music for a movie and the music of Alan Hovhaness. It has extended sections of meandering loveliness, and 3rd movement (red) turns into a student's portrayal of "angry", with rather unnecessary atonality which seems out of place amongst everything heard in the surrounding movements. Nothing much happens in this piece, other than rich orchestration. Again, background music is a perfect description.
The American Symphony is more accomplished and begins to show signs of a more individual voice yet to be discovered in Schoenberg's creativity. This "symphony" is in 5 movements, but it lacks the structure and thematic development of a true symphony. And like the piece which precedes it, it sounds more like movie music, or perhaps the makings of a delightful ballet. The heavy perfume of Alan Hovhaness is less obvious (but still present), and now includes hints of Benjamin Britten spiking it up a bit. As a matter of fact, the last movement sounds so much like Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, I grabbed the booklet to confirm no Britten had been recorded on this program. This piece has much more variety of mood and inspiration than does Finding Rothko, and I was especially pleased it sounds nothing like Aaron Copland, as American music so often just can't help but doing.
Finally, we reach the real gem of this collection - the Picture Studies. This piece was commissioned by the Kansas City Philharmonic with the specific request for a modern-day "Pictures at an Exhibition". And here Adam Schoenberg reveals much more individuality and freedom of creative expression not heard in the previous two works. Coming only a year after the symphony, he nonetheless has obviously developed considerably as a composer during that time. There is still a strong feel of film music here, but it is much better crafted and there is much less of Alan Hovhaness blanketing it. It is much more sparkling, much more imaginatively orchestrated, and tells a much more interesting story. I enjoyed it immensely.
Michael Stern makes the most out of this music, and Mr. Schoenberg could not possibly have a more sympathetic advocate. The Kansas City Symphony plays gorgeously and the recording is typical of what we have come to expect from Reference Recordings these days. It is richly reverberant (perhaps too much so, often obscuring detail), with rich, bass-heavy orchestral textures. It is a bit compressed dynamically and tends to lack light-and-shade and sparkle. But there are some fine climaxes, replete with a bass drum which engulfs the hall.
Overall, I recommend this disc. Those who enjoy movie music and the music of Alan Hovhaness will pretty much know what to expect and will find much to enjoy.