Diversions Overture; Berceuse; Sinfonietta; Symphony in One Movement: Threnody. JoAnn Falletta, London Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.559652.
If you don't immediately recognize the name of American composer Jack Gallagher (b. 1947), you probably aren't alone. Professor Gallagher, who teaches music at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, cannot boast the world's biggest resumé of compositions nor the biggest discography of recorded performances. What he can be proud of is the variety and creativity of his music, which this current Naxos disc well represents.
I mean, when so distinguished a conductor as JoAnn Falletta, so celebrated an orchestra as the London Symphony, and so big a record company as Naxos feel confident in a composer's work, you know you've got to sit up and pay attention.
Without any previous experience with the composer or with performances of his work, it's hard to know how good this new Naxos disc is. However, Ms. Falletta seems to have taken a shine to the music, and the London Symphony play it with their customary attention and enthusiasm. I've read that the LSO are a quick study and have recorded more music than any other orchestra, so I can understand their handling the material as well as they do.
The program opens, appropriately, with an overture, a curtain-raiser, in this case the Diversions Overture (1986). Dr. Gallagher named it fittingly, as it expresses a wide range of diverse temperaments. It opens gently with a Copland-like sunrise that sets the mood. Then it gets progressively more energetic as it moves along, perhaps by high noon getting downright rambunctious. The percussion instruments, especially, make an exciting partner in the proceedings before everything settles back into a comfortable repose.
The next item is Berceuse (1977), by definition a composition having a soothing, reflective character. It's a short piece for small orchestra, a piece the composer describes as starting out as a lullaby for piano. Again, we hear Gallagher's penchant for sweet, lyrical tones, a really lovely work reminiscent to me of several early twentieth-century English pastoral composers--Arnold Bax or Frank Bridge, for instance.
The Sinfonietta (completed in 2008) is the longest and most-ambitious piece on the disc, written in five movements and scored for string orchestra. It's the middle sections I found most interesting: a hauntingly atmospheric Intermezzo; a spirited Malambo based on an Argentinean dance; followed by a calming, courtly Pavane. Then the music ends with a robustly melodic Rondo concertante.
The album concludes with Symphony in One Movement: Threnody (1991). A "threnody" is a song of grief, usually written for a funeral, so the music is both sorrowful and uplifting. Because the music is about twenty-one minutes long, Gallagher divides it into two segments, the first slow, yearning, and eerily melancholy; the second faster and more assertive, with percussive passages breaking out unexpectedly throughout both sections, though more flamboyantly in the closing moments. The forward thrust of the piece makes it quite enchanting and belies the mournful cast of its title.
These selections from Dr. Gallagher's body of work strike me as having great heart and emotional intensity, without resorting to gimmicky, abrasiveness, or sentimental condescension. They are at once modern yet old-fashioned in their harmonies, melodies, and rhythms. I have no doubt they would appeal to most listeners of almost any age, particularly when the conductor and orchestra play as ardently as they do here.
Naxos recorded the music at Abbey Road Studio One in 2009. As usual in this venue, we get recorded sound with a wide stereo spread, a modest but adequate sense of orchestral depth, and a more-than-ample dynamic range and impact. The audio engineers also handle frequency extremes well, with clear, extended highs and taut, solid bass. One forgoes ultimate midrange transparency for a pleasant ambient bloom, a fair compromise.
About the Author
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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