Gallagher: Orchestral Music (CD review)
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.
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.