In 2001, when the Atlanta Symphony's then-new conductor Robert Spano took over the orchestra, he selected for this 2003 release four American works, two old and two newer. Frankly, the two newer compositions pale by comparison to the older pieces, but at least they bring a modicum of fresh, new light to an otherwise drab contemporary musical scene.
The two classics are Samuel Barber's Symphony No. 1 (all right, perhaps not an all-out classic, but a fine older work, dating from 1936), and Aaron Copland's Suite from Appalachian Spring, 1944, definitely a classic. Interestingly, it's the Copland piece that sounds the most inventive and the most inspired, and Spano imbues it with a soft, bucolic charm. If the Atlanta Symphony doesn't always sound as smooth and refined as we have more recently heard them, we might perhaps attribute the concern to Maestro Spano's having just taken the reins.
The two newer works are, first, Christopher Theofanidis's Rainbow Body, which the composer says he wrote while inspired by his listening to the music of medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Be that as it may, the piece is mostly moody and atmospheric, building leisurely and incrementally, he says, to the "lingering reverberations one might hear in an old cathedral." Fair enough, although on first listening it left me singularly unimpressed. Subsequent listening has proven kinder, so maybe I'm getting to used to it. Still, I wouldn't consider it a future classic in the league of the Barber and Copland pieces.
Telarc's sound is characteristically open and airy, with pretty good inner detail and a wide stereo spread. Uncharacteristically, however, the sound appears a bit underpowered in the bass and slightly hard in the upper midrange. No matter. Looking at it optimistically, the music doesn't require much bass, except for some of the more bombastic sections of the Barber symphony, and the upper midrange hardness helps clarify the definition.
Overall, I can't say the album entirely appealed to me, but the Copland and Higdon performances are worthy of repeat listening.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: