By John J. Puccio
So, before I listened, I looked him up. Charles Roland Berry is an American composer born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1957. He studied musical composition and history at the University of California where he learned, among other things, the details of serialism and the discipline necessary to exercise his musical imagination. The study paid off, and since then he has written five symphonies and numerous concertos, overtures, divertimentos, and chamber pieces. The present recording seems a good introduction to the man’s work, including as it does one overture and his two latest symphonies.
Something Mr. Berry says in the accompanying booklet struck me as particularly interesting. He writes “Most composers of concert music in the 21st century never hear their pieces performed more than a few times, and their works survive only on recordings (if they even get that far), which few people hear. The overwhelming array of entertainment options, and the general disinterest of film-makers, leaves new classical music and current composers with small audiences, or no audience at all.” He has a point, of course. And the fact that most modern classical composers seem determined to avoid any hint of melody or even harmony in their music doesn’t help their cause. Yet Berry appears to be bucking the trend. He writes music that he believes people might actually want to hear and enjoy. A liner note compares Berry’s music to that of Copland, Grofe, and Jerome Moross: “open-air, open-hearted” orchestral music.
Next, we have the Symphony No. 4 (2017), with the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Theodore Kuchar. It combines Berry’s interest in “the pentacle and traditional occult elements” with his interest in Freemasonry. Expect something of the unusual here as the music explores in five movements the five senses and the stimuli they receive from the world around us. The movements are labeled “Water: Taste,” “Earth: Touch,” “Fire: Smell,” “Spirit: Sight,” and “Air: Hearing.”
The music of each section unfolds slowly and naturally, and like the preceding Overture is pleasant if not particularly memorable. It’s more like background music for a film, enjoyable if not really eventful enough to stand on its own. The Adagio “Touch” has an ethereal quality to it that lifts it airily along, and the more flighty “Smell” makes an intriguing contrast. And so it goes until “Air,” taken at a Vivace clip closes the show.
The disc ends with the Symphony No. 5 (2021), played by the Polish Wieniawski Philharmonic Orchestra of Lublin, also conducted by Maestro Kuchar. Berry characterizes it as having “attractive melodic ideas...surrounded by unresolved tensions, made no easier by string proclamations, harsh melodies in minor keys, at odds with the brass.” No. 5 is a bit simpler in structure than No. 4, more traditional, less ambitious. Like the opening of the Overture, it also possesses bigger, bolder strokes than No. 4. A forlorn, almost melancholy Andante breaks the spell momentarily, followed by a highly rhythmic third-movement scherzo. Then Berry wraps it up with those “string proclamations at odds with the brass” he mentioned. Although it tends to meander too much for my taste, there is no denying its easy listening qualities.
Producers Charles Roland Berry and Theodore Kuchar and engineers Frantisek Poul, Andreiy Mikrytskiy, and Grzegorz Stec recorded the music at the Reduta Hall, Olomouc, Czech Republic and at the Philharmonic Hall, Lublin, Poland in 2003, 2020, and 2022. The different venues result in some small differences in sound, mainly in distancing with the microphone setups. Mostly, though, the sound is good, especially in matters of depth and spatiality. It’s readily pleasing to the ear.