"A PEACOCK SOUTHEAST FLEW": New Music for Orchestra and Chorus by Nancy Van de Vate.
Gao Hong, pipa*; Adriana Antalova, harp+; Vojtech Dik, treble, and Ars Brunensis Chorus#; Moravian Philharmonic/Jiri Mikula, cond.*, Toshiyuki Shimada, cond.
A Peacock Southeast Flew*. Western Front. Concerto for Harp+. Choral Suite from "Nemo"#.

Vienna Modern Masters VMM 3043 (F) (DDD) TT: 73:53

Vienna-based American composer Nancy Van de Vate's attractive music speaks in a distinctive voice—when she allows it to do so. Unfortunately, the CD program puts the strongest pieces last, so you might not have the patience to discover that for yourself.

The sheer scale of big chorus-and-orchestra pieces presents built-in compositional hazards, especially in an age which finds grand gestures of any kind intrinsically suspect. Fortunately, the Choral Suite which Van de Vate has extracted from her opera Nemo, tonal in idiom yet unequivocally modern in spirit, steers a clear course between the Scylla of empty grandiloquence and the Charybdis of impenetrable density. Her well-wrought choral parts create a full sonority while maintaining utter textural clarity; with the orchestra waxing eloquently and taking a considerate supporting role by turns, the music leads the listener along surely and inexorably. The rhythmically energetic passages hint at Orff, and the chorale writing briefly suggests Elgar, but the score’s broad, dramatic sweep quickly subsumes these influences.

The Harp Concerto, accompanied by string orchestra, is similarly well-crafted and appealing. The time involved for the simple physical process of tuning the harp’s strings chromatically necessitates a conservative harmonic style. Here, two fast movements in a lyrical, neoclassic style flank a brooding yet clean-limbed central Andante.

The ambitious A Peacock Southeast Flew is fine if you like the sound of the pipa, a mandolinlike Chinese instrument with a twangy projection. Over the course of its five movements, the composer conjures some moody, affecting moments, but the piece relies on its program, an ancient Chinese poem, rather than musical structural devices for its coherence, and inevitably rambles. The second movement, a chamber duet in which a fresh, clear flute weaves liquid arabesques around the pipa, makes the best impression.

Like the Nemo choral suite, Van de Vate adapted the twelve-minute tone poem Western Front from material in one of her operas. Composed in an “atmospheric” idiom resembling the innocuously dissonant strain of movie music, it doesn't add up to much, though an expressive, searching clarinet solo about a third of the way in briefly promises more.

As usual in this series, the orchestra sounds carefully prepared, playing with sure purpose even where the music itself doesn't provide it. The varied soloists are uniformly up to their tasks, although I distinctly heard a baritone solo in the Nemo suite that is neither billed on the package nor mentioned in the notes.

S.F.V. (May 2000)