Kenji Bunch’s Snow Queen


 

Kenji Bunch (1973- ) is a musician whose name has made it to my personal orbit many times but this is my first encounter with his music and what an encounter it is!  This two disc set comprises a full length ballet commissioned and performed by the Eugene (Oregon) Ballet.

bunch

Kenj Bunch

Bunch is an American composer who hails from Portland, Oregon the child of a Japanese mother and a Scottish father.  He studied at Julliard and this is approximately the 18th CD release to contain his music (if I counted correctly).  A prolific composer, one can find a decent listing of his compositions on his website.  And he was a violist performing with the esteemed Portland Youth Philharmonic from 1986-1991/

There are at least two symphonies, numerous soloists and orchestra pieces as well as solo instrumental music.  Though I’ve heard just snippets of his music aside from the disc under review here I think I can safely say that his style can be described as essentially tonal, even perhaps somewhat conservative, but the accessible qualities of his music do not translate into mediocrity. Quite the contrary, he is a very exciting composer and his style seems very well suited to an undertaking such as this ballet.  Bunch appears to be a master of orchestral color and he uses it to great effect here.

The two discs comprise 23 tracks much like one would expect of most classical ballets. The individual movements are 3-10 minutes approximately and they correspond to specific scenes that tell the classic story of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story.  No doubt cost is the barrier which precluded a DVD release which looks like it was a gorgeous production.

It is at least this writer’s impression that much of classical ballet music does not do well without the visuals of the dance.  I am referring to 19th century models such as Coppelia whose music might be best performed in excerpted suites if dancers are not a part of the performance.  Bunch’s ballet is more in the spirit of perhaps Prokofiev or Stravinsky wherein the music stands quite well on its own and even does a great job of evoking the images of the given scenes.  Basically the music stands on its own as a narrative.

Orchestra NEXT  is a training orchestra and resident ensemble with the Eugene Ballet Company.  They handle this complex and musically challenging score with seeming ease under music director Brian McWhorter.

There is little doubt that those who were fortunate enough to see this fully staged production will appreciate the opportunity to relive their memories by hearing again the recorded score.  But this will likely appeal to most fans of new music as well.  It is a major work by a composer who deserves serious attention.  This writer will certainly be listening.

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Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.