In many ways, the role of an orchestrator is similar to that of an assistant conductor. Both must serve other masters. In the former, the music director; in the later, the composer (and, with the special case of film scores, the director and various producers). Without their noble efforts, many live performances would not have the same degree of quality just as film soundtracks might reveal the basic goods, but not a fully finished product.
Having conquered Hollywood in his self-described “great day job,” Sacks’ first CD collection (selections from his work have previously appeared on compilation discs—cross-reference below) contains six wide-ranging samples of unbridled compositional technique.
From the very first measures of Incantations, it’s clear that other people’s notes and visual panorama are not required to inspire creative excellence. This, at times Scandinavian-hued, tone poem demands not a frame of film to assist the listener’s appreciation or understanding of such an emotionally charged essay. Conductor Carl St. Clair exacts an impressively balanced reading from the Warsaw Philharmonic—only greater surety in the upper reaches could improve the result. Following a strong, secure trumpet solo, the feeling of gripping-angst drives the music to an exacting finish—there’s more than enough magic to go around.
The other orchestral composition, Sagittarius Rising, is a fascinating display of the composer’s duality. The journey’s celestial scope is discreetly announced by the harp (and soon the French horn) with a sweeping melody which can trace its lineage to Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. It leads the way for a time only to be moved forward by the strings and a marvellously crafted (Strauss again—this time Don Quixote woodwinds) accompaniment. As the drama unfolds, the music needs some visual stimulus; there’s a feeling of something missing or that the program has been lost. Incredibly, after the first climax has abated (and the English horn emerges to begin the next encounter with art), Sacks slips the yoke of creation-for-others and delves magnificently into much more personal statements that stand entirely on their own. Kirk Trevor draws passionate and convincing lines from the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra’s cellos then, not to be outdone, the violins dig in with conviction and pitch-perfection too rarely enjoyed. The monstrous crisis reveals the orchestra in all of its glory—a magnificent triumph of sound and substance. Courageously, the lines diminish from trumpet, through flute to an ethereal closing in the upper strings. No Hollywood ending here: it’s all Sacks.
The two of chamber music works reveal a much more personal side to the composer. While Ghost Horses has a charming, classical feel, deftly coloured with vowel-rich voices to add extra humanity, Litanies is a beautifully conceived and executed utterance that will continually repay repeated hearings.
Richard Stoltzman’s opening statement captures the ear and imagination and won’t let go. With his tonal flexibility, range dexterity and famous breath control, it’s hard to imagine a more able proponent. Violinist Andrew Kohji Taylor demonstrates his double threat as subtle accompanist (the moody opening background along with equally sensitive pianist David Pihl) and an unforgettable melodic dialogue with the clarinet. Also lurking quietly in the background is cellist Emmanuel Feldman. When it’s his turn to take stage, Feldman unleashes a strong, lean tone that is the key to hope and a model of appropriately languid endearment in Ghosts. The extended final section, beginning with Satie-like simplicity, brings all of the lines, ideas and colours together in a manner that’s the perfect mix of inevitability tinged with an entirely understandable reluctance to bid adieu. This track alone makes the whole disc a bargain.
The title piece, 5th (S)eason—inspired by long-abandoned text on a wall of the Sutro Baths, is given a superbly matched reading by pianists Vicky Ray and Bridget Convey (the recording engineer was also in top form). Perhaps, at times, too faithful to the poem (“... heavy of sorrow his voice c(r)yptic and botto(m)less”) the music evokes many distinct images that, necessarily, will vary with each listener.
Sirian Blue just can’t compete with all that preceded. The bits of recorder, Eastern voice and embouchure–challenged trumpet pale in comparison to the quality and depth of the preceding compositions that were most assuredly of our universe. JWR