Paul John STANBERY (b.1957)
Symphony no.2, Foundations (2012) [34:01]
Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra/Paul John Stanbery
rec. Garfield Auditorium, Hamilton, Ohio, 27 October 2012, live
NAVONA NV5957 [34:01]
There is a good degree of variability in the quality of Navona recordings. Their audio often has an 'mp3' feel. Add to this that performances by their preferred more obscure orchestras can be patchy. With the label's admittedly laudable propensity for championing practically unknown living composers, the presented works themselves can sometimes point up reasons for that lack of recognition.
Whatever its other faults, this latest release's cause is hardly helped by an appalling running time which is not compensated for in the retail price. These 34 minutes will cost you the same as a 75-minute disc from the same label.
Engineering here is all right, apart from unmistakable distortion in the loudest passages - the microphones are simply not coping. Some minor audience coughing from this live recording has been picked up, but far more of an annoyance is the applause at the end of the second and third movements. In the former case the clapping is laughably faded out, making it sound as if the work is over.
The Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony Orchestra give a fairly competent account of this work, but they do not really go further than that. Stanbery obviously knows what he wants from the musicians, but their delivery options do come across as rather restricted. The conductor should have insisted on tighter ensemble playing, especially from the brass.
As for the Symphony itself, it was nominated, interestingly, for the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012. That is surprising, because Stanbery's programmatic work is nothing like as impressive as previous symphony winners like Hanson's Fourth, Ives's Third, Piston's Seventh or, more recently, Stephen Albert's magnificent RiverRun Symphony (available on Naxos 8.559257). True, the Prize Board, responding to criticism from American cultural post-modernists, changed its rules in the 1990s and again in 2004 to allow more superficial entries from realms including "jazz, [.] musical theater, movie scores and other forms of musical excellence". Hence the trivialising Special Citations in 2010 for country-music cantillator Hank Williams, and in 2008 for Bob Dylan, for his "lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power". On the whole though, the Prize continues to be what self-styled visionary Greg Sandow has called "a last-ditch defense of the obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be art". The same year that Williams was honoured, the big Music Prize went to Jennifer Higdon's superb Violin Concerto.
Yet despite a premiere in 2012 "to wildly appreciative audiences", Stanbery's programmatic Symphony is self-evidently not on the same plane as Higdon's work - by some distance. It is not that it is lacks interest or colour; indeed, it starts well enough with a punchy 'Prologue' - a "Coplandesquecapade", as Stanbery aptly puts it - and its idiom, lying somewhere between neo-classical Americana and generic film score, is likely to appeal to a wider, undemanding, audience. If only Navona, Stanbery and his orchestra had offered another symphony or some shorter orchestral pieces to fill up the disc, the weaknesses as described might have seemed less important to the listener of more sophisticated inclination.
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