Ann MILLIKAN (b. 1963)
Millikan Symphony (2014-15)
Jennifer Curtis (violin)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2017, Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory, Boston, MA
INNOVA 981 [46:55]
The background to the Millikan Symphony is a deeply personal one. Composer Ann Millikan’s brother Robert became a brilliant scientist whose groundbreaking work on breast cancer has had a wide impact, his innovations in this field paralleled by enthusiasms for rowing, music and the violin. As children, Robert and his sister filled notebooks with musical sketches, including for their magnum opus, ‘Millikan’s Symphony’, and when he died at the age of 55 it was inevitable that Ann would feel the call to complete the concept that they had shared all those years ago.
The four movements cover Robert Millikan’s life and work, starting with Science, a musical representation of the “multistage carcinogenesis process at the molecular level, in particular the interaction between oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes.” This troubling subject matter is reflected in restless, often threatening music in which a battle is fought between cancerous and non-cancerous cells, percussion adding military violence to a field of war in which suspense has been built up through atmospheric strings and winds and brass that argue with each other with increasing vigour.
Robert, or Bob Millikan was not only a lover of nature, but also worked as a veterinarian. The movement Animals brings us into a serene countryside landscape, with lyrical melodic shapes and the sounds of nature introduced through instrumental solos. Personal touches include an Irish tune to symbolise time spent there as a Fulbright scholar, and a quote from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto speaking for Bob’s violin. Nature is not all ease and beauty of course, and there is a nocturnal feel to the later minutes of this movement that has a darker edge, and some heartbreaking mourning from a solo cello.
Rowing is the scherzo of this symphony, opening with a call for the race to start, the action of rowers and the movement of water set in motion through an ostinato from marimba and vibraphone. The tempo is set to match that of an actual race, so the rise in tension and final climactic sprint is a narrative that has its basis in the genuine dramas of extreme physical competition.
The final movement, Violin, is a concerto in its own right, its thematic framework using a theme that comes straight from that youthful ‘Millikan’s Symphony’. Violinist Jennifer Curtis played a significant role in gathering material for this work, including a study of Bob’s detailed written notes on his collection of scores as clues to his approach to playing the violin. There is an element of the Romantic in the nature of this movement, though the character of the music also reflects the troubling restlessness of the opening to this symphony, the battle of cells now the stresses of a man dealing with the demanding and technical nature of his chosen instrument, as well as the delight in being able to express oneself in music through its sublime sound. Music itself triumphs by the close: a ruminative central section finally being taken over by an exuberant dance in 7/4 time over which the violinist soars with ecstatic virtuosity.
Well known through its own BMOP label, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project is the ideal band for this kind of recording, responding superbly to the widely contrasting nature of this extensive work. Such a personal piece defies criticism but, other than a possible question of proportional balance with the extensive nature of the ‘concerto’ finale, it is an easy work to appreciate for its well-crafted and ever interesting motion through the life of a much-loved individual.