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Michael FINE (b. 1950)
Concert Overture: At the Gate [7:21]
Double Concerto for 2 Violins and String Orchestra [11:08]
Brother Fox [6.03]
Suite for Strings [16:26]
Seasonal Rites [22:04]
Igor Gruppman, Vesna Stefanovich-Gruppman (violins)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Philip Mann
rec. RSNO Centre & New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2017
EVIDENCE EVCD054 [63:10]

When I first looked at the list of CDs to be reviewed and saw a disc of works by a composer called Fine, I assumed that this referred to the notable member of the “Boston School”, Irving Fine. I was therefore surprised when the disc duly arrived and was by a composer of whom I had never heard – Michael Fine. On the other hand, his name probably should have rung a few bells. His Web site tells me: “GRAMMY award-winning Classical Producer of the Year (1992), Michael Fine, is widely acknowledged as one of the top classical recording producers in the world.” In addition to recording production, Fine has been active in artistic planning for several leading orchestras. He was also the first American to hold the post of Artistic Director of Deutsche Grammophon. Fine’s compositions include pieces for chamber ensembles as well as several orchestral works. I cannot find a complete list of his works but the present disc probably includes the bulk of his orchestral compositions because he actually began composing only as recently as 2013 at the age of 63. Given that, it probably should not be a surprise that I did not know his works.

The disc opens with the Concert Overture: At the Gate. Fine has had several artistic associations with South Korea, and this overture reflects on some of his experiences there. His booklet notes refer to this work as the overture to “an imaginary Korean drama telling a story of two different times”. The switch to a time before western influences is portrayed by passage through the gateway of the Deoksugang Palace in Seoul, into the serene gardens and away from the modern bustle of the city. There is nothing original about the sound world conjured up but the music is none the worse for that. This is wholly tonal music, using the whole orchestra, with Eastern characteristics introduced in the form of interventions from bassoon, flute and harp. There are shades of Takemitsu and it sounds to me like agreeable but rather directionless film music. At any rate it does not outstay its welcome.

The short Double Violin Concerto that follows is more of a concerto grosso, sometimes led by the orchestra rather than the soloists. Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli seems to be referenced but, unlike the Tippett piece, the music does not well up for big moments. There are three movements, of successively decreasing length. The first two are pretty similar, despite the first being marked Andante and the second Adagio. The last movement Allegro starts out distinct but soon gets back to the character of before. This is mostly gentle mood music, without any attempts to be fashionable. As with the Overture, it is all pleasant enough but lacks a sense of direction and tends to meander.

The short piece entitled Brother Fox was inspired by a rare non-human character in the writings of Alexander McCall Smith. It is not redolent of any particular animal characteristics. I assume that it was placed after the concerto because it shares much the same mood. In fact, the lack of contrast begins to become a bit noticeable here.

The Suite for Strings was Fine’s first effort at composing for the orchestra. The Allegro first movement, Overture, consists of more meandering. The second movement, Heading North, is a little more promising with a recognisably North American idiom, suggestions of the more reflective bits of Copland and Barber. The third movement, Heading South, offers more of the same without anything like sufficient contrast – or any obvious changes of key within the movement, as does the fourth movement, Finding Home. At this point my listening notes tail off and culminate in the word “boring”. As before, the music lacks any real direction or structure and, confined to strings, the effect is bland.

The last offering is the orchestral suite, Seasonal Rites,that gives the disc its title, “Seasons”. Unfortunately, there is nothing here that sounds significantly different from what has gone before. Spring Revels sounds vaguely oriental in places but nothing about it suggests the spring to me. Vision of Summer opens with what is intended to be a heat haze but the composer’s reference to the “lush, verdant beauty on display” rings hollow. I found it only conjured up a sensation of daydreaming about being trapped in Nowheresville, US on a hot day. Autumn Flame does not even change key from where the previous movement left off. Finally, despite the composer’s note strangely suggesting a “frenetic” opening to the last movement, Winter Candle, what we get is more gentle meandering – again in the same key.

When a composer engages the services of a top orchestra to make a demonstration disc that showcases his very first efforts, this suggests to me that he is either a wealthy egotist or that his talent has attracted sufficient enthusiasm to make such a venture worth a punt – or both. On this showing, it is difficult to tell if there is much genuine potential here. I am really not convinced by the conductor’s over-effusive puffery in the otherwise adequate booklet notes (e.g., on Seasonal Rites: “…rarely have I encountered a new work so universally and positively received from both performers and audience”). Perhaps they were merely relieved not to have to sit through atonality or minimalism but, in any event, what we have here is far from being a new and/or original voice. I find Fine’s music pleasant and undemanding but, for much of the time, unmemorable, unengaging and frustrating because of the lack of variety. After the Overture, all the music offered here sounds much the same. This composer really needs to experiment with more than one predominant key, tempo and mood within movements. If I were an orchestral musician having to record this stuff, I woud be inclined to turn on the auto-pilot. However, it is difficult to fault the performances in any way and – as might be expected – the recording is excellent.

If works like Górecki’s Third Symphony can genuinely be popular (assuming this is not purely the result of manipulation) in spite of the lack of anything I would regard as particularly interesting, I am sure there is an audience out there for Fine’s music. Whether that audience might include you is the question.

Bob Stevenson

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