Composer Kyle Gann, who blogs at PostClassic, has been a champion of the music of Wisconsin-born, Munich-based composer Gloria Coates. In his liner notes for this new release, he anoints Coates as "the most prolific female symphonist in history," with the main work on this disc bringing her corpus of symphonies even in number with Shostakovich. The 15th symphony, commissioned for the Passau Festival for the Mozart 250th anniversary year, is subtitled Homage to Mozart. Its middle movement (Puzzle Canon) is the strangest, and in many ways most satisfying, tribute to Mozart to come out of that year. The strings open with a chorale-like quotation -- it must be Mozart, but what? -- gradually obliterated by Coates's trademark glissandi that smear into groaning clusters. As the quotation is then played in retrograde from the middle of the movement, it turns out to be Mozart's most familiar choral work, Ave verum corpus, just that in the first half of the movement it was quoted backwards.
Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 15, Vienna RSO, M. Boder (8.559371, released December 11, 2007)
The danger Coates runs is that her trademark sounds -- the drooping glissandi, quotations of tonal music, limping marches -- can easily slide from stylistic distinction into cliché. In three live performances captured here by different ensembles, both interpretations apply. The Cantata da Requiem (1971-72) struck me as a dead end, while the chamber symphony Transitions (1984) seemed more durable, with its quotation of Purcell and exploration of odd tintinnabulations (an attempt, Coates has said, to render metaphysical experiences she had following her father's death). One has to wonder what orchestral musicians would have to say about performing her works, as they often strike the ear as a little spare and unchallenging.
Other Coates Symphonies:
1, 7, 14
When Marin Alsop's appointment as Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony was announced with such fanfare, the Buffalo Philharmonic complained that it had already hired a woman, JoAnn Falletta, as its music director. The claim to the title of first female music director of a major symphony orchestra fell to Alsop over Falletta, it was reasoned, because Buffalo does not play a year-long season of concerts and does not have the profile of a major orchestra. While Respighi's most famous pieces, the symphonic portraits of Rome, are played much more often, the Vetrate di chiesa are less important but pleasing tone poems worth hearing. They are orchestral arrangements of three piano preludes on Gregorian melodies and a new movement added to make a symphonic suite.
Respighi, Church Windows, Brazilian Impressions, Rossiniana, Buffalo PO, JoAnn Falletta (8.557711, released November 20, 2007)
Because they combine several of my favorite things -- Gregorian chant, images of the saints (St. Michael, St. Clare, and St. Gregory the Great), and symphonic color -- this piece has natural appeal. The cover bears photographs of stained glass windows picturing these saints, from the cathedral of Buffalo -- a nice touch. Church Windows is hardly an under-recorded piece, however, and this release is not without blemish, with occasionally infelicitous sounds from the woodwind section (oboes, especially) and a less than ideal sound, captured live, of course. Still, it is a good and inexpensive exploration of the back-catalogue of Ottorino Respighi, just not a crucial purchase.