A Sonic Spectacular from Utah

Prediction: The visionary new music, system-testing percussion, and virtual rainbow of colors that distinguish Dawn to Dust, the latest hybrid SACD in Reference Recordings' Fresh! series, guarantee that it will become a hit among music-loving audiophiles who dare play tracks beyond 3 minutes in length. The inventive genius that courses through the recording's three compositions—Control (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) by Nico Muhly, 34; Switch by Andrew Norman, 37; and Eos (Goddess of the Dawn), a ballet for orchestra by Augusta Read Thomas, 52—is, in and of itself, enrapturing, formidable, and breathtaking. But when combined with the spectacular coloristic and percussive effects captured by the Soundmirror engineering team, you have a recording virtually certain to earn Dust to Dawn at least one Grammy nomination and countless airings at audio demos.

The Utah Symphony, under the direction of Thierry Fischer, commissioned the music in honor of its 75th birthday. The most spectacular piece of the lot, Norman's single-movement, 28-minute Switch, showcases the phenomenal percussionist, Colin Currie, as well as the orchestra's percussion ensemble.

Switch's off and running battery of constant surprises initially comes across as a wigged out variant of Loony Tunes Meets Keystone Cops. The music is so out of the box that Currie told the composer during rehearsals that playing Switch "feels like being trapped (in the best possible way) inside a giant pinball machine." Certainly your head may feel like a pinball as Norman's percussive thwacks, gongs, crashes, pounds, and God knows what else go careening back and forth between your speakers and all over your listening environment.

Norman conceived one section of Switch as an experience where "slapstick acts as a kind of cosmic channel changer, ripping everyone from where they are and placing them down in an entirely different sonic world." It's certainly a wild carnival ride, whose climax could very well leave you gasping for breath. But lest you infer from this description that Switch is all surface effects, rest assured that it is far more. Which is not to say that you're going to find rest through most it. But beyond the surprises and assaults, Norman's music includes some unexpected mystical transitions that ultimately transcend the game playing as they lead you into a truly magical world where wonder is the norm. Switch is an astounding experience.

Muhly's tour of Utah's wondrous landscapes may be less purely visceral, but it, too, abounds with mystery. Starting out with thrilling low trombone and percussion, it builds, and then shimmers with mesmerizing waves of color and harmony. While Muhly has no fear of letting it all hang out, especially when a storm of red dust builds, he's equally content with moving inward, observing, and gazing with wide-eyed stillness. There is much brilliance here.

Grammy-winning Read Thomas, whose Eos celebrates the Goddesses and nymphs of Greek mythology (with a few Gods thrown in for good measure), is far more content to let the yin side of her personality emerge as her creation dances through your listening room. The opening of the ballet is luminous, the sounds of darting rain wonderfully effective, and the kinetic effects most gratifying. If Eos ultimately seems a bit lightweight in the company of Control and Switch, it will surely find a home in the hearts of listeners who prefer to dream without being awakened with a bang (or, in Norman's case, thousands of bangs). It certainly gives you some time to ground before Muhly and Norman take you on wild and colorful journeys you will not soon forget.

Anon2's picture

Just as RR has produced this recording, and the recent Mahler 1 Symphony, so did this ensemble excel in an earlier era.

The late Vox/Moss Music Group arranged some great recordings with the Utah Orchestra with Maurice Abravanel in decades past. I recall reading, in this publication years ago, that Vox/MMG recordings, in that case of the Minnesota Orchestra and Ravel, were regarded among the finest of the late 1980s, 1990s.

RR deserves praise for continuing the legacy left by the Vox/MMG organization. Perhaps RR can expand its coverage of US orchestras, as it has of late, and continue a more recent tradition, now seemingly abandoned, by the Telarc label.

In any event we are fortunate that Vox/MMG, Telarc, and now RR, carry on with the venerable tradition of recording great American ensembles of the classical genre.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

It is essential to point out that Reference Recordings / Keith O. Johnson & Seth Martin team is not the organization recording either the Pittsburgh or Utah Symphony Orchestras. Rather, these recordings were made by the SoundMirror team, and licensed to Reference Recordings for distribution under their "Fresh" imprint. Here is the Soundmirror discography: http://www.soundmirror.com/discography/

You can hear the difference. IMHO, the dynamics on this recording are a bit squashed, with percussion unnaturally spotlighted. But it matters little when the recording quality is still excellent, and the music so worthy of repeat listens.

Anon2's picture

I was not aware, but not surprised either, that the RR Fresh! recordings may have been farmed out.

I have the Bruckner 7th, Honeck/Pittsburgh RR Fresh! recording, also by Soundmirror. The sonic artifacts that you mentioned for this Utah recording sound consistent with the Bruckner recording in my collection. I concur with your overall assessment, the recording is still very well done. Classicstoday.com gave the Honeck Bruckner 7th a 10/9 rating; not the vaunted 10/10, but still a very strong showing from a tough reviewer.

I went to the Soundmirror website on your suggestion. They have quite an involvement in many recordings (some all time greats), going back 3 decades to the advent of the CD format. They list to their credit the great Tchaikovsky 5th with the CSO/Abbado (CBS Classics). They also list the memorable "The Ring Without Words" by BPO/Maazel (Telarc Classics); I remember the early timpani roll in this work ejecting a speaker grate from a home-made pair of speakers back in the day.

I'll tell you one thing. If this organization completely did the recent Charles Bruffy, KC Chorale/Phoenix Chorale recording of Rachmaninov's Vespers/All Night Vigil, then they hit the ball right out of the park. This recent Grammy-winning recording is by far the finest recording in my collection of this work. And that's saying a lot considering such great renderings of this work as the Telarc Robert Shaw, the EMI King's College, and the Philips recording featuring Olga Borodina.

Thanks for the additional information. I am just glad that someone is out there recording American orchestras. If it's not a home-brew label, like CSO Re-Sound or the SF Symphony, it's up to RR Fresh! and Soundmirror to keep the flickering torch going.

Hope to see you at Axpona.

jimtavegia's picture

Can't wait for my first listen. Thanks for the tip.

jimtavegia's picture

Purely disjointed, academic music. The recording of it is superb, but is mostly in the "sound-track" vein. Not something I will be listening to over and over. Just not my cup of tea. Sad in a way. Makes me appreciate the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, even Copeland more. And they didn't have all this technology available to them. Notes on a page does not music make.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I have not bothered to listen to the RR Fresh discs in stereo but in multichannel, imho, they are far better balanced than the Johnson/Martin team have produced, impressive as they are.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for this, Kal. What I can tell you for certain is that listening in stereo is anything but a bother.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Sorry for the tone. I am sure it is not a bother to listen in stereo. I just have not done so and, probably, will not.