Robert Carl
November 1, 2008

Michael Gandolfi (b. 1956) is based in Boston, and has close ties, as both a former student and current faculty member, with the New England Conservatory and Tanglewood. This disc is a good introduction to his work, not only because it’s of high quality, but also because it shows the distinct development of his voice.

The earliest piece, Points of Departure (1988) is perhaps still the composer’s best known, as its original CD release was on DG with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (jointly commissioned by them with the St. Paul and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras). It’s a bright, clear, short, and intense work in four movements, whose formal conceit is that each successive movement uses as its starting point material heard somewhere in the previous one. The tone is a bit like late Stravinsky, and the hard-edged dynamics, chromatic language, snappy rhythms, and primary colors also remind me of Charles Wuorinen.

But by the next chronological work, Y2K Compliant (2000), Gandolfi has shifted into a distinctly postmodern/postminimal voice. This work (inspired bemusedly by the fears of institutional collapse from misprogrammed computers at the last century’s end) is far more tonal and lyrical. Indeed, an earlier Stravinsky now seems to be a leading ancestor. The first movement, “Short Circuits,” juggles simple scalar and chordal materials, as a sort of homage to John Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords (which I reviewed in Fanfare 24:1). Its wit and sense of play are ingratiating. “Analog Dreams” is a soulful reverie for strings alone. In fact, though the more ornamentally prolix and harmonically ambiguous, it is almost Barberian. The final movement, “Joyous Reverb,” is a tour de force of orchestration, suggesting the processing effect through textural manipulation of the accompaniment, and heterophonically overlapping the tune of In dulci jubilo.

Themes from a Midsummer Night dates from 2001, and is a suite of incidental music from a theatrical production of the Shakespeare comedy. Its orchestration is again a delight: bright, shimmering, and sensual as needed.

Gandolfi has a light touch, but his music is not trivial. He seems most concerned with charm, delight, and playfulness, qualities that are often scorned in contemporary aesthetics, yet for which audiences yearn. At the same time, the music doesn’t pander to audience nostalgia the way too many self-proclaimed neo-Romantic composers do. And in the slow movements of both Points of Departure and Y2K Compliant I hear an often soulful voice that can reach real expressive depths. I don’t have a strong sense yet of his voice—i.e., I’m not sure I’d recognize a new work of his “cold”—but I suspect whatever next comes my way of his will intrigue and tickle my fancy. (Indeed, I have not yet heard his most renowned recent work, The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, recorded on Telarc by Robert Spano with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and now I feel it’s important to do so.)

This is the first of three new releases on BMOP/sound that I’m reviewing in this issue. This is the house label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, another great example of performers taking over the reigns of their presentation and distribution in the recorded realm. Rather than repeat myself threefold, I’ll state here that, for all three discs, the sound is excellent and very transparent, maestro Gil Rose and his ensemble sound spectacular, and the physical product is stylishly presented in eco-friendly cardboard holders with copious notes and attractive visual art. A very promising debut, and also a great argument for the vigor and freshness of the Boston new music scene.

— Robert Carl

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