Tuesday 2 February 2021

Ancient and modern: two engaging new dance-based suites alongside Baroque music on the debut recording from a new American orchestra

The Suite - Telemann, Bach, Elizondo, Green; Lowell Chamber Orchestra, Orlando Cela; Navona Records

The Suite
- Telemann, Bach, Elizondo, Green; Lowell Chamber Orchestra, Orlando Cela; Navona Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 February 2020 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
The debut recording from a new American chamber orchestra combines dance-inspired music from the Baroque with two engaging contemporary pieces.

In an age when Baroque music has almost become the domain of specialists, it takes a certain sort of bravery to launch a new modern instrument chamber orchestra with a recording of Baroque music. Lowell Chamber Orchestra, conductor Orlando Cela, has released its debut disc on Navona Records with a programme combining Baroque and modern views of the orchestral suite, Georg Philipp Telemann's Overture suite in E minor TWV 55:e10, Johann Sebastian Bach's Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067, Jose Elizondo's Recuerdos Estivos (Summer Memories), and Anthony R Green's The Green Double: A Historical Dance Suite.

Lowell is a city in Massachusetts, historically an important mill town more recently the city took an influx of Cambodian refugees and it has America's second-largest Cambodian-American population. Lowell Chamber Orchestra is a relatively new ensemble, Lowell's first and only professional orchestra which aims to provide the area with music at a very high level, of all styles and time periods, entirely free to the general population. Venezualan-born conductor Orlando Cela is the orchestra's founder and music director.

The programme is ostensibly linked by dance, with all four composers (two Baroque, two modern) using dance forms in their music. But another linking theme is the flute as the instrument plays an important role on all four pieces, with Orlando Cela playing the solo flute parts in both the Bach and the Telemann. The disc lists him as conductor, but presumably he was directing from the flute.

Telemann wrote at least 135 overture-suites (many moreare thought not to have survived) and his E minor suite seems to exist in versions for oboe and for flute. The work's six movements include a 'Rigaudon' and a 'Carillon' hinting at a French influence in the dances (Telemann worked in Paris in the 1730s). Bach's surviving suites all date from the period when he directed the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, but like other repertoire he created for that ensemble he repurposed material written earlier in his career so that the origins of the surviving suites are varied and Suite No. 2 seems to be something of a patchwork. The inclusion of a 'Polonaise' could be an hommage to the Elector of Saxony who was also King of Poland, and who gave Bach an honorary kapellmeister position at the court in Dresden.

The orchestra here is a relatively small one, the recording lists 15 strings, but only eight or ten of these are used for the Telemann and Bach. Cela's flute playing in both Baroque suites is wonderfully engaging and apparently effortless, finely floated slow phrases and lively, articulated faster movements. In the faster movements his style is followed by the strings and these showcase the orchestra at its best. 

In the slower movements, a little more Historically Informed style might not have come amiss. As it is the way that bows are kept firmly on the string gives the music a solidity which gives a somewhat period (1960s-era) feel to the sound. These movements also feel they lack impulse, so that movements like the 'Rondeau' in Bach's suite come over as a tad careful. I wondered whether the fact that Cela was directing from the flute had some effect. But then again, different people hear Baroque music different ways and the sound world on this disc might be just what is intended.  

Jose Elizondo is a Mexican composer who studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Harvard University. The movements of his suite, Recuerdos Estivos, were all originally written as separate solo pieces and here Elizondo presents them together in new orchestrations. His style is lyrical and tonal, and the dance forms that he references are very much in the modern idiom. The light-hearted first movement, 'Limoncello' establishes the engaging mood, 'Crepúsculos Alpinos (Alpine Twilight)' creates some lovely textures with its use of flutes floating above strings and piano, and finally 'Despapaye' (in Mexican Spanish the word refers to something that is messy, but in an endearing way) that metamorphoses from a charming Baroque pastiche into something more Latin-American.

Anthony R Green's work as a composer and performer involves elements of collaboration and involvement in social justice. His The Green Double: a historical dance suite looks at figures from Black history through the medium of dance. 

'Protest Dancing' is inspired by Octavius Valentine Catto (1839 – 1871), an educator, intellectual, and civil rights activist, and Green imagined Catto dancing in the midst of his activism, and used contemporary and historical vernacular musical in the piece. The result gives a period feel, yet there is a modernity in Green's musical approach and the result is intriguing. 'Dance Reflections' is inspired by Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784), Harriet Jacobs (1813 – 1897), and Mum Bett (c. 1742 – 1829), three women who all had connections to Massachusetts. The movement is less of a dance and more of a slow reflection, and again there is a period feel to the musical material reflected through a modern lense. 'A Little Lite Music' is inspired by Green's love of flute music, using quotations from pieces and partly inspired by early hip-hop and classic gospel rhythms, but also Green says of the movement that he tried to imagine a double flute concerto that Quantz would compose if he were alive today ... and were a Black man! Green starts the movement off with two flutes and percussion, only gradually bringing other elements into it, to create an intriguing atmosphere. The flutes continuous passagework over strong rhythmic elements creates a neo-Baroque feel yet the building blocks are clearly modern.

This disc is very much a showcase for an ensemble which is embedded in the local community. The idea behind the programme for The Suite is an imaginative way of bringing older repertoire into dialogue with the modern, and in Elizondo and Green, Cela and his orchestra have found two contemporary composers with an engaging way with them and a real interest in exploring what dance means in modern music.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) - Overture suite in E minor TWV 55:e10
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) -  Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067
Jose Elizondo - Recuerdos Estivos (Summer Memories)
Anthony R Green - The Green Double: A Historical Dance Suite
Lowell Chamber Orchestra
Orlando Cela (conductor)
Recorded 2019 - 2020 at Futura Productions in Roslindale MA


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