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Tuesday, February 08, 2005
John Frandsen, Orchestral Works

 height=Writing something for orchestra these days is a tricky thing to do. Listeners of any stripe carry an immense bag of associations for anything using a string section, particularly if it includes a singable line and a few triads. If it doesnít sound like a Mahler symphony, it sounds like something by Stravinsky, or maybe Prokofiev, or perhaps a Wagner overture. It might even sound like John Williams. Avoiding sounding derivative is quite a feat. John Frandsen, despite his penchant for melody, has managed to pull it off. It doesnít happen immediately on Orchestral Works, his latest CD, but it does, quite beautifully, happen.

The CD opens with the three movements of the Danish composerís first and only symphony thus far, entitled ďThe Dance of the DemonsĒ and written between 1986 and 1988. Frandsenís technical facility is readily apparent in these pieces. Some nice part writing and skillful timbral blending, particularly with percussion, produce some wonderful gestures, but Frandsen falls into the orchestral pit-trap. The symphonyís gestures evoke other composers, Mahler and Stravinsky primarily, rather than coalescing. The listener is left feeling directionless, and the music is left sounding anti-climactic.

Fortunately, Frandsen remedies the stylistic vertigo in ďAt the Yellow Emperorís Time,Ē an aria from his 2003 opera I-K-O-N. The voice of soprano Djina Mai-Mai gives the composer a chance to flex his melodic muscle with extremely satisfying results. A nicely unsettled texture emerges in the orchestra before the soprano is allowed to enter with a melody thatís repetitive, but builds nicely. Mai-Mai delivers the memorable melody nicely, maintaining a direct, focused vibrato. The arch of the line drives the piece and allows the orchestra freedom to wander around Mai-Maiís voice.

The next work of the CD, the ďAmalie Suite,Ē dates from just before the symphony. It comes from Frandsenís first opera, which he wrote in 1985. Despite its chronological proximity to the symphony, this piece avoids the faults of Frandsenís symphony. Perhaps because of the pieceís smaller ensemble (decet with percussion) or shorter length, here Frandsenís skills with texture do manage to unify the piece. The suite proves quite suspenseful. Brief suggestions of resolution that are quickly pulled back into the disquiet heighten the effect.

The CDís real triumph, though, comes with the final piece, Frandsenís ďHymn to the Ice Queen,Ē a concerto for cello and orchestra from 1998. From the opening orchestral phrases, itís clear that for this piece Frandsen has chosen to invoke the Romantic tradition (predominantly the late Romantic). As the work begins, the strings suggest a fragile tranquility, and the entrances of other instruments confirm the feeling. A slow crescendo brings the mood to a head, and signals the entrance of the cellist, Svend WinslÝv. The interaction between the cello and the orchestra throughout the piece is striking, and Frandsen makes full use of the celloís range and timbre. As in ďAt the Yellow Emperorís Time,Ē the use of a dominant voice unleashes Frandsenís melodicism. The melodic lines for both the solo cello and the orchestra are often rich and chocolaty, though Frandsen provides plenty of contrast to avoid sugariness that often accompanies references to the Romantic.

Overall, Orchestral Works displays Frandsenís compositional and orchestrational skills clearly. His gift for melody and his effective use of the instruments of the orchestra are obvious. What's more, the strength of the most recent works suggests that Frandsen is already, despite the obstacles, well on the road to developing a unique and identifiable orchestral style using his talents. For this reason alone, Orchestral Works is well worth a listen.


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