Stephen Paulus (1949-2014): Concerto & Orchestral Works / Guerrero; Nashville

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For those listeners not familiar with the work of the American composer Stephen Paulus, this recent release from Naxos serves as an excellent introduction, offering superb performances of Paulus’s orchestral music from Giancarlo Guerrero and his Nashville Symphony. Paulus was born in Summit, New Jersey in 1949, and grew up in Minnesota, where he remained through his college years at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul. He served as Composer-in-Residence for both the Minnesota Orchestra and later for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Working in practically every genre, he is best known for his operas and choral music. Stephen Paulus passed away in October of 2014.

Paulus' music can be described as tonal, melodic and colorful, with a wide range of textures achieved through imaginative instrumental combinations. Although it is essentially tonal, it is of an extended flavor, sounding quite modern for much of the time. He will sometimes surprise the ear by introducing harsh dissonance into an otherwise romantically beautiful and consonant passage.

The program opens dramatically with the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (Three Places of Enlightenment), written on a commission by William Preucil, then first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet. The practice of setting an instrumentalist or a group of players off from the main body of the orchestra dates back to the Baroque era (the concerti grossi of Corelli for example) and the Classical period (with the sinfonia concertante of Mozart and Haydn); Paulus' string quartet concerto is only one of many modern examples of this orchestration technique. However, this particular scoring, for string quartet and orchestra, is rather unusual, and Paulus takes full advantage of the singular timbral qualities achieved through the interplay of the two distinct groups. The effect is exhilarating. Making its world premiere on disc, the opening movement of this work is available as an audio sample on the video in the right sidebar.

Following this concerto is a brief extract from Paulus' Holocaust oratorio, To Be Certain of the Dawn. Scored for string orchestra, this four and a half minute interlude titled Veil of Tears is a rather disturbing reflection on the sorrow and grief conveyed in the first half of the oratorio. Following this moving piece, the album concludes with another premiere recording, Paulus' large-scale Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (2004). This is a concerto for one of the few solo instruments that can actually compete with the full instrumental forces of a symphony orchestra; Paulus achieves this marriage of soloist and orchestra to impressive effect, at times, for example, using the solo instrument to provide a backdrop for the more prominent orchestral part. The organ is played admirably by the young American organist Nathan Laube.

The concluding minutes of this disc are as grand and powerful as you would hope. The listener is left with an uplifting feeling suitable for an album that has come to serve as a poignant tribute to one of America’s great contemporary composers. On the evidence of this excellent release, Stephen Paulus’s works have secured a well deserved place in the contemporary American repertory, and we should expect to enjoy them in concert halls and on disc for years to come.