Orchestral Music Media Review

Music by Shirl Jae Atwell

January 9, 2003 - Hillsborough, NC:

Shirl Jae Atwell: Lucy (Ballet), Movements Four South, & String Orchestra Pieces. Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, Jeff Holland Cook, conductor. Albany Records Troy 543, ©2002, 68:38. Available for $15 plus $1 shipping from the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, at 336/335-5456, or from the composer, at http://sjaea.home.mindspring.com/

This fine sounding CD was recorded in Dana Auditorium at Guilford College last January. It is the first recording of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra on a commercial label and a fitting follow-up to their self produced recording of a live concert reviewed last year. The superior acoustics of Dana Auditorium, compared favorably to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw by Sheldon Morgenstern, played a major role in this recording's outstanding sound. The CD is a splendid sampler of the current high level of musicianship the orchestra now displays.

This is a "vanity" production in the best sense of the term. Composer Shirl Jae Atwell funded the performance and recording of the music on this disc. The centerpiece is the ballet Lucy , inspired by the composer's obsession with the 3.5 million-year-old hominid fossil named after the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Repeated listenings have not revealed a distinctive musical signature like composers Sofia Gubaidulina, Galina Ustvolskaya, Joan Tower or Ellen Taaffe Zwilich or even Aaron Copland. Instead, Atwell manifests a fluent skill at orchestration. Her palette is tonal with liberal use of rhythm and percussion. The ballet has eight sections, each an evocative tone poem such as "Morning," "Hunted," and "Musings." All the album notes deal with Lucy or the composer's biography. Both shorter pieces could be imagined as material for dance. Movements Four South has sections with evocative titles such as "Lullaby" and "Gospel" and apt sound pictures. String Orchestra Pieces consists of three movements suggestively titled "Pulsar," "Meander," and "Drifen." The latter title is derived from the Middle English spelling of "driven," pronounced "dri'ven" and meaning "to drive."

None of this music was programmed or played by the GSO locally, so the composer paid for the necessary rehearsals and recorded performance. The results ought to satisfy the composer's need for a recording to promote her works as well as providing the orchestra with a fine showcase of its current state. With the prevailing malaise in the recording industry, more composers ought to use personal or foundation money to produce recordings of new works by our many fine regional orchestras.

Conductor Jeff Holland Cook will be familiar to Triad audiences from his guest appearances with the professional orchestra at the Eastern Music Festival and as a candidate to succeed long-time GSO Music Director Peter Paul Fuchs. All sections of the orchestra sound great. The notes list the full roster of players including pianist Nancy Johnston, prominent in the ballet.

Composer Atwell earned a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Kansas State Teachers College and a Master of Music Theory/Composition degree at the University of Louisville and then completed four years of post-graduate work in composition at the University of South Carolina. In 1984, she won the Clifford Shaw Memorial Award for Kentucky Composers and saw the New York City debut of her first opera, Sagegrass . Although she is an active composer with many commissions and publications to her credit, Atwell nonetheless still finds time to serve as a full-time string orchestra educator with the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky.