While Sounding at Home, American Composers Orchestra Nevertheless Goes Big

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Ever since George Manahan took the helm of the American Composers Orchestra, the former New York City Opera music director has brought with him the operatic mantra: Go big or go home.

There have been ACO recordings before Manahan’s tenure, to be sure—from Charles Wuorinen leading Milton Babbitt’s Piano Concerto to Dennis Russell Davies conducting a litany of Philip Glass works to Paul Lustig Dunkel at the forefront of Ingram Marshall’s Nonesuch disc Kingdom Come. But with several series of concerts devoted to world premieres and young composers (including last fall’s SONiC festival), Manahan is not shy about his fierce commitment to the next generation of composers. And while many of them thrive in chamber environments, he’s asking those same composers to play with the full fiery orchestra.

The orchestra’s second album under Manahan’s leadership, the digital-only release is the first of a series giving precious recording exposure to composers with stars firmly on the rise. Emerging Composers Series, Vol. 1 opens with Manahan conducting the four-movement work Pearls by Kati Agócs, who embraces the orchestra’s vast scope and possibilities for layered schematics and resonances. The heady impact of the work bookends nicely with Gregory Spears’s album closer, Finishing (conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky), a sonic house brighter in tone but with just as many rooms and dimensions.

The three midsection works have equally hypnotic qualities over generous lengths. Milarsky also lends his talents to Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony, which moves from a mechanical violent opening to a galvanizing conclusion. Manahan is also heard on Fang Man’s Resurrection, an unapologetic tour-de-force for clarinet (Derek Bermel) and electronics (Alexis Baskind and the composer).

Most soothing is Michael Gatonska’s After the Wings of Migratory Birds, which in Brad Lubman’s hands unfolds with a postmillennial pastorality that couldn’t be better timed for the gradually warmer weather. All told, the album is as big and bold as a 70-degree afternoon in early March, and signals a bright recording future for the oft-satisfying orchestra.