Daniel Stephen Johnson was born in the desert and learned to play the violin. After studying viola and English at the University of Southern California, he wrote fiction at Columbia University. Then he moved to Connecticut, where he worked at a record shop and wrote about music, literature and comedy for the New Haven Advocate and the Believer. Now he lives in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and works as a sheet music salesman in Queens. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @linernotesdanny.
Mark-Anthony Turnage's Symphonic Meditation on Hope and Hopelessness
Q2 Music Album of the Week for December 30, 2013
Monday, December 30, 2013
British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's music is best known for its provocative clashes between the concert hall and the outside world. He's enjoyed a steady, high-profile international career since making his name in the '90s with the raw Blood on the Floor, which marries a new-music ensemble to a jazz quartet, but the devilish rudeness of his more recent collisions between the classical music and popular culture have brought him much more attention.
Turnage's fiery Hammered Out for orchestra, for instance, shocked audiences at its BBC Proms premiere by featuring an extended and overt quotation from Beyoncé's "Single Ladies." Not long after, his opera Anna Nicole reworked the miserable story of American reality-TV punchline Anna Nicole Smith into a lurid, but substantial, musical tragedy.
As the dark second act of Anna Nicole made clear, Turnage understands that high seriousness and "low" culture are not mutually exclusive concerns—but the new Turnage disc on the London Symphony Orchestra's LSO Live label may nevertheless surprise listeners, with its emotional directness, who have discovered Turnage via his reputation as brash provocateur.
From the Wreckage is the lighter work here by far—which isn't saying much, though it certainly has its playful moments. A concerto for trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger, the sonics of its jazz-hued melody rise from a deep blue darkness to brassy brilliance as the soloist starts out on flugelhorn, swaps it out for a trumpet, and then switches again to piccolo trumpet—though of course Hardenberger is able to bring a depth and solidity to his tone even in the high ranges of that tiny instrument, and to bring a gleam to the flugelhorn's lowest registers.
Speranza, a symphonic meditation on hope and hopelessness, is the main course on this disc, is far more deeply earnest—even prayerful, as lyrical, folk-inspired materials struggle against forces of despair and self-destruction, and the old-fashioned craft Turnage brings to his materials suggests a connection to the sacred. The London Symphony, under Harding, rises to the piece's roaring climaxes, but the disc resolves gently, on a hopeful note—muted and ambivalent, but hopeful.