Michael Whalen

Afraid of Thunder

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Afraid of Thunder Review

by Carol Wright

Michael Whalen is best known for his sweeping scores for television documentaries. Afraid of Thunder is an intimate musical portrait evocative of both his life and the backbone of Americana so typical of the compositions of Aaron Copland. Performances here are split between the Janacek Philharmonic conducted by Dennis Burkh and the smaller Music Amici ensemble. The album opens with "Noxontown Adagio," a 1994 portrait that easily weaves images of peaceful countrysides and Protestant hymns. "A Light in a Cathedral" (1995) is a gentle, yet unsettled, piece where Whalen reinterprets a childhood memory where he seems to question his religious faith. The solo oboe seems overshadowed by the monumental structures. The piece breaks open at one point with heartugging pull of strings and the hopeful chirping of the oboe. A comparison might be made to Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" and "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," but here the poor oboe never quite gets to fly with religious rapture. Very touching. "Polar Bears in Central Park" (1994) is a comical tumble for violin, flute and woodwinds. Similar is "America is Flat," a cheery syncopated dialogue between clarinet (Zdnek Puvokec) and a box drum (Rostislav Mireska). The title cut opens with crashing tympani and a minor-key refrain from the orchestra. With this music, I can easily place myself out on some exposed hillside; the storm gathers in plinking raindrops, then builds, windswept (thanks to the French horn), pauses, then regroups. The birds don't seem to mind, as the woodwinds and flutes attest. I guess the danger of the storm is all in how you look at it, which seems to be the dynamic tension and driving force of much of this album. "Montana" (1995) is a peaceful meditation for two harps and French horn; the horn (Joseph Anderer) soars like an eagle over what seems like high layers of clouds. Lara Downes is featured on "American Primitive" for solo piano. Minor-key arpeggios tumble after one another, while a hoedown theme tries to take hold. This dance has more plots and undercurrents than a soap opera. So much for the simplicity of American country folk. The album ends with "The Love of Opposites (an imaginary ballet)," written in 1994. As with so much of Whalen's music, it is very easy to visualize: a delicate pas de deux explodes with spectacular leaps, tugs and pulls between the dancers. The music tells me they made up, and with intimate tenderness. The richness and depth of Whalen's musical vision is not experimental. Most listeners will find it very accessible, yet sophisticated enough for repeat playings.