First Takes, the first CD by SONYC (String Orchestra of New York City), features the premiere recordings of works by four American composers who came to prominence in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. The ensemble, founded in 1999, which performs without a conductor, is made up of New York-area soloists and chamber musicians and has the polish, assurance, and tight ensemble of a much smaller chamber group (or of a much longer-established orchestra). Its tone is sumptuous and velvety, and the playing is nimble, precise, and cleanly focused. All four of these scores are written idiomatically and exceptionally well for strings, but they are dauntingly demanding nonetheless and SONYC handles with high spirits and effortless-sounding virtuosity. The composers could all be described as postmodern, meaning they incorporate various new techniques within styles that tend to be more audience-friendly than most modernist classical music of the mid-20th century.
Christopher Theofanidis cites Spanish medieval music as the inspiration for Visions and Miracles. The positive charge of the titles of the three movements, "all joy wills eternity," "Peace Love Light YOUMEONE," and "I add brilliance to the sun," is reflected in the radiant music, which is sometimes ecstatic, sometimes euphoric. Paul Moravec's Morph is a colorful reflection on the myth of Daphne and Apollo. Lisa Bielawa's The Trojan Women, derived from her incidental music for JoAnne Akalaitis' production of the Euripides play, movingly depicts various aspects of grief, from wrenching despair to furious raging. The title of Michael Gatonska's Transformation of the Hummingbird might suggest a work that would be small and quiet, but much of the music is wildly kinetic, depicting a big scary world perceived from the tiny bird's viewpoint. These are all immensely appealing, highly skilled pieces that should be of interest to fans of modern orchestral music. Albany's sound is terrific: clean but warm, with a lively and realistic presence.