Gregory Hutter: Electric Traction; Fantasy Pieces; Still Life; Skyscrapers; The Melancholy Rags, Book 1

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Chicago-based composer Gregory Hutter writes accessible music that's evocative of familiar sounds and scenes without being obvious about it. He pulls off a couple of neat tricks. First, he is among the few contemporary composers who manages to employ both traditional tonality and more dissonant harmonic idioms without seeming conflicted or, for, the most part, without losing the thread of a consistent artistic personality. Second, he employs Baroque procedures in new ways, neither sentimentally nor with a Stravinskian dryness; the music on this disc bears some affinities with that of John Adams in its treatment of older musical languages. Still Life (2004) is entirely tonal, using gradations of texture between the terraced quality of Baroque music and the soft focus of Impressionism to evoke the contrasts of color and texture in a classic still-life painting. Skyscrapers, a tribute to the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, makes little use of tonal idioms, but is evocative of shapes and forms in much the same way, and the opening Electric Traction (2002), evoking a South Chicago train line, is clearly programmatic while keeping just clear of cliché. Perhaps the least successful works on the disc are the three Melancholy Rags, Book I, written under the influence of Hutter's ragtime-oriented composers at the University of Michigan, William Bolcom and William Albright: they're pleasant enough, but it's hard to say what they add to the ragtime genre. As a whole, the disc offers a program of orchestral and piano music that ought to be of interest to young performers in either medium who are seeking a new connection with audiences. Many orchestral premieres these days are recorded with comparatively inexpensive Eastern European ensembles (here the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra of Olomouc), while North Americans (in this case Canadian pianist Winston Choi) take the smaller pieces. All acquit themselves solidly, and the disc is another strong entry in Naxos' impressively diverse American Classics series.

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