The City of Tomorrow (credit: Tarina Westlund)

CD Review: The City of Tomorrow shows off skill and musicianship in “Blow”


Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) with his fifteen-minute composition, Blow, is the name-giver for this CD, which also contains the world premiere recording of Leander and Hero by American composer Hannah Lash and Memoria by the well-known Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Wind quintet The City of Tomorrow is the real hero of this album. Its five musicians are Elise Blatchford, flute & piccolo, Stuart Bretzinski, oboe & English horn, Rane Moore, clarinet & E♭ clarinet, Nanci Belmont, bassoon & contrabassoon, and Leander Star, horn.

Blow The City of Tomorrow Release: June 25, 2021 New Focus Recordings (FCR294) Format: CD & digital media

The City of Tomorrow
Release: June 25, 2021
New Focus Recordings (FCR294)
Format: CD & digital media

That is the current roster. Unfortunately the group has changed a lot in the course of the years it has been in existence. That’s nothing new in the world of chamber music ensembles which simply cannot have enough occasions to perform in a stable configuration, but certainly not a good thing long term.

All of these musicians are genuinely and profoundly talented, enthusiastic and delivering a quality which can be easily called outstanding. The individual musicians are already spectacular in all the instruments they play. It is not to be taken for granted to have, for example, a wonderful oboe player who is also capable to play English horn so well, the same as for a good clarinet player to be in full command of such a tricky instrument like the small E-flat clarinet which requires a completely different way of producing sound. But with these musicians, all of that seems easy. All is perfectly intonated and all registers equally calibrated.

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If this would be not enough they have also many ensemble playing qualities which are really breathtaking. The dynamic range is rich and natural, never forced or too shy. The rhythmic precision is absolute. The breathing is that of a group perfectly accustomed to playing together, even when sometimes too audible – my only negative remark on the otherwise well-done work of sound engineering.

This is a good thing in order to enjoy a repertoire that is otherwise not very easy to listen to.

The most original work of the CD is definitely that of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The great Finnish maestro logically knows his instruments far too well to commit some false ingenuity or ask the impossible. In an interview he declared that writing music “against” the character of a single instrument is the most stupid thing a composer can do. In his opinion, using the specific qualities of a player who spent thousands and thousands of hours practicing certain fine details is far more suitable than asking him to denature this sound only to obtain a moment of strange effect without any need for this in the overall picture.

The City of Tomorrow (credit: Tarina Westlund)

The City of Tomorrow (credit: Tarina Westlund)

How not to agree with such an opinion? In fact his work is pretty traditional, sometimes in its structure recalling even the Parisian period between the two world wars. It is playful, very suitable for woodwinds and never boring. Esa-Pekka Salonen is a student of Donatoni, but at the same time well distant from the style of his teacher. Strangely, the more modern the music is in terms of the year of composition more it dissociates itself from the Darmstadt School of the fifties, which is definitely more dissonant and seems to have finished its appeal to new generations.

The composition ends with a sort of choral mourning, intended to be a homage to composer Luciano Berio. To be honest, the position of this section at the end of a very scintillating and logically built work is a questionable one.

As said, Blow is the work of Franco Donatoni which opens the CD. It was written in 1989 and so it belongs to the last, personally unfortunate period of the composer. Looking at the score guarantees quite a shock: one is faced with the specter of super-complicated rhythmic substance, most of it probably not necessary, but exploited to look nice on paper. Donatoni, together with other Italian composers of the Darmstadt school like Maderna or Berio, is a typical product of this particular time and, to say it straightforwardly, very difficult to distinguish from other composers within this era.

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There certainly is a lot of brio, at least in this rendering, which saves a little the otherwise total absence of any invention, harmony or even rhythm. This later is usually unsteady, changing every bar, contributing to the overall impression of chaotic, magmatic overflowing material, which after a while discourages most listeners.

Donatoni was a prolific teacher and many known composers have studied with him. He was also a very sick man, suffering all his life from depression and later of diabetes. His last work, which he was able only to dictate to his pupils due to his nearly complete inability to move, was dedicated to his most famous student Esa-Pekka Salonen. Entitled ESA, it is one of his most significant works for a symphonic orchestra.

Leander and Hero by Hannah Lash is the centerpiece of the CD and also the longest work. It is divided into nine parts with the following titles:

  1. Prelude
  2. Courting Dance: Slow and ancient
  3. Flocking
  4. First storm
  5. Hero and Leander
  6. Interlude: away from the rocks
  7. The Storm; Leander Does not Return to the Nest
  8. Hero Finds Leander’s Body and Will Not Leave His Side
  9. Postlude: The Cliffs

The programmatic content refers to a story freely inspired by a Greek myth, but tailored to suit the needs of Ms. Lash to build an environmental drama. To what degree this story is reflected by the music contents every listener will have to answer for himself. The nine sections, between three to five minutes long, try to build a drama, but despite the interesting quick passages of, for example, the third part, “Flocking,” the rest is simply monotonous and does not use the specific qualities of a wind quintet.

It is extremely tricky to write original music for five wind instruments, where the palette is forcefully limited. It is even more complicated when imagining two instruments as soloists reduces the rest of the group to a sort of Greek lamenting chorus, as in the intentions of Ms. Lash. When measured against the richness of previous composers, especially the French ones of the 1920s-40s this music simply lacks color.

What can be said about the group of young musicians? They certainly have great qualities, far above the average wind quintet of today, and if they manage to stay united in the same formation at least for the next few years, maybe playing some older music too, this could bring them to raise their artistry even higher. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.