At the middle of this month Chicago-based Cedille Records released its final album for 2015. The title is Mythology Symphony: Orchestral Works by Stacy Garrop, and it is named after the first work that Garrop, also based in Chicago, completed for full symphonic orchestra. Mythology Symphony, which may also be taken as a five-movement suite, was composed between 2007 and 2013 through commissions from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, and the Chicago College of Performing Arts (CCPA) at Roosevelt University, where Garrop teaches composition. The performance on this new recording is by the CCPA Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Alondra de la Parra.
The album also includes two earlier works for chamber orchestra. Thunderwalker is a three-movement suite that Garrop submitted as her doctoral dissertation in 1999. The other piece, “Shadow,” was composed for the CCPA Chamber Orchestra to be featured during their tour of Japan in 2001. Markand Thakar conducts this ensemble in both of these pieces on this new recording. All three of the compositions on the album were recorded for the very first time.
According to her notes for the accompanying booklet, each of the five movements of Mythology Symphony was composed under a different commission for a different occasion, which is one reason why “suite” may be a more appropriate category than “symphony.” On the other hand the twentieth century did much to undermine just about any prevailing semantic interpretation of the noun “symphony,” meaning that any composer is free to call his/her music whatever (s)he wishes. Nevertheless, when it comes to any integrating traits, it would be fair to say that any sense of unity across the five movements has more to do with the subjects of the five movements being women than with any aspects of structure.
Taken as a whole, the music is best distinguished by its use of bold rhetoric, reflecting the escalation of mythology to a literature far more elevated than tales told (or sung) around a tribal fire. Put another way, Garrop’s approach to mythology has much more to do with Hollywood spectacles than with Albert B. Lord’s bardic “singer of tales.” Those interested in the more intimate, but just as visceral, approaches to the stories of Ancient Greece are more likely to be satisfied by Iannis Xenakis’ approach to Oresteïa than by Garrop’s lush capacities for musical imagery. On the other hand if some Hollywood producer is looking for the next John Williams, CCPA might be a good place to start the search.
Taken on its own merits, however, this is definitely music that knows how to work with a full orchestra. Garrop is particularly canny in developing the dialectical opposition of small groups of clearly distinguishable instruments against a large well-polished ensemble putting out a sonority whose rich qualities come from the seamless unification of its parts. Mind you, her knowledge of the ensemble is clearly informed by the devices of her predecessors; and there are some particularly effective moments during which the legacy of Dmitri Shostakovich counts for far more than that of John Williams. Nevertheless, the overall impression recalls many of the twentieth-century composers who were unabashedly nostalgic for nineteenth-century rhetoric; and contemporary listeners would do well to bear this context in mind when listening to Garrop’s symphonic writing.