When composer Steve Martland burst onto the British classical scene in the 1980s, he brought photogenic punk stylings and a driving, propulsive style.
But then Martland died unexpectedly six years ago. The piece his friend Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote in the aftermath received its U.S. premiere at Thursday morning’s Minnesota Orchestra concert.
“Martland Memorial” is scored for percussion and orchestra, with six movements lasting 20 minutes in total. To play it, soloist Colin Currie — a former member of the Steve Martland Band — surrounded himself with a formidable phalanx of instruments. That included congas, a bird call, motor horn and slidewhistle.
Given the subject matter, Turnage’s music was predictably introspective in places. The opening “Cortège” was solemn in tone, yet it also had remarkable luminescence.
Martland was a famously feisty character, and the “Rumba” that followed was mischievously upbeat. Currie blew a duck whistle and honked a car horn as his hands flew over the marimba in an effusion of wit and energy.
While the hornpipe movement was bristlingly energetic, both the “Pavane” and the concluding “Lachryme” openly mourned Martland’s passing. The sepulchral pulse of bass drum and a thrumming tuba darkened the “Pavane” while Currie’s gentle strokes on vibraphone were like teardrops softly falling in the aching “Lachryme.”
Painful events also underlie Missy Mazzoli’s short orchestral work “These Worlds in Us,” which opened the program. The piece takes its title from a poem by James Tate about his aviator father, killed during World War II. Mazzoli dedicates the piece to her own father, a Vietnam vet.
It’s been 12 years since Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra gave the first professional performance of “These Worlds,” and that familiarity paid dividends in a confidently expressive performance. The disquieting violin and cello glissandos were forensically executed, with the snare drum skirls signaling the piece’s military connections pinging evocatively through the surrounding textures.
Like Turnage in “Martland Memorial,” Mazzoli conjured a deeply poignant ending as a subdued melodica wove its lonely threnody.
Introspection was blasted sideways following intermission, though, courtesy of a hard-driven performance of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony from 1946.
By Copland’s own admission this is “music in the grand manner,” a rousing vote of confidence in American creativity as the nation sought to forge itself anew. But there is a relatively thin line between confidence and braggadocio — and it was arguably crossed during Thursday’s performance.
Both in the imposing opening movement and the celebratory finale, Copland’s fulsome writing for brass instruments seemed sometimes blaring rather than thrillingly refulgent. The second movement was hard-pressed, too, Vänskä’s hell-for-leather tempo whipping up superficial excitement but leaving messy textures and some slippery ensemble in its wake.
There’s no doubting that the Third Symphony was deliberately primed with sonorous, crowd-stirring moments. But it has poetry, too, a quality that was occasionally swamped by grandiosity on this occasion.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.