Lee Actor: Saxophone Concerto; Dance Rhapsody; Horn Concerto
ACTOR Saxophone Concerto. Dance Rhapsody . Horn Concerto 1. Opening Remarks. Celebration Overture • Kirk Trevor, cond; Debra Richtmeyer (asax); Karol Nitran (hn); Slovak Natl SO; 1 Slovak RSO • NAVONA 5848 (70:22)
Lee Actor (b.1952) was for many years a software engineer working in the videogame industry, but while he developed games he studied music, obtaining a master’s degree in composition from San Jose State University and doing further graduate study at UC-Berkeley. In 2001 he retired to devote himself to composition and conducting. He is now the assistant conductor and composer-in-residence of the Palo Alto Philharmonic, a community orchestra in Silicon Valley. This disc is a composer-produced recording of works written in the last few years. It is released on the Navona Records label, a subsidiary of the Parma recording service, a production and marketing firm. Parma is part of a growth industry in “roll your own” recordings.
Actor is a composer with some good ideas, a fine sense of orchestral color, and a proficient if not flawless craft. One wants to like Actor’s music. It has energy, color, and high spirits. It is far from unpleasant, but while there is much to admire, there are shortcomings, too. These works show a propensity for stylistic non sequitur, occasionally banal or derivative themes, and an uneven sense of musical logic. Often the music seems to be following some interior visual script, as if Actor had scored for a movie that the listener can’t see. And despite the label’s claim that it “offers listeners a fresh taste of the leading innovators in orchestral, chamber, or experimental music,” there really is little in this comfortably conventional music that anyone could deem innovative.
The Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra is a case in point. There are compelling melodies of some originality, and in the case of the Adagio a quite fetching one, but also sections that bear an uncomfortable similarity to Shostakovich. Actor expertly builds great tension but then dissipates all of the energy to no apparent purpose. He introduces themes that seemingly come out of nowhere and fit awkwardly in their context. There are clumsy transitions, perfunctory development, and the persistent difficulty that things just don’t hang together ideally.
The haunting main theme of the Adagio movement is lovely, full of a film noir urban yearning, which transitions—rather inorganically, it must be said—into an agitated central section. This is the most convincing piece on the disc. The third movement boasts a more cogent structure than the first, and plenty of bustle and momentum, but no distinctive melody and far too much filler material. In all, the concerto is competent but, aside from the Adagio, hardly what one would expect to find preserved on disc.
The same can be said of the Horn Concerto, which has similar style and logic issues, though it does give the horn player a good workout. Opening Remarks is a lively concert opener: more intimations of Shostakovich seasoned with some Tchaikovsky, but without quite the melodic distinction of either. In Celebration Overture , Actor brings out all the trappings of the MGM movie fanfare, adds some intensely anticipatory music followed by an odd little march that starts like Victor Herbert but becomes reminiscent of—you guessed it—Shostakovich. The overture is fun, and harmonically quirky, but it runs a little long for the material. It is certainly an unusual curtain-raiser, as conceived, for the Beethoven Ninth.
I saved comment on the Dance Rhapsody for the end, not because it is exceptional—it displays the same strengths and weaknesses as the other works—but because Actor mentions on his website that the work won second place in something called the American Prize for Composition. The American Prize turns out to be “the national competition for the rest of us,” as founder and chief judge David Katz puts it, a pay-to-play competition for those who get left out of the Grammys and the Pulitzers, but want “bragging rights” for winning an award. Contestants are self-nominating. They only have to send in an application, fee, and a recording of their work to be considered. Self-produced recordings; self-nominated awards programs. My eyebrows are way up.
But back to the recording at hand. The playing of the two Slovak orchestras is very fine, and Kirk Trevor, director of the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducts with commitment and energy. The engineering is superb and the two soloists give their very best for the works they play. It is the music that fails to convince. History is, of course, replete with stories of critics who have undervalued what would later be acknowledged as masterpieces, but I’ll take my chances here. Lee Actor’s music is pleasant and written with obvious conviction. Recommended to those for whom that is enough.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Catalog Number: NV5848
Composer: Lee Actor
Conductor: Kirk Trevor
Orchestra/Ensemble: Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Performer: Debra Richtmeyer, Karol Nitran