Steven Mackey has undergone a metamorphosis throughout his 66-plus years, from baby-boomer rock ’n’ roll electric guitarist to a professorship at Princeton (he was even chair of the music department for a time). Mackey seems to pose as a casually dressed eternal rebel, but his long-standing Ivy League credentials make him a pillar of the musical establishment, with access to commissions from major orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has performed a lot of his work over the decades.
He’s done some interesting mergers of diverse musical idioms in the past, with 1995’s Deal a particularly successful fusion of jazz, rock, and avant-garde classical — kind of a boomer twist on the third stream idea. Here, though, in a coupling of two large-scale compositions on a recording from the Canary Classics label — a violin concerto, Beautiful Passing (2008), and a five-movement symphony, Mnemosyne’s Pool (2015) — it’s just all-out writing for the resources of a full symphony orchestra with hardly any audible hints of other musical interests. Both were performed by the LA Phil in the 2010s — Beautiful Passing as a West Coast premiere, Mnemosyne’s Pool as a world premiere — while on this recording, David Robertson leads Australia’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Before it had a title, Beautiful Passing was originally supposed to be a rip-roaring tour-de-force for violinist Leila Josefowicz. But the illness and death of Mackey’s mother in 2008 as he was conceiving the piece made him turn it into a memorial of his mom’s serenity as she stoically made arrangements for her passing.
In the concerto’s first half, the serenely lyrical violin is interrupted several times by raucous, irritable orchestral interjections that are supposed to represent the cold, cruel world of doctors, heartless health insurance companies, rigid cable TV corporations that won’t prorate their services, and other features of modern life that we are forced to put up with till death do us part. (The orchestral retorts are, according to an old program note, based on a six-note jingle from a New Jersey Transit ticket machine!) All of this stops for a while as the violin engages in an agonized cadenza, which soon merges into a sort of consensus with the troubled orchestra, eventually settling into a serene coda that fades gently away. Violinist Anthony Marwood negotiates the work’s agonies and acceptances as easily as Josefowicz did at the Los Angeles performance in 2011.
Mnemosyne’s Pool is a reference to the Greek goddess of memory — and how that translates into music, according to Mackey, is that the listener is supposed to absorb awkward leaps from one note to another in the context of a note occurring earlier in the musical line. Even experienced listeners would have to have extraordinary powers of memory — or a printed score — in order to detect where these moments are in this complex, resourcefully orchestrated 43-minute symphonic canvas whose first four movements just stop in midair without coming to real conclusions.
My impressions from the premiere at Disney Hall in May 2015 with Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil included the observation “composer runs amok in big symphonic toyshop.” Yet repeated listening to the recording suggests there are some deeper things going on in moments like the haunting colors of the fourth movement, entitled “In Memoriam A.H.S” (Mackey’s father-in-law). As in Beautiful Passing, Mackey saves his most moving ideas for the last movement, fading in a satisfying way into the ether.
Better, then, not to care about how one note follows another. Just immerse yourself in Mackey’s opulently shifting moods, dynamic levels, tonalities, and orchestral colors.