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Musical Google Earth: Composer Paul Moravec's Sense Of Place

The mountainside Montserrat monastery, north of Barcelona, inspired Paul Moravec to write a cello concerto.
Luis Davilla
Cover/Getty Images
The mountainside Montserrat monastery, north of Barcelona, inspired Paul Moravec to write a cello concerto.

"Location, location, location" is the mantra of real estate, but for centuries geographical locales have also been a boon to the imagination of many a composer. Think of Tchaikovsky, who mimicked the bugle calls he heard each morning while visiting Rome in the opening brass fanfare of his Capriccio Italien. Or Mendelssohn's undulating waves of sound swelling in the Hebrides Overture, his ode to a craggy seaside cave in Scotland.

The practice lives on in a fine new album of orchestral works by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Paul Moravec, who has written pieces inspired by places as far flung as Venice, New Hampshire and a monastery in the mountains of Northern Spain. "My own music often seems to involve some physical, tangible catalyst," Moravec explains in the album's booklet notes.

In the glittering Northern Lights Electric, the album's opening title piece, Moravec sets out to "musicalize the majestic quality of the aurora borealis," which he witnessed in New Hampshire. The 12-minute piece begins with tinkling percussion, billowing strings and a searching motive in the woodwinds. Then brass suddenly shoots up like a spray of multi-colored lights. Spacious, Coplandesque chords depict the immense night sky.

Clarinetist David Krakauer is the soloist for Moravec's Clarinet Concerto, partially inspired by Princeton, N.J., one of the composer's hometowns. (The first piece Moravec wrote for the clarinetist, the Tempest Fantasy, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.) With someone as versatile as Krakauer, Moravec was free to flit from jazzy riffs and snaky klezmer roulades to more straight-ahead classical virtuosity.

Like Tchaikovsky, Moravec, a Prix de Rome winner, was captivated by an Italian sojourn. Sempre Diritto! is inspired by the endlessly winding streets of Venice and sets up all kinds of contradictions. The phrase "sempre diritto" (straight ahead!) is how the Italians give directions, yet Moravec's music takes many turns. He says the spiraling figures and "gradually evolving patterns" are the closest he's come to minimalism ("I was listening a lot to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians"). The jovial title and what Moravec calls his lighter "Haydnesque orchestration" belie the emotional depth of the music.

In 1994 Moravec paid a visit to the mountainside monastery at Montserrat, north of Barcelona. The trip paid off with a gleaming cello concerto (completed in 2001), sensitively realized here by cellist Matt Haimovitz. Along with gorgeous views of the Catalan countryside, Moravec was struck by a statue of Pablo Casals, the legendary Catalan cellist, who visited the Benedictine monks at the abbey frequently as a young man. Built from an ascending three-note theme (tinted with distant chimes), the 22-minute concerto feels spiritually lofty and yet grounded at the same time, flowing from episodes of sparkling virtuosity to moments of solemn meditation. The concerto builds to an arousing climax as the cello climbs ever higher, backed by swirling winds, brass fanfares and chimes. Looking at photos of Montserrat and hearing the concerto, you get an idea of Moravec's blend of earthy and ethereal.

Northern Lights Electric is another terrific album from BMOP Sound, the five-year-old indie record label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its conductor Gil Rose. Together they make a strong case for Moravec's ability to represent a broad range of musical real estate.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.