Gloria Coates – Piano Quintet and Symphony No. 10 well-matched

Gloria Coates has a unique compositional voice. It’s one I’ve admired since hearing her first symphony (Music on Open Strings). While not all of her 16 symphonies are as immediately accessible as that work, there are some common characteristics.

Coates lets her material determine the form of the work. That material and the development of its inherent possibilities make her compositions truly symphonic in scope. Even if they don’t follow traditional forms.

Symphony No. 10 bears the subtitle “Drones of Druids on Celtic Ruins.” Believe it. Coates was commissioned to create an outdoor work for performance in an ancient Celtic site. Coates drew inspiration from the site (and the imagined rites performed there).

The symphony is for brass and percussion used in an original fashion. No fanfares, no pulse-pounding rhythms —  just long, sustained notes that gradually build in intensity. Development occurs at a glacier-like pace as interlocked chords grind against each other.

It’s a powerful work, perfectly suited for an outdoor venue. The performance of the CalArts Orchestra (in studio) mostly does it justice. In some sections, I thought the brass players were pushed right to the edge of their abilities. I couldn’t always tell if those wavering tones were deliberate or not.

Coupled with the symphony is Coates’ 2015 Piano Quintet. According to the composer, microtones and glissandi create a shimmering quality to the music. I agree. The music often seems suspended in space, with bright bursts of dazzling light whenever chords come together.

The Kreutzer Quartet and pianist Roderick Chadwick give a first-rate performance of this work. My one quibble is that the instruments are so close-mic’d that I could hear the page turns. At the same time, that closeness added to the intensity of the music.

This makes the fifth Naxos release of Coates’ music, two of which feature her symphonies. If it’s not too much to ask, I’d like them to finish the cycle.

Gloria Coates: Piano Quintet; Symphony No. 10
Piano Quintet: Kreutzer Quartet, Roderick Chadwick, piano
Symphony No. 10 “Drones of Druids on Celtic Runs”: CalArts Orchestra; Susan Allen, conductor
Naxos 8.559848
World Premiere Recordings

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