Chris Walden is probably best known to AAJ readers as a big band leader and composer. But his interest in developing other forms has already garnered him two Grammy nominations, and here he ventures into the serious orchestral realm. He takes the four elements?Earth, Water, Air and Fire?and uses them as the basis of four symphonic movements in the post-romantic programmatic style of Richard Strauss, Holst, Sibelius, and others of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The allusions to Strauss are particularly clear, and even the CD cover has a photo of a snowcapped mountain ravine that evokes Strauss' Alpine Symphony. Then too, there is a debt to American composers like Barber, Copeland, and Bernstein, who followed in the footsteps of the European romantics but added a uniquely American harmonic coloration. Walden's symphony seamlessly melds the music of his German homeland and his adopted country, the US.
Walden grew up in Hamburg, and Germany is the geographical epicenter of the music here. He may secretly have yearned to write such material for a long time?many jazz artists harbour deep wishes to compose "serious" music, and some get around to it. But if you expect this symphony to be like Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue or Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige you will be disappointed. Although in a video portion of this "enhanced" CD, Walden says that he uses jazz influences, it is barely noticeable, and it may be the other way around. Jazz harmonies derive largely from European classical music, which saxophonist Charlie Parker, composer and arranger Gil Evans, and many others acknowledged and advocated. If Walden's symphony has jazz references, it is because jazz harmonies derive from classical composers like Strauss and Debussy in particular.
This is not to say that there is no connection between Walden's big band and film arrangements and this recording. Walden has a superb ear, is highly inventive, and has the ability to construct rich sonorities, beautiful melodic lines, and reserved intensity in his jazz, cinema and video, and now classical work. That is why he is so in demand as an arranger. Symphony No. 1 is truly a beautiful composition, structurally consistent, and deeply expressive. There are many resonances with film scores, especially those of Enzio Morricone. Walden writes meticulously for every instrument and section in the orchestra, just as he does for the big band. What comes out is a symphony that any of the aforementioned composers may well have been pleased to have written.
Walden has a special interest in using the musicians of the Hollywood sound stages for his recordings. He loves to work with them, and the feeling is mutual. The Hollywood Studio Orchestra shows in this recording that they rival any of the great symphony orchestras in their playing ability. Indeed, one wonders why they have never produced a legacy of symphonic recordings such as were produced by the NBC Symphony and other radio orchestras. Perhaps the time has come.
It would be interesting to learn why Walden didn't venture into more modern musical territory, beyond the post-romantic. If this music were written a century ago, it would put him in the ranks of the great composers of that era. Today, what he has given us is a wonderful sound, that delights the ear and has the ring of musical truth, but like those high Alpine mountains, it is a bit frozen in time. Walden aimed high. Perhaps in his next go around, he will also aim for the new and innovative.