Road Trip, the Aurora Orchestra’s first release for Warner Classics, is conceived as a musical journey through the landscape of a mythical America. Three of the works discovered en route are classics of 20th-century American music, by Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and John Adams, while the other stopping points are three songs arranged by Nico Muhly and featuring folk singers Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes.
I’m not sure how convincing the connections between all these elements are, but it is an imaginative and carefully thought out scheme, and certainly becomes a highly attractive package when it’s performed with the panache that the Aurora Orchestra and its conductor, Nicholas Collon, bring to everything. Their performance of Adams’s Chamber Symphony has real rhythmic snap, pungency in the instrumental textures, and just the right edge of aggression; the last of Ives’s Three Places in New England, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, becomes a wonderfully subtle study in drifting textures with the ghostly presence of a hymn tune threading through it. Best of all is Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which the Aurora performs in the original (and to my mind, always the most effective) scoring for 13 instruments, managing to conjure up its perfect marriage of folksy naivety and art-music sophistication, which can easily get lost in the versions for full orchestra.
But Muhly’s arrangements are fascinating too, and sometimes recall one of the best of his own works, The Only Tune, a haunting deconstruction of a folk ballad that also featured Amidon. Here, he adds a typically laconic yet immensely suggestive and increasingly threatening accompaniment to Amidon’s singing of the broadside ballad Reynardine; and adds more discreet reinforcement to his performance of Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones, as well as creating a ticking, tinkling instrumental web around Landes’s voice in The Brown Girl. All of them work perfectly.