Peter Boyer's music has been called "unapologetically populist," with a "cinematic musical language [that] is a stew of Copland, Bernstein and John Williams." All of this is apparent in the first six tracks of this CD, which are a compilation of shorter works spanning a fourteen year period from 1997 to 2011. Populist yes: his music eschews the harsh dissonance of atonalism, the deterministic tendencies and contrapuntal artifices of serialism, the process music of minimalism. Rather, like one of his own musical heroes, Leonard Bernstein, he draws inspiration from popular music styles which formed the backdrop for his coming of age: the orchestral ambiance of a movie score by Elmer Bernstein (with whom he studied) or John Williams; the lyricism of a Billy Joel ballad and modality of a Beatle's tune; the tonal centeredness and rhythmic drive inherent to jazz and rock.
But populist does not negate serious; neither does it mean simplistic or unsophisticated. Like another one of the composers he admires, John Adams, Boyer knows how to take materials and layer them over an ostinato into increasingly dense and complex textures. He knows how to take small melodic motifs and transform them into longer melodies. He can easily alter the character of a melody, transforming lyrical introspection into exuberant joy. He has a knack for balancing the highs with the lows. He extracts colors from his orchestrations that can range from bold neon to subtle pastel. And he is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.
This latter point is apparent in the final three tracks, which comprise the signature work of the recording: his Symphony No. 1. Dispensing with the predictable format of the typical symphony, Boyer begins with a prelude that is a hybrid of fugue and developing variation. The modal subject proves its versatility: it works just fine in a four-voiced exposition, strings only, which has a sort of wind-swept expansiveness to it as it slowly gathers its forces. When the brass section enters, the fugue transforms itself into something more developmental in character: the theme undergoes two sets of diminution, motives are extracted and sequenced, and melodic fragments transform into unfolding harmonic constructions. Having an ear for organic proportions, Boyer builds to a climax and takes it all away at just about the Fibonacci point in the movement. The subject becomes a tender lullaby that hovers over an interior pedal tone, giving beautiful harmonic stasis and a peaceful quietude until the end.
The calm is shattered with the outset of the second movement, with Boyer again shunning the usual symphonic template. This is the unrelentingly rhythmic Scherzo/Dance. With its jaunty 1231231231212 ostinato as the alternately explicit and implicit underpinning of the movement, Boyer creates layer upon layer comprised of melodies and countermelodies, repeating harmonic progressions, pedal points, and variations of the same in an ABA' format.
The last movement is almost as long as the previous two, and delivers a summation and conclusion to what came before. An Adagio rather than an Allegro, its main theme is a sibling to that of the first movement, and proves its worth in the same way, offering opportunities for motivic parsing, imitation, solo and tutti settings, character transformation and development. Boyer takes his time and enjoys the journey with his material, ending with a satisfying full-orchestra climax.
If you want to languish in melancholy, you can go to Górecki. If you need something unrelenting and motoric to accompany an hour on the treadmill, you can call Phillip Glass. But if you need to "snap out of it", or if you're already on top of the world and want to stay there, or if there is just not room for anything sad in your life, or if you need an infusion of inspiration but need it to be in the form of music that has more to offer than its immediate attraction, spending an hour with Peter Boyer will fit your bill quite nicely.