Dark Clouds in Life
Mark John McEncroe
2017 / Navona Records
Review by Kathy Parsons
Dark Clouds in Life: Natalie’s Suite & Other Works is a major symphonic work from Australian composer Mark John McEncroe. Performed by the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra with Anthony Armore conducting and Helen Kennedy on piano, this is a deeply personal work that focuses on overcoming addiction and depression. McEncroe shares in the liner notes that he has personally struggled with these challenges, as has his daughter, Natalie. He goes on to say that he has been “on this journey and have experienced over 31 years of freedom from the malady of addiction.” This work is dedicated to Natalie and to the many others who face the same struggles. As would be expected, the music is dark and very emotional, but there is hope expressed as the bonds of addiction and depression start to loosen. The liner notes of the CD include photos of Natalie as a very young and very innocent child. They are a heartbreaking prelude to the music, but Natalie is apparently winning her battle and is on her way to a better life.
This is very definitely a work of classical scope, sweep, and style, and is the first of McEncroe’s albums to be released by Navona Records, a classical music label in the US. McEncroe’s previous recordings include two solo piano albums (Reflections and Recollections, Volumes 1 and 2) and Affirmations and Aspirations, which was also performed by the Janacek Philharmonic. It is interesting to note that Helen Kennedy, the pianist on these recordings, is also McEncroe’s piano teacher, so she knows him and his history well.
Dark Clouds of Life begins with the three-movement “Natalie’s Suite.” McEncroe says that the themes of the Suite are “grappling with an insane, detrimental cycle of repeating mistakes” and he chose to illustrate this point by keeping the entire 50-minute “Suite” in the same “home” key. The first movement is titled “Facing the Demons” and begins with a very dark and dramatic piano solo that sets the stage for what follows. When the orchestra enters, the tone of the music turns tragic. As the 21 1/2 minute movement unfolds, many emotions are expressed - some via the piano, but most by the orchestra. Some of these emotions are contrite and sad, some are big and turbulent, and some just feel lost. There is tremendous power in this music! The second movement is titled “Into the Dark Spaces” and is also about 21 minutes in length. Even darker and more desperate than the first movement, it powerfully expresses McEncroe’s words: “There can be no recovery until acceptance of complete powerlessness is reached.” I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been to write this music, but I suspect that a lot of healing also took place - hopefully for Natalie, too. The third movement is called “Moving Into the Light.” Much shorter at seven minutes, it is far from joyful, but is moving in that direction with hope. Following the “Suite” is “Natalie’s Theme,” a poignant piano solo that also appeared on Reflections and Recollections, Volume 2. “Symphonic Poem: Echoes From a Haunted Past” is somewhat less turbulent, but is still very poignant and reflective. The last track on the album is a piano solo called “The Pendulum.” The left hand plays a repeated pattern that simulates the back and forth movement of a pendulum. The melody moves freely, but is still weighted down by the repetition - a fascinating concept piece.
Dark Clouds in Life is an exceptionally powerful album and one that deserves a great deal of attention. Mark John McEncroe is a composer whose primary goal with his music is to elicit an emotional response from his audience. He has succeeded extremely well in that regard! Dark Clouds in Life is available from Amazon and iTunes. Fans of symphonic music will find much to enjoy in this album, which I highly recommend. The full orchestral score for “Natalie’s Suite” is available from Wirripang (www.australiancomposers.com.au).
March 8, 2017