David Amos conducts Modern Masters

by Walter Simmons

David Amos conducts Modern Masters

Harmonia Mundi is inaugurating a new series of recordings under the heading “Modern Masters,” and the first three releases have just arrived. A varied selection of repertoire is eatured–primarily accessible works of the 20th century–in performances by three London groups, led by the American conductor, David Amos.

Amos is becoming an increasingly familiar name on the iInternational recording scene, with more than a dozen Recordings — mostly of just this sort of repertoire — on a variety of different labels. These recordings have been highly praised, for the most part, by Fanfare as well as by other reviewing media. During the past year alone, Amos has conducted seven new compact discs, featuring 26 works, 15 of them first recordings — a pretty impressive total, especially for a conductor who does not have a permanent orchestral post.

David Amos is based in San Diego, where he heads the International Musicians’ Recording Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering recordings of worthy but neglected music, mostly of the 20th century. So he is certainly an appropriate figure to collaborate with Harmonia Mundi on a project of this kind.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Maestro Amos, on the occasion of the release of these three new recordings, when he was gracious enough to share some of his thoughts and aspirations regardinq the “Modern Masters” project.

WS: This is a pretty imposing set of initial releases: thirteen pieces for orchestra, many of them first recordings. How did the Modern Masters series come about?

DA: Originally, I approached Harmonia Mundi with the idea. Knowing of my track record of promoting music of lesser-known composers and talented young artists, the Harmonia Mundi executives were pretty receptive to my proposal. 50 together we conceived the idea of a series called “Modern Masters,” which would present music that has never been recorded, as well as some other pieces that may have been available during the 1950s but have long been out of circulation. You know, there are a lot of pieces like that — wonderful pieces that haven’t been available for years. Libraries and radio stations are always clamoring for new copies to replace their old, worn-out ones. 50 we decided to do some of these as well, with modern sound and modern orchestras.

WS: That’s great. Do you expect the series to continue?

DA: I have every indication that there is an interest in continuing. Of course, the success of these first releases will be an important factor.

WS: How did you determine the initial repertoire?

DA: Basically, I do music that I enjoy and respect. 1’malso open to suggestions from experts who are knowledgable about 20th-century orchestral music and are aware of which works are most deserving of exposure. This has seemed to work very well, because the music I have recorded has elicited tremendous enthusiasm from listeners. I was just speaking with the music director of New York City’s public radio station earlier today, and he happened to mention that Hovhaness’ Concerto No. 8 for Orchestra and some of the Rosner pieces have prompted an unbelievable number of phone calls.

WS: Yes, I notice that Hovhaness, Rosner, and Creston seem to be favorites of yours.

DA: That’s right. You know, contrary to the conventional myths, there’s a great deal of 20th-century music that’s quite melodious and enjoyable, even at first hearing.

WS: That’s right. For a brief period — during the 1940s and early 5Os — this kind of music was being heard in America. Then — except for people like Copland and Barber — it disappeared. Now, thanks to the efforts of conductors like Leonard Slatkin, Gerard Schwarz, and you, this music has begun to re-enter the repertoire.

DA: Yes, I’m very excited about this. Since it appears that 12-tone music, serial music, and most of the other avant-garde music of the 1960s and 70s has not fulfilled the claims made for it by its defenders, many soloists and conductors are looking for new allegiances. A lot of them seem to be turning to some of the older composers whose music was ignored when it was first composed: people like Creston, Dello Joio, and Morton Gould, who are definitely high-quality composers whose excellent craftsmanship and artistry are now being recognized.

WS: Would you like to have a permanent orchestral position at some point?

DA: Well, what I would really like is to have a position as principal guest conductor with one of the better orchestras — one that has the same beliefs and interests that I do. You see, even though I love the standard repertoire and enjoy conducting it, I find there are plenty of fine conductors who do only that and duplicate each other’s efforts. I much prefer to pursue what I feel is a personal crusade and bring some of this wonderful unfamiliar repertoire to audiences, while interspersing it with standard pieces that they all know and love.

WS: Do you find conducting for recordings very different from conducting in concert?

DA: It is, in many ways. Standing up in front of an English or European orchestra to do a first recording requires some very specialized skills that I’ve had the opportunity to develop: It’s usually the first time that the orchestral players look at the music, in many cases it’s the first time the conductor conducts it, the music is generally far more difficult in concept and technique than standard repertory, and it all has to fall into place right there in the recording session — no real rehearsals, just a run-through or two, a few comments, and then the tape starts rolling. So conductor, soloist, and orchestra have to develop a unified style almost immediately. There’s no time to correct tempos or change interpretation — you must know exactly what you want right from the start. In order to accomplish this, of course, the orchestra must consist of superb and experienced readers, able to adjust instantly to the motions, style, and demands of the conductor on the podium. Most orchestras that do only standard repertoire cannot handle such a pressured situation. That’s why it was such a pleasure recording Modern Masters in England, with absolutely the finest reading musicians any place in the world.

This conversation with David Amos certainly whetted my appetite for the three new releases at hand. Having listened to each several times, I can summarize my impressions as follows: Each CD contains one work — listed first in the headnotes below — that, if not justifying the acquisition of each release, makes it worthy of serious consideration by the listener who favors this sort of music.

Volume I, which presents music for full orchestra, features the first recording, as far as I know, of Tripartita, a substantial, three-movement work written in 1972 by Miklos Rozsa. Considering the state of health of the 84-year old composer, it is probably his final major orchestral piece. Tripartita is a terse, powerful, brilliantly orchestrated work, considerably more angular and hard-bitten than the film music for which Rozsa is famous. Drawing upon a language rather reminiscent of Bartok’s Dance SuiteTripartita is sure to interest and gratify the composer’s many admirers.

The other pieces on Volume I are highly accessible and generally diverting in character. Some listeners may prefer a deeper, more challenging program, but others will enjoy the selections, I am sure. Menotti’s Triple Concerto a Tre is a genial, concertante-style work composed in 1970, featuring three instrumental trios in soloistic roles. The slow movement displays a lovely, Finzi-like lyricism and poignancy that would be ideal in a movie; the outer movements each have an infectious, slightly neo-Baroque, Pulcinella-like quality that reminds one of the overture to an opera buffa. Morton Gould’s three-movement Folk Suite dates from 1938, and displays the composer’s characteristic treatment of American-flavored subject matter. I find that in such pieces, Gould subjects exceedingly banal material to such excessively complex elaboration that the results lack the naturalness, spontaneity, and grace achieved by Copland, for example. Latvian-born Marc Lavry composed the 16-minute symphonic poem Emek in 1936, one year after he immigrated to Palestine. A homage to the early settlers of Israel, the work is simply conceived with broad, heroic gestures and exotic colorations.

Modern Masters II features the Partita for flute, violin, and strings, composed by Paul Creston in 1937. This is a delightful five-movement neo-Baroque dance suite, infused with the composer’s warmth and exuberant good humor. Though the Partita does not aspire to “the power and intensity of Creston’s more serious-toned works, it has been a favorite among listeners, ever since its early-1950s recording on the American Recording Society label, which was later reissued on Desto. I always found that performance and recording pretty drab, so the high-spirited vitality of this rendition, captured within a sonic context of crystalline transparency, represents a most welcome improvement.

The remainder of this disc presents a varied program of music for chamber orchestra. David Ward-Steinman was born in Louisiana in 1936 and is now composer-in-residence at San Diego State University. His music has evolved during the years, incorporating many of the trends and fashions that have come and gone. The Concerto No. 2 was composed during the early 1960s and is a representative example of the sort of American neoclassicism that often appeared on Robert Whitney’s Louisville Orchestra recordings from exactly that period. Ward-Steinman’s contribution is skillful in its lively, exhilarating way. Norman Dello Joio is a composer whose music has rarely impressed me at all, despite my great fondness for the generation of composers to which he belongs. His Lyric Fantasies is a relatively recent (1975) work for viola and strings whose genial, if somewhat dry, urbanity calls William Walton to mind. Something of a human composing machine, Henry Cowell composed his five-minute Hymn on the spur-of-the-moment one day in 1946. It is a warmly euphonious example of his distinctive neo-early-American vein, with its hearty modal polyphony, and deliberate crudities of voice-leading. Paul Turok is probably better known as a critic than as a composer. (He used to write for Fanfare, among other publications, and now has his own journal, Turok’s Choice.) His brief Threnody dates from 1979 and, to my ears, suffers from a lack of distinctive personality. Britten-cum-Hindemith is the general flavor.

The highlight of Modern Masters III is Responses, Hosanna, and Fuque, by Arnold Rosner (see interview/discography in last issue). This is a 20-minute work for string orchestra and harp, composed in 1977. Inhabiting an expressive realm initially charted by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and further mined by Alan Hovhaness in many of his works, Rosner’s piece more than holds its own in this company. Of course, the presence of two Hovhaness works on this CD makes a comparison inevitable, especially when one recalls that Rosner is the author of the entry on Hovhaness in The New Grove and one notes that the works featured here by the two reveal the aspect of each composer closest in style to the other. In my view, the comparison favors Rosner, whose work — here and elsewhere — displays greater depth, expressive range, melodic appeal, harmonic interest, and sense of formal direction. While perhaps a trifle over-extended relative to its substance, Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue is a work whose spiritual fervor will certainly appeal to admirers of both composers.

The two Hovhaness works appear to be first recordings also. Psalm and Fuque is scored for string orchestra and dates from the early 1940s, when the composer was concentrating on modal polyphony, ecclesiastical in character and without the middle-eastern exoticism that soon appeared in his work. Like Alleluia and Fuque, composed about the same time (and recorded by Amos on Crystal CD810), Psalm and Fuque evokes a slightly mournful, yet warmly devotional mood. Shepherd of Israel appeared about a decade later, when Armenian religious and folk elements had entered Hovhaness’ creative palette. Somewhat reminiscent of Avak the Healer, with thematic similarities to Talin, Shepherd of Israel comprises six short movements in which the string orchestra is augmented variously by a flute, a cantorial singer, and a trumpet. The middle-eastern melos, the Hebrew language, and the title of the work give it an appropriately Israeli quality (it was written to commemorate the founding of Israel), although the music itself is standard early-1950s Hovhaness.

And finally, there is DelIo Joio’s Meditations on Ecclesiastes, rounding out a CD that seems to be unified by spiritual concerns. This half-hour work for strings was composed in 1956 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year. It was recorded for CRI by the Oslo Philharmonic under the direction of Alfredo Antonini, a performance that has been re-issued on CD by Bay Cities (BCD-I017). The work has been choreographed by Jose Limon, with the title, There is a Time. It is in the form of a theme and variations, with each biblical line represented by a variation. Again, I must confess something of a deafness to DelIo Joio’s virtues. Its language strikes me as at once harsh and treacly, emotionally lukewarm in a way that conjures 1950s American culture at its most ordinary. Amos’ performance is somewhat broader than Antonini’s, which is fine as well, but Harmonia Mundi’s sonics are, of course, vastly superior.

The performances on these three CDs are generally solid, fervent, and committed. The sound quality is splendid, with a fullness and richness never at the expense of clarity. Some of the soloists — especially, cantor Sheldon Merel in Shepherd of Israeland violist Karen Elaine in Dello Joio’s Lyric Fantasies — are rather uncertain. Program booklets are handsomely produced, with excellent photos of the composers, although accompanying notes could be somewhat more elaborate.

MODERN MASTERS I. ROZSA: Tripartita. MENOTTI: Triplo Concerto a Tre.GOULD: Folk Suite. LAVRY: Emek. David Amos conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. HARMONIA MUNDI–HMU 906010 [DDDJi 72:59. Produced by Tim McDonald.

MODERN MASTERS II. CRESTON: Partita for Flute, Violin, and Strings. DELLO JOIO: Lyric Fantasies for Viola and Strings. WARD-STEINMAN: Concerto No.2 for Chamber Orchestra. COWELL: Hymn for Strings. TUROK: Threnody. Yossi Arnheim, flute; Nicholas Ward, violin; Karen Elaine, viola; David Amos conducting the City of London Sinfonia. HARMONIA MUNDI–HMU 906011 [DDDJi 59:31. Produced by Robina G. Young.

MODERN MASTERS III. ROSNER: Responses, Hosanna, and Fugue.HOVHANESS: Shepherd of 1sraelPsalm and Fugue. DELLO JO1O: Meditations on Ecclesiastes. Sheldon Merel, cantor; Kenneth Smith, flute. David Amos conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. HARMONIA MUNDI–HMU 906012 [DDDJi 76:35. Produced by Robina G. Young. .