“New York Philharmonic: An American Celebration”

by Walter Simmons

Following the successes of their two previous packages, New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts 1923-1927 (released in 1997) and New York Philharmonic: The Mahler Broadcasts (released in 1998), New York Philharmonic Special Editions has just issued their third such deluxe package: a ten-CD set devoted to the orchestra’s performances — previously unreleased — of American music. The contents (listed in toto at the end of this essay) are a collector’s dream: performances of 49 works by 39 composers, led by 21 different conductors, adding up to a total of 13 hours of music. The package is divided into two volumes, each with its own box of five CDs and program book: the first covers repertoire dating roughly from the first 50 years of this century; the second covers the latter half of the century. The performances span the period 1936 through 1999, and include 13 world premieres. Of particular interest are ten performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein of works he never recorded commercially.

Each program book approaches 250 pages, and is filled with essays by Masur (an enthusiastic introduction to the set), by the Philharmonic’s Executive Director, Deborah Borda (a more institutional introduction), by critic Alan Rich (an introduction to the repertoire), by the set’s producer Sedgwick Clark (discussing the factors and considerations that concerned him, followed by brief comments on each selection), and by the engineers who worked on the original source material (describing the issues they faced). There is also an explanation of the prominence given to Aaron Copland (who is represented by eight works), a timeline of important events concerning the relevant musical figures, a complete discography of the orchestra’s commercial recordings of American music (provided by Fanfare’s own James North), program notes on each work, biographies of each conductor and soloist, a roster of orchestra members for each concert, and brief excerpts from interviews with the composers and performers represented, conducted by radio host Robert Sherman.

The chief architect of the set is Sedgwick Clark, who was also producer of the two previous New York Philharmonic recording mega-projects. Clark is a long-time discophile who has played a variety of important roles in the classical music business.  He began collecting records while he was attending Hanover College in his native state of Indiana. Although he graduated with a degree in philosophy, he took a job with Philips as Director of Publicity and Artist Relations. Following this he served as editor of FM Guide, Tape Deck Quarterly, Modern Recording, and Keynote.He has written criticism for the American Record Guide, FI, and Gramophone. Clark was involved from the outset with the highly praised CD reissues of the Mercury “Living Presence” series, as well as with the Sony Classical “Masterworks Heritage” line. Today Clark estimates his personal collection at some 20,000 LPs and 7,000 CDs.

In preparation for this article, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Clark by phone. Portions of that conversation follow, edited for clarity and concision:

How did you get involved with the New York Philharmonic in the first place?

In anticipation of the orchestra’s sesquicentennial celebration, I had proposed the idea of a recording project that would draw upon the orchestra’s archives of previously unreleased material. Henry Fogel had successfully undertaken a similar venture with the Chicago Symphony, and I thought that a project of this kind with the Philharmonic would be a great idea. There was some hesitancy at first, but once they gave me the green light, I began contacting collectors and gathering sources. The result turned out to be so successful, we started on the Mahler project right away.

In planning this American music project, there must have been dozens of performances to choose from. How did you decide what to include?

We tried to stick basically to the 20th century. I think the only pieces written before 1900 were by Chadwick, MacDowell, and Sousa. I justified them by the fact that all three were active into the 20th century. What I wanted to do was to give people a wide survey of the many various styles in 20th-century American music. Of course these styles were very European-oriented at first, and then in the 1920s all of a sudden burst out in all directions. That was my idea of what to do with this set. People will say there are a lot of things missing, which is quite true, but there also is an awful lot here that will be unfamiliar to most listeners. One of the big discoveries for me was Paul Creston’s Second Symphony. I had never even heard it before. The truth is, there aren’t too many chestnuts in the whole set, but we had to have some. We wanted to appeal to a broader audience than just collectors. But we had a number of other constraints as well.

What sort of constraints?

The first thing that limited us was what actually exists. For example, looking through program listings, I saw that Mitropoulos had conducted a broadcast of Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan. I looked everywhere, and — there is just no trace of it as far as I know. A lot of people don’t realize that broadcasts were not systematically saved. This was part of the understanding between the orchestras and radio stations. Any recordings sent out to the various cities for broadcast were to be played immediately, or destroyed. At least they were supposed to be. The idea was that these broadcasts were for people who had “missed the concert” for one reason or another. That was the purpose of the broadcasts in the first place. The New York Philharmonic, like the other major orchestras, exists to give concerts. Their attitude was, people who want to hear us in recorded form can buy our records. That’s why home tapers were hated so much by orchestras for so many years. They were felt to be stealing the musicians’ work and all that. But the thinking on that changed some time in the 1970s. The orchestras finally realized that this was history and important to preserve, if they believed in the work they were doing.

Were there other constraints as well?

Another factor was that the Philharmonic did no concert broadcasts between 1968 and 1975. This eliminated a great deal of Boulez’s legacy. For instance, he did Copland’s Connotations. Boy, would I love to have that on this set, but it wasn’t taped. But in 1975 the orchestra began broadcasting again and, for the first time, saved its tapes. A set like this is only possible because the orchestra, through the Musicians Union, agreed to reduce its fees from the amount they would normally get for a commercial recording.

But, given what was available, how were the choices made? For example, many commentators, myself included, consider Peter Mennin’s Seventh to be one of the greatest of all American symphonies. George Szell commissioned it for the Cleveland Orchestra, and performed it with the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Yet you did not decide to include that broadcast performance, which I think is stupendous.

There were a couple of reasons that one didn’t make it. For one, the sound of the tape we have is not very good. True, we could have worked on it, but frankly I did not think the piece itself is as good as other Mennin pieces I’ve heard. I happen to like the “Moby Dick” Concertato very much. Also, time was a big factor. To put on a half-hour piece that I don’t think is very good, even with George Szell conducting, … Besides, there are other recordings of the work available. We were trying not to duplicate too much. Obviously, there are some duplications.

Yes, and many of these seem a little superfluous, such as Bernstein doing Harris’s Third, which he recorded commercially with the orchestra just a few years later.

I just found it unthinkable for the New York Philharmonic to release a set of this magnitude about American music and not include a Bernstein performance of the Harris Third. I happen to believe that it’s the greatest of American symphonies. Every time I hear it I’m just amazed by its concision and power. This was Bernstein’s first performance of it with the Philharmonic, and it’s faster than either of the subsequent recordings. I find it a different view of the work and tremendously exciting. Even by 1961 he broadened it out, looking for more grandeur in the piece. But in 1957 he made it quite a taut drama.

What about the 1945 Rodzinski performance of Appalachian Spring?

Well, it was the world premiere, after all. I just thought it was very important and I think it sounds fabulous. Plus it’s important to the New York Philharmonic’s history, and, after all, this is a New York Philharmonic set. Collectors may have a lot of this material from other sources, but we had access to sources that sound better than anything anyone else has–like Voice of America tapes and discs at the Library of Congress. No one else has access to those.

How involved was Masur in making these decisions?

More than in either of the previous sets. He wanted to be involved from the beginning. This is not true of the music directors of other orchestras that have produced sets like this, where the conductors may have been concerned with their own recordings but not with what else goes on the set. Masur cared about everything. So for this set we arranged for five 2 ½-hour listening sessions, and invited members of the orchestra committee as well. Essentially, that’s what they hired me for — to select performances and propose them for Masur and the orchestra to approve in the listening sessions. They listened to all or parts of everything that is on the set, as well as several pieces that, for one reason or another, could not be included. We had some fun little discussions. There were loads of things I considered that there simply wasn’t room for. Some things that we had to leave out were really painful, like Walter Piston’s Second Symphony under Rodzinski. This sort of thing happened when there were other performances that Masur wanted to have included, and I had to juggle things, and some just had to go. At one point I asked for two more discs, so that we could include everything I thought was really important. But the economics just wouldn’t allow it. These pieces will get on later when we do our next set. Absolutely!

How did Masur seem to respond to this music? Was he really able to understand and appreciate the different American styles?

Actually, it was interesting to see how he tuned into the pieces that had a more European influence right away. But one of the exciting things was playing him the more Americana-like pieces, and discovering that some of them really impressed him — he found them really substantial and felt that they demanded to be taken seriously. He’s a very serious guy, actually. But his major concern was that the Philharmonic be represented as well as possible. One of the things that makes these performances so exciting is that most were recorded live, so you get this feeling of walking the tightrope. So there are mistakes once in a while — what of it? It happens in every concert.  But Masur rejected some of these performances when he didn’t feel the playing was good enough. These decisions had to be made. So everything that finally made it onto the set has the OK — the imprimatur — of the New York Philharmonic and its music director. Although a set like this is not a natural seller, Masur, the orchestra, and the board of trustees are all very excited about it. I think we all feel that a set like this calls attention to music that has been overlooked, and makes the point that these pieces are good music that should be played regularly in concerts every year.

Looking over the list of compositions and conductors included in this set will make any collector’s mouth water, one would think — collectors who specialize in conductors as well as those whose interests center around American symphonic music. To touch on some of the high points: For me the single most important performance on the entire set is Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 reading of William Schuman’s Sixth Symphony. Composed in 1948, this is arguably Schuman’s greatest symphony — a work of tremendous power, concentration, and abstract complexity, composed shortly after he assumed the presidency of the Juilliard School and entered the richest creative period of his career. The work has only been available on a recording from the mid 1950s that featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. As adequate as this performance may have seemed, Ormandy’s tendency to provide competent, accurate readings robbed of vitality and expressive detail is no secret, although these shortcomings were often difficult to detect and attribute accurately in a work otherwise unfamiliar. But Bernstein was a knowledgeable and persuasive advocate of Schuman’s music, and his reading of the Sixth, though perhaps a little ragged at times, makes vivid and exciting a work that some have viewed as cold and synthetic.

Another high point of the set — though much more modest in scope — is George Szell’s 1950 reading of Samuel Barber’s lovely First Essay. This short piece has enjoyed many fine performances, but I have never heard one maintain such a consistent sense of contrapuntal continuity throughout. Considerably faster than one is used to hearing, Szell’s interpretation never sounds brusque or rushed, because it is founded on a convincing underlying conception. Disappointment about the absence of Mennin’s Seventh Symphony aside, one regrets that this is the only Szell-led performance included in the set: his thorough comprehension of those American composers whose work he embraced has yet to be fully appreciated.

The third notable inclusion is Pierre Monteux’s 1956 rendition of Paul Creston’s Second Symphony, a work whose extraordinary individuality and tremendous appeal was well understood by the French conductor, who championed the piece with a number of different orchestras — in Europe as well as in the U.S. Although he pushes the work’s Introduction a bit, setting too high an emotional temperature prematurely, his pacing of the remainder is excellent, making one wonder how such an exciting and satisfying work could have gone into such abrupt eclipse after the mid 1950s.

If Creston’s Second was the producer’s big discovery, mine is Ernest Schelling’s A Victory Ball. This is no masterpiece, mind you, but it is a fascinating period-piece by a composer whose name was totally unfamiliar to me. Schelling, who lived from 1876 to 1939, inaugurated the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts in 1924. Celebrated as a prodigious pianist as a child, he concentrated on composition after a car accident injured his hands. His most famous work, A Victory Ball is a 15-minute orchestral fantasy composed in 1922 after a well-known poem of the same name by Alfred Noyes. Based on a conceit somewhat reminiscent of Ravel’s La Valse(composed two years earlier), the piece develops its antiwar theme with bitter irony, in a direct, straightforward musical language that would make its point to the most casual listener. The work evidently enjoyed hundreds of performances in its time.

One of the most unexpected realizations I had was that the most impressively executed performances on the set are those of the past 25 years. Indeed, the orchestra used to have a reputation for sloppy, indifferent playing, unless especially inspired by circumstances of the moment. But from the mid 1970s on, the orchestra simply seems to have gotten better and better. This means that the style — now best understood as something of an aesthetic transition between serialism and the return to tonality — dubbed by Jacob Druckman “the New Romanticism” is especially well represented. Anticipated in such early works as Varèse’s Intégrales and Ruggles’s Sun-Treader, and epitomized by Druckman’s own music, such as Lamia, the style achieved something of an apotheosis in such works as George Crumb’s Star-Child and, later, Joan Tower’s Sequoia, before reaching a dead-end and drowning in its own clichés. Turning away from the haughtily abstract post-Webernian serialism that so enthralled university music departments while alienating most listeners, the “New Romantics” attempted to create an immediate visceral impact through fanciful titles and novel compositional concepts, realized through imaginative, often flamboyant, coloristic orchestral effects, while avoiding any perceptible semblance of traditional tonality, except through the quotation of earlier styles or actual pieces. Even Elliott Carter couldn’t resist the opportunity, in writing for the Philharmonic, to draw upon the orchestra’s tremendous potential for aural sensuality in his rigorously structured Concerto for Orchestra. For whatever reason, the New York Philharmonic had a real flair for this sort of music, and all these works, under conductors as diverse as Bernstein, Boulez, and Mehta, are heard here in performances that must be described as stupendous.

Also especially gratifying are some of the recent performances of older works, such as Copland’s inexplicably neglected Prairie Journal, Ives’s Three Places in New England (perhaps his most fully realized work), and Bernstein’s lovely and increasingly popular Serenade (in a memorial performance done barely a week after the composer’s death). And some of the most recent works, such as the intensely serious, Eastern European-flavored Zwilich Third Symphony, for example, and Rouse’s brilliant Trombone Concerto, are performed with an incisiveness and precision that are truly extraordinary. (Unfortunately, Zubin Mehta’s floundering attempt to manage the orchestral version of Reich’s Tehillim serves largely to underline the proficiency of the hand-picked ensemble that usually showcases the composer’s new works.)

On the other hand, many of the earlier performances — especially of the symphonic music of the 1940s and 50s — are rather disappointing. At first, this may seem surprising, but, upon reflection, is understandable. Consider that when conductors like Munch, Rodzinski, Cantelli, and Steinberg performed American works, they were venturing into idioms that were essentially alien to their backgrounds and experience. Although some of these performances proved to be outstanding, they were the exceptions. In too many cases, e.g., An American in Paris (Rodzinski, 1944), El Salón México (Cantelli, 1955), Appalachian Spring (Rodzinski, 1945) we are hearing the Philharmonic essentially sight-read music that has become second-nature to conductors, orchestras, and listeners today. Those of us who know the recorded history of this repertoire are all too familiar with what I call “first-generation performances” — performances led by conductors who have become acquainted with the scores just prior to the performances, and played by orchestras whose members are reading their parts without knowing how the music “goes.” After all, most recordings of the American symphonic repertoire made during the 1950s and 60s are such “first-generation performances.” What is really exciting is hearing some of the more recent recordings of this repertoire, led by conductors like Leonard Slatkin, who have actually lived with some of this music in their musical minds for many years. And in the cases of better-known works by composers like Barber, Copland, Bernstein, and Schuman, some of the orchestral musicians know how the music “goes.” This distinction is of vital importance in understanding the way new music is grasped and gradually absorbed into the repertoire, and warrants far more consideration than it has thus far been accorded.

Similarly, the program notes for each work were not written especially for the set by a commentator versed in the repertoire, but rather seem largely to have been adapted from the original program notes that appeared in the concert programs when these performances took place. So instead of reading about these works and their places in American musical history from today’s vantage point, we read what was written about this music when it was unfamiliar and the composers’ entire outputs were not yet known. Such contemporaneous commentary may be of historical interest concerning the music of Mahler, about whom there is no shortage of modern commentary, but in the cases of composers like Barber, Schuman, Creston, Mennin, Harris, and Hanson, there exists very little insightful musicological commentary based on a comprehensive knowledge of this repertoire; mostly what one finds are the overly specific details embedded within vague generalities that characterize program notes of unfamiliar music. Perhaps one might argue that Alan Rich’s essays represent an attempt to treat this repertoire from a more contemporary perspective. But unfortunately his comments are brief and terribly superficial, amounting to little more than third-hand paraphrases of uninformed generalizations (e.g.,  Hanson’s music is described as “a folkish amalgam of prairie and Nordic folk-tunes”).

In reflecting on the decisions involved in selecting performances for a set like this, I arrived at three legitimate criteria: 1) important works not otherwise represented on recording; 2) important works presented in performances far more outstanding than what has previously been available; and 3) performances of particular historical or documentary significance. An American Celebration comprises performances that meet each of these criteria, but it is clearly the third that predominates, probably making the set more interesting to conductor-oriented listeners than to those whose chief focus is repertoire. Some may feel that with eleven performances, Leonard Bernstein is over-represented as a conductor. (In his essay, Sedgwick Clark calls Bernstein “the foremost champion of American music in our century”; but elsewhere in the set it is noted that as a conductor, Howard Hanson presented 200 new American works during his 45 years as director of the Eastman School, while Leopold Stokowski is said to have introduced 2000 new works during his long career, most of them by American composers.) Others may object to the emphasis on the already-well-recorded Aaron Copland, represented here through eight works. Personally, I could have done without the aforementioned Appalachian Spring, the ubiquitous Fanfare, and the Lincoln Portrait. But I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to hear Bernstein conduct Copland’s Orchestral Variations, which he never recorded, although he was closely associated with the original piano version. Truthfully, there is nothing on this set not worth hearing—at least once. (I couldn’t wait to hear Bernstein’s reading of Concertato, “Moby Dick,” by Mennin, a composer to whom he seemed to pay little attention throughout his career. The result proved to be amazingly stiff and mechanical.) The question is: How many of these performances does one want in his permanent collection? Individuals will have to arrive at their own answers.


Volume 1 – NYP 9902 (5 CDs: 6:25:47)

BARBER Essay No. 1 (Szell, 1950). BLOCH Concerto Grosso No. 1 (Munch, Hendl [pn], 1948). CHADWICK Melpomene Overture (Bernstein, 1958). COPLAND Appalachian Spring (Rodzinski, 1945). Fanfare for the Common Man(Masur, 1997). Lincoln Portrait (Bernstein, Warfield [spkr], 1976). Music for the Theatre (Leinsdorf, 1985). Prairie Journal (Mehta, 1985). El Salón México (Cantelli, 1955). COWELL Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2 (Paray, 1956). CRESTON Symphony No. 2 (Monteux, 1956). GERSHWIN An American in Paris (Rodzinski, 1944). GRIFFES The White Peacock (Hanson, 1946). HARRIS Symphony No. 3 (Bernstein, 1957). HANSON Serenade (Stokowski, Wummer [fl], 1949. Symphony No. 2, “Romantic” (Hanson, 1946). HERRMANN The Devil and Daniel Webster Suite (Stokowski, 1949). IVES Three Places in New England(Masur, 1994). LOEFFLER Memories of My Childhood (Barbirolli, 1936). MACDOWELL “Indian” Suite: exc’pts (Bernstein, 1958). RUGGLES Sun-treader (Masur, 1994). SCHELLING A Victory Ball (Rodzinski, 1945). SCHUMAN Symphony No. 6 (Bernstein, 1958). STILL Old California (Monteux, 1944). THOMSON Four Saints in Three Acts: Acts III and IV (Bernstein, soloists, 1960). VARÈSE Intégrales (Bernstein, 1966).

Volume 2 – NYP 9903 (5 CDs: 6:32:14)

ADAMS Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Masur, 1991). BARBER Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (Mitropoulos, 1956). BERNSTEIN Candide Overture (w’out conductor, 1992). Serenade (Slatkin, Dicterow [vn], 1990). BOLCOM Clarinet Concerto(Slatkin, Drucker [cl], 1992). CARTER Concerto for Orchestra (Boulez, 1975). COPLAND Nonet (Steinberg, 1964). Orchestral Variations (Bernstein, 1958). CRUMB Star-Child (Boulez, Gubrud [sop], 1977). DIAMOND World of Paul Klee (Lipkin, 1960). DRUCKMAN Lamia (Boulez, deGaetani [mez], 1975). ELLINGTON-MARSALIS A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Masur, 1999). FOSS Introductions and Good-Byes (Bernstein, Reardon [bar], 1960). GOULD Dance Variations (Mitropoulos, Whittemore & Lowe [pns], 1953). HOVHANESS To Vishnu (Kostelanetz, 1967). MENNIN Concertato, “Moby Dick” (Bernstein, 1963). REICH Tehillim (Mehta, 1982). ROREM Symphony No. 3 (Bernstein, 1959). ROUSE Trombone Concerto (Slatkin, Alessi [tbn], 1992). SCHULLER Dramatic Overture (Mitropoulos, 1957). SOUSA Stars and Stripes Forever (Toscanini, 1944). TOWER Sequoia (Mehta, 1982). ZWILICH Symphony No. 3 (Ling, 1993).

May be ordered by phone: (800) 557-8268; or via the Internet at www.newyorkphilharmonic.org ; price: $185