David Amos conducts Modern Masters

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. .

ROSNER: String Quartet No. 4. SWACK: String Quartet No. 4. TRIMBLE: String Quartet No. 1.

ROSNER: String Quartet No. 4. SWACK: String Quartet No. 4. TRIMBLE: String Quartet No. 1. Alorian Quartet; Sierra Quartet; Ondine Quartet. OPUS ONE–150 CD [DDD]; 69:05. Produced by Max Schubel. (Available from Opus One, Box 604, Greenville, Maine 04441)

This release represents quite an accomplishment, the culmination of a project, master-minded by the bold and indefatigable champion of neglected American music Max Schubel, and undertaken early in 1990 in conjunction with the Oberlin Conservatory. Schubel offered three student quartets, each in existence only a year or two, the opportunity to study, perform and record three challenging, unfamiliar American works. Contrary to what one might have expected, each of the performances is quite impressive, a credit to Schubel’s vision as well as to the talents, energy, and dedication of the Oberlin students and participating faculty who coached them. The result makes available to the public three hitherto unknown but worthwhile compositions.

The most striking of these works is the extraordinary Quartet No.4 by Arnold Rosner (see article elsewhere in this issue). Composed in 1972, this highly personal work carries to powerful extremes Rosner’s distinctive manner of turning ancient forms and devices to contemporary expressive purposes. The first movement is a stark French overture, with a tempestuous alleqro relieved only by brief oases of icy calm. The second movement is one of Rosner’s most original and ingenious creations, based on the medieval form known as an isorhythmic motet. A solemn, eight-bar rhythmic pattern involving each instrument is reiterated, with different pitches at each recurrence. Rosner has constructed his ostinato with overlapping entrances and irregular groupings so that the result is gripping and hypnotic, as passages of slashing violence are suddenly interrupted by moments of striking purity. The third and final movement is a grueling passacaglia (in duple meter, however) that builds to a harrowing yet ecstatic climax before receding into calm resignation. The Quartet No.4 is one of Rosner’s most fully realized works — tightly concentrated both expressively and motivically. Its virile, full-bodied — at times aggressively violent–use of the quartet medium may bring Shostakovich to mind, while its eerie serenity and sense of timeless spirituality may remind others of Arvo Part. Yet it maintains a stylistic consistency throughout. In fact, its prevailing tone of grim intensity, its resolute, unvarying D-minor tonality, and its two successive slow movements — each based on a variation form — may be “too much” (in the Allan Pettersson sense) for some listeners, while others will find its emotional urgency arresting and compelling. The four young ladies who comprise the Alorian Quartet dig into this uncompromisingly intense work with remarkable precision and unflagging energy.

Also worthy of acquaintance is the Quartet No.4, completed in 1990, by Irwin Swack. Swack, born in Ohio in 1919, studied composition with both Cowell and Giannini. His quartet is a complex, serious work in neoromantic style that suggests Bartok, Shostakovich and, especially, Barber, though it contains nothing overtly derivative. It is a rather lengthy and discursive work, requiring several hearings before its sense of shape and direction begin to emerge. However, its expressive content is attractive, inviting greater familiarity. Its sense of structural waywardness may be partially due to the performance: The quartet — perhaps the least polished of the three groups showcased here — appear not to have digested the work themselves sufficiently to project its meaning and structure with clarity.

Lester Trimble was respected and admired as a perceptive critic and a distinguished spokesman for contemporary composers as much as — or more than — he was as a composer. His Quartet No. 1, composed in 1949 while he was studying with Nikolai Lopatnikoff, is one of the earliest works he listed in his official oeuvre. It is a vigorous neoclassical work strongly reminiscent of Hindemith but displaying impressive compositional mastery. However, its expressive content is too unremittingly cool and dry for my taste, despite the committed, energetic performance of the Ondine Quartet.

The CD is well produced and recorded. My only complaint is that only three cue points are provided — one for each work — so that access to individual movements is problematical.

ROSNER Tragedy of Queen Jane. Concerto for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Timpani. A Millennium Overture. A Sephardic Rhapsody. String Sextet, “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland”. Trombone Sonata. Besos sin Cuento.

ROSNER Tragedy of Queen Jane. Concerto for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Timpani. A Millennium OvertureA Sephardic Rhapsody · Nicholas Palmer, cond; Owensboro SO; Altoona SO; Robert Murray, Jonathan Martin (tpts) · ALBANY TROY-548 (74:55)

ROSNER String Sextet, “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland”. Trombone Sonata. Besos sin Cuento · Sestetto Agosto; Gregory Erickson (tbn); Angelina Tallaj (pn); Pinotage (Julia Bentley [mez], Janice MacDonald [fl], Claudia Lasareff-Mironoff [va], Alison Attar [hp]) · ALBANY TROY-553 (63:19)

Listeners who have yet to discover the music of Arnold Rosner will find some optimal points of entry here, while those who are already enthusiasts will find these two new releases to be a treasure-trove. Now in his late 50s–an approximate contemporary of such figures as John Adams, Joseph Schwantner, and Christopher Rouse–Rosner has been a staunch–even defiant–traditionalist throughout a composing career that now stretches back some 40 years. Despite an orthodox academic pedigree (earned after his aesthetic values were largely in place), he has never succumbed to the lure of any of the fashionable compositional trends–serialism, indeterminacy, minimalism, et al.–that have arisen during this period. Instead, he has concentrated on developing the idiosyncratic approach that emerged as his own personal creative voice while he was still in his mid-teens. Like that of the Portuguese Joly Braga Santos (discussed elsewhere in this issue), Rosner’s personal musical language is derived from materials that are basically familiar, and hence reveals reminiscences of a variety of other composers. Also like Braga Santos, Rosner’s music is not without certain characteristic weaknesses. In his case, these are, chiefly, a tendency toward prolixity, an over-use of particular favorite devices (a common blind-spot among highly individualistic composers), and an inconsistency with regard to that vague but indispensable factor, “inspiration.” But–as in the case of the Portuguese composer–these are overshadowed by the strength and individuality of his creative personality. Indeed, I suspect that many listeners who enjoy the music of one of these composers will also appreciate that of the other. However, unlike Braga Santos, whose strong personal voice eventually led him to a creative dead end, requiring him to abandon his approach in favor of a radically different but far less individual course, Rosner has refined his language into a fluent and versatile syntax, capable of a remarkably broad range of expression.

These two new Albany releases–one featuring orchestral music, the other, chamber works–illustrate the breadth of Rosner’s expressive reach, embracing abstract neo-classicism, tragic drama set in Elizabethan England, a rhapsodic evocation of the Jews of the Mediterranean region, and songs suggestive of the early Spanish Renaissance. As noted above, Rosner’s music often calls other composers to mind: The pieces discussed here suggest figures as diverse as Hindemith, Martinu, Vaughan Williams, and Hovhaness. But Rosner’s music always retains its own unmistakable identity–a unique expressive essence that distinguishes it from the music of others that his may resemble superficially. This essence involves the striking juxtaposition of intense, at times passionate, neo-romantic content against materials strongly suggestive of antiquity. In his best music, a powerful emotionalism is always threatening to burst through the modal, neo-Renaissance–or, at times, neo-Medieval–polyphony. This strange stylistic incongruity, and the tension created by attempting to contain intense passions within a highly constrained syntax, produces the unique spiritual and sensual ambiguities of Rosner’s music, the appeal of which can be gauged by a perusal of the comments made by some of the more informed Internet critics (e.g. Steve Schwartz [Classical.net] and Rob Barnett [Musicweb.uk.net]). Though difficult to describe adequately in words, the impact of this music is felt in abundance in the works offered here.

Millennium Overture is one of Rosner’s few short, compact orchestral works, and provides an excellent introduction to his expressive realm. Commissioned by the adventurous conductor David Amos (another staunch advocate of the composer’s work) on behalf of his San Diego TICO Orchestra, the overture is actually an orchestration of the exuberant and tuneful finale of Rosner’s Cello Sonata No. 2 (1990). Despite the recycling, the work fully meets the expectations of its new role, and, unlike much of his music, it is rousing and extroverted, but not without considerable developmental activity.

The Sephardic Rhapsody (1992) is another work originally commissioned by Amos. Here Rosner ventures into the familiar “exotic ethnic rhapsody” genre, attempting to evoke the flavor of Mediterranean Jewish melos, while acknowledging that most music of the region employs similar modal features, despite the political issues that may divide its various peoples. The work follows the norms of the genre, beginning with a slow, improvisatory section, and gradually accumulating energy and speed for a dance-like finale in irregular meter. Although the rhapsody maintains a strongly Middle-Eastern flavor throughout, it reveals a thorough application of the developmental processes found in most of the composer’s music.

Quite a different work is the Concerto for Two Trumpets, Strings, and Timpani, composed in 1997. Its instrumentation and quasi-neo-classical/Baroque conception is somewhat reminiscent of Martinu, but, as stated earlier, the resemblance is superficial. Though avowedly angular and chromatic at times, to the point of near-atonality, it nevertheless also displays the archaisms that are never wholly absent from Rosner’s music. The outer movements maintain a driving, contrapuntal vigor that at times verges on the relentless, while the second movement, conceived along the lines of a passacaglia, achieves a grim eloquence.

In many ways the most interesting music on the orchestral disc is The Tragedy of Queen Jane, the name Rosner gave to the orchestral suite he drew from his (still unperformed) opera, The Chronicle of Nine (1981), which tells the story of the nine-day reign of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey of England. Such groups of excerpts have often served as means of introducing the music from little-known operas to a broader public–presumably with the hope that exposure to representative selections may create a demand for the entire work. Perhaps that will be the result in this case, because–more than the other orchestral music offered here–these excerpts provide a particularly revealing glimpse of Rosner’s strange stylistic juxtaposition. The first section is the “Prelude,” which sets the mood of the opera with sumptuously celestial harmony–largely triads and open-fifths–scored for strings, widely spaced, and accompanied by harp arpeggios, creating a sense of awe-inspiring serenity, abruptly interrupted by fierce neo-Renaissance episodes in the brass. This movement, it must be admitted, is a bit over-extended, continuing on after the effect has been sufficiently achieved. The second section, “Masque,” is a delightful group of Elizabethan-style dances, along the lines of A Gentle Musicke, which appears on an earlier all-Rosner orchestral disc (Laurel LR-849CD). This movement could benefit from a lighter, livelier interpretive approach. The third section, “Clarion,” is an excellent example of Rosner’s subtle originality: Built upon neo-archaic fanfare-like ideas introduced by the brass, it develops a rather menacing power through unusual harmonic juxtapositions effected through pedal-points. The final section, “Dirge,” will be familiar to Rosnerians, as it was included on the aforementioned Laurel disc, in a performance featuring David Amos and the Jerusalem Symphony. This elegiac processional is the most striking movement of the suite, and is an excellent example of the composer’s application of a neo-archaic language, which he uses naturally and “from the inside out” to create a personal neo-romantic expression. Palmer and the Owensboro musicians offer a performance marginally more potent than Amos’s earlier reading. This suite will certainly whet listeners’ appetites for the entire opera, as intended.

It is good to welcome the gifted conductor Nicholas Palmer to the growing list of Rosner proponents. His performances show, for the most part, a real understanding of the composer’s unusual expressive content. The past decade or two have witnessed a significant decentralization of orchestral resources from a concentration on a dozen or two “world-class” aggregations. As such ensembles become increasingly sclerotic, moribund  enterprises, functioning largely as aristocratic but artistically irrelevant showpieces for the entertainment industry, truly significant musical activity has moved elsewhere, chiefly to Sweden, Finland, and the countries of Eastern Europe, where recordings of interest to those who actually listen to (as opposed to talk over) music can still afford to be made, and–thanks to the Internet–are easily accessible to the entire world. Palmer’s recording provides persuasive evidence that orchestras from America’s hinterlands–Altoona, PA and Owensboro, KY in this case–deserve to be taken seriously as contenders in this new 21st-century classical-music marketplace. One hopes that this pioneering effort will be rewarded and followed by other comparable ventures.

However, the Rosner work among this rich bounty that impresses me the most is on the chamber music CD: the String Sextet, originally composed in 1970, but revised in 1996. Having begun composing prolifically at such a young age, Rosner had completed nearly 50 works by the time he had reached the age of 25, although hardly any of them had been performed by that time, and few were during the years that followed. Most of these pieces display the enduring and idiosyncratic elements of Rosner’s style, while revealing some awkwardness and immaturity in structural coherence. So for the past several years the composer has been gradually reviewing these earlier works and, essentially, re-composing them, retaining their basic content and conceptual structures, but tightening and strengthening their processes of formal articulation. Many composers avoid this sort of thing, finding that revisiting the fruits of one period with the consciousness of another proves to be a “slippery slope,” but the process has worked well for Rosner. String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, Cello Sonata No. 1, and Five Meditations have all been subjected to such revision, and–currently available on recording–have been well received by other critics and listeners as well as myself. Now we have the opportunity to consider the revised String Sextet, which was given its first hearing in either incarnation by these performers at Northwestern University, in 1998.

The Sextet comprises two movements, the first a theme with variations, and the second called “Motet.” The Lutheran hymn of the subtitle, in its setting by Praetorius, serves as a “secret” subtext that only emerges explicitly at the end. Rosner conceives of the first movement as “darker, more instrumental in attitude and closer to classical-period forms,” while the second is “brighter, more vocal, and akin to Renaissance attitude.” I do not find this conceptual contrast to be borne out by the listening experience–at least not to the extent suggested. What I do hear is an extraordinary work whose surface language suggests, say, the viol fantasias of Purcell (although such a comparison may be appalling to Early Music aficionados), while its content seems to fuse together an intense inner turmoil with a simultaneous expression of serenity. Going even further out on a limb of associated impressions, I would suggest it as ideal background music for the notorious orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick’s bizarre film Eyes Wide Shut. Rosner’s Sextet is among the composer’s most impressive pieces of chamber music known to me, along with the Sonata for Horn and Piano (Albany-TROY 163) and the String Quartet No. 4 (available on Opus One-150)–the discovery of which, some 30 years ago, persuaded me that Rosner’s was an arresting individual voice, worthy of serious consideration. Sestetto Agosto is a group of expert string players from the Chicago area, one of whom–Paul Vanderwerf–completed a doctoral dissertation on Rosner’s string music. The performance here offers an effective representation of the work, while leaving plenty of room for further refinements and interpretive insights.

Those already familiar with Rosner’s Horn Sonata will find the more recent (1996) Trombone Sonata conceived along similar lines: abstract, Hindemithian neo-classicism on the surface, but underlain by the same Manichean expressive ambivalence, which elevates the work considerably above the level of gebrauchsmusik. The Horn Sonata is notable for an especially engaging central scherzo that follows a powerful opening passacaglia. The Trombone Sonata–two vigorous outer movements flanking a mysterious Adagio–is perhaps a bit drier and more severe, with less that is immediately appealing, although this may be partly a reaction to trombonist Gregory Erickson’s performance, which, though accurate enough, is quite under-characterized. This is a common and understandable shortcoming of initial presentations of new works; perhaps subsequent performances will project the sonata’s meaning with more flair and eloquence. Nevertheless, Rosner’s Trombone Sonata is a compelling work, and an important contribution to the instrument’s limited repertoire.

I tend to find Rosner’s solo vocal music less interesting than his orchestral, choral, and chamber works. His language seems more constrained in his songs, and the sequences of short selections all using more or less the same devices become monotonous after a while. This is somewhat less true for Besos sin Cuento (1989), as the scoring for low voice, flute, viola, and harp allows for a felicitous variety of color and texture. Much of Rosner’s vocal music draws upon texts that are naturally suited to the exotic, neo-archaic tendencies of his style, as in these six settings of light-hearted amorous verses from the Spanish Renaissance. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley displays an attractive voice with accurate intonation, although her enunciation is a bit compromised. The instrumentalists of the contemporary-music ensemble known as Pinotage provide fine support.

Although Arnold Rosner’s music is becoming increasingly well known, there are still plenty of pieces that remain undocumented on recording–far too many to enumerate here (the interested listener is referred to the composer’s website at http://www.phidler.com/rosner). However, of particular interest is the fifth of his six symphonies, a 40-minute work in the form of a Mass for orchestra, using the Gregorian hymn Salve Regina as a cantus firmus. Familiar with the work through a tape of the 1975 premiere, with the Colorado Philharmonic, I can assert confidently that (although there are other symphonic Masses) there is nothing else quite like it in the repertoire. I wonder how the fans of Tavener and Pärt react to Rosner’s music. As must be apparent from the foregoing descriptions, his works offer many of the same timeless, spiritual qualities as theirs, while satisfying the listener’s preference for activity and a sense of progression.

Picks of the Year: 1997

We read that the classical record business is in bad shape.  This is most unfortunate; but from the standpoint of the serious music lover, there has never been such a wide range of repertoire available—and so well performed and so superbly recorded. As usual, my list highlights lesser-known works of the twentieth century whose adherence to mainstream musical values gives them a broad appeal.  Heading the (alphabetically arranged) list is Dominick Argento’s profoundly compelling setting of excerpts From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, available for the first time in Janet Baker’s exquisite world-premiere performance (reviewed last issue)—a reading that garnered for the work the 1975 Pulitzer Prize.  Another composer whose creativity was stimulated by fine literature was Gerald Finzi.  This year Hyperion issued a disc (also reviewed last issue) featuring the two works that best capture and illuminate the poignant and nostalgic themes that pervade his entire output, in performances of great sensitivity and insight.  Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 7 is considered by many (myself included) as a leading contender for the position of “greatest American symphony.”  CRI has reissed on CD (reviewed in 20:6) the first and finest recorded performance of the work thus far, along with excellent renditions of two earlier major statements by the composer.  The discography of Arnold Rosner continues to grow, most recently with first recordings of three of his highly individualistic string quartets (reviewed in 20:5).  Though Rosner’s music is difficult to classify, as it belongs to no “school,” it is not difficult to enjoy; admirers of Hovhaness and/or Vaughan Williams are well advised to seek it out.  And speaking of Vaughan Williams, music by his student Grace Williams has been recently made available on a Lyrita CD (reviewed last issue).  Featured are three impressive, powerfully characterized works by the Welsh composer.

 Withheld from my “official” list in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict-of-interest is a new release (reviewed last issue) featuring six works by Nicolas Flagello that highlight violin and/or piano (Albany TROY-234).  As I noted with regard to another Flagello disc in last year’s Want List, I am recommending this disc not because I produced it; rather, I produced it because I believe there is great music here, and no one else was there to do the job.  The pieces on this disc all date from the 1960s, Flagello’s most fertile creative period, and are performed by violinist Setsuko Nagata and pianist Peter Vinograde.  Hear for yourself.

ARGENTO:  From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.  Vocal music by Wolf, Fauré, Duparc, Debussy.  Baker/Isepp.  (D’NOTE DND-1019)

FINZI:  Intimations of Immortality.  Dies Natalis.  Ainsley/Best/Corydon Singers and Orchestra.  (HYPERION CDA66876)

MENNIN:  Symphonies:  No. 3; No. 7.  Piano Concerto. Mitropoulos/NYPO; Martinon/Chicago SO; Ogden/Buketoff/Royal PO.  (CRI CD-741)

ROSNER:  String Quartets:  No. 2; No. 3; No. 5.  Duet for Violas.  Ad Hoc String Qt.  (ALBANY TROY-210)

Grace WILLIAMS:  Symphony No. 2.  Ballads.  Fairest of Stars.  Handley/BBC Welsh SO; Groves/London SO.  (LYRITA SRCD-327)

Picks of the Year: 1995

Each year at this time, as the compact disc continues to replace concert performance as the musical medium of consequence, it is mind-boggling to review the annual bounty of unknown treasures that have entered the discographic repertoire. Four of my five choices this year celebrate such esoteric discoveries.  Of them, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah may not be considered truly obscure, being one of the most widely performed American operas. However, it is only now available on commercial recording, making it accessible to a much broader audience, in a gorgeous performance (reviewed in 18:3) that should be pretty irresistible to the mainstream opera lover. Nicolas Flagello and Vittorio Giannini rank with Samuel Barber as the foremost American avatars of the 20th-century consummation of traditional European late-Romanticism, and their gradual emergence into the musical marketplace is one of the most exciting developments of recent years. It was difficult to choose between the new Albany disc and the Flagello/Schwantner release on Koch International (both reviewed in 18:5), featuring works inspired by the words of Martin  appeal to a small group of enthusiasts. However, more and more listeners seem to be discovering the inexhaustible delights offered by his highly individual, meticulously crafted works The disc noted here (reviewed in 18:4) features new recordings of three of his most important compositions. The highly accessible yet thoroughly individual music of Arnold Rosner has developed something of a cult following during the past ten years. His latest CD (reviewed in this issue) demonstrates exactly why, with four of his best, most representative works. My one selection that does not feature little-known music is Robert Shaw’s glorious recording of the respective Stabat Maters of Poulenc and Szymanowski (reviewed in 18:4). These two deeply-moving works each of which represents its composer at his best, make a fascinating and most apropos pairing. 

FLOYD: Susannah. Nagano/Studer/Ramey/Hadley/Opera de Lyon. (VIRGIN 7243 5 45039 2; two discs)  
FLAGELLO: Serenata. Andante Languido. GIANNINI: Concerto Grosso. Prelude and Fugue. GOULD: Harvest. Amos/New Russia Orchestra ALBANY TROY-143)  
MARTIN: Symphonie. Symphonie Concertante. Passacaglia Bamert/London Philharmonic. (CHANDOS CHAN-9312)  
POULENC: Stabat Mater. SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater. Shaw/Atlanta Symphony Chorus/Orchestra. (TELARC CD-80362)  
ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Horn Sonata. Cello Sonata No. 1. Nightstone. Various duos. (ALBANY TROY-163)

Oboe on the Road. ROSNER: Sonata. PISTON Suite. DEL AGUILA: Sommergesang. ANGEL: Noon Song. SIBBING: Ballad, Blues, and Rag. GOMPPER: Anon.

OBOE ON THE ROAD Mark Weiger (ob); Robert Conway (pn)  CENTAUR CRC-2451 (58:31)

ROSNER Sonata. PISTON Suite. DEL AGUILA Sommergesang. ANGEL Noon Song. SIBBING Ballad, Blues, and Rag. GOMPPER Anon.

This is one of those 20th-century collections — like Saxophone Masterpieces(RIAX RICA-1001), which appeared on my 1999 Want List—whose largely unfamiliar contents and non-mainstream instrumentation can easily relegate it to the dustbin of anonymous miscellany, but which actually offers an entertaining and artistically rewarding recital. This is simply a matter of two factors: performances that display first-rate artistry and repertoire chosen with the most discriminating taste. The duo of oboist Mark Weiger and pianist Robert Conway has indeed been “on the road” as cultural ambassadors who have traveled as far as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Jordan, and Israel as participants in a program administered by the United States Information Agency. Evidently the artistry, creative programming, and theatrical wit that have marked their concert tours have drawn considerable praise to their programs of largely 20th-century American music. The new release at hand, produced through the auspices of the University of Iowa, where Weiger is on the faculty, offers adequate evidence for these reports.

Arnold Rosner — now in his mid-50s with more than a hundred opus numbers to his credit — has enriched the contemporary chamber music repertoire with quite a few major contributions, several of which are already available on recording: a horn sonata and cello sonata that appear on Albany TROY-163, three string quartets on Albany TROY-210, and another on Opus One cd150. These recordings have all been enthusiastically received, in this magazine and elsewhere. (To see just how extravagant some of this praise has been, look up the reviews of Steve Schwartz on Classical Net.)

Now here we have Rosner’s 1972 Oboe Sonata (which also doubles as his second violin sonata). With a quaint stylistic heterogeneity characteristic of no one else but typical of Rosner, the three-movement work opens with a simple, warmly bucolic melody in a modally inflected C Major, accompanied by folk-like triadic arpeggios in a gently rocking figuration. Though its straightforward simplicity and uniform texture are most appealing on initial acquaintance, it is followed by a thematically related but emotionally contrasting passacaglia — a darkly somber elegy reminiscent of Vaughan Williams at his most austere, which reaches a more powerful climax than one would think possible in a work for oboe and piano. This movement — like the opening movement of his Horn Sonata and the third movement of the String Quartet No. 4 (all passacaglias) — represents the most distinctive and personal aspect of Rosner’s compositional personality. The concluding movement is a loose but highly developmental sonata rondo that opens with a coolly Hindemithian theme, which is immediately followed by a lightly syncopated motif with a decidedly “pop” flavor. This material is developed quite extensively, until a fugato raises the intensity to a tempestuous climax that culminates in, of all things, a bluesy, proto-minimalist cadenza, after which the sonata drives forward to an exuberant conclusion.

A very different, but equally satisfying work is the relatively early (1931) Suite for Oboe and Piano by Walter Piston. Conceived along the lines of a Baroque dance suite, it is a pleasingly gratifying example of the composer’s genial but always sober, meticulously crafted neoclassicism. The discipline and precision of the Weiger-Conway duo are especially impressive in this selection.

Quite different from both these works is the remarkable Sommergesang (why the German title I do not know) by Miguel del Aguila. Now in his mid-40s, the Uruguayan-born composer has been based in California since the late 1970s, and, like Rosner, has been garnering considerable praise from a variety of quarters. His Sommergesang dates from 1988 and is supposedly inspired by natural phenomena. The 13-minute psycho-fantasy begins in a folklike manner suggesting a blues as Astor Piazzola might have written it. After this opening, however, the music becomes more inward and severe, almost like the violent Czech approach of Lubos Fiser and others. This section is followed by music of more grotesquely scherzoso character, with prominent — indeed, driving — Latin-American rhythms. As with the Rosner sonata, the potpourri of styles is very appealing, rather than disconcerting.

The youngest composer represented is Michael T. Angel, a 30-something member of the faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His 8-minute Noon Song (1985) offers a rewarding introduction to his work:  beginning and ending with an unabashedly sunny romantic lyricism, the piece centers around a darkly atmospheric passage of chromatic angularity.

Unfortunately, the two remaining pieces are of lesser interest and stature, though in opposite ways. Robert Sibbing’s Ballad, Blues, and Rag is a jazzy little suite that I found just too mellow and simply-textured to hold my interest. On the other hand, David Karl Gompper’s Anon is a dry, colorless, quasi-atonal dialog representative of that vast wasteland of academic “new music.” But lasting a mere seven minutes, it offers the listener the consolation that it will be over Anon

Interview with Arnold Rosner

During the past decade, listeners have been encountering the music of Arnold Rosner with increasing frequency. Although it is direct and accessible, Rosner’s work exhibits a strong personal profile, which may account for the favorable critical response it has engendered. Rosner was born in New York City in 1945, and received his Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Buffalo, the first doctorate in music to be granted by the State University of New York. Passing through tile halls of musical academia during the height of serialist domination, Rosner emerged with his tonal, consonant, metrically straightforward language untouched by the coercive pressures of the prevailing establishment.

Despite his conservative idiom, Rosner’s music shows little affinity with either the neoromanticism of the Hanson/Barber school or the neoclassicism of the Copland/Piston school. Indeed, his style reveals virtually no trace of the chromaticism of Wagner and Strauss (although there is much to suggest the chromaticism of Gesualdo), the soaring lyricism of Puccini, the expanded harmony and opulent textures of Debussy, or of the irregular rhythms and spiky pandiatonicism of Stravinsky–all major influences on the American traditionalists. Instead, Rosner embraces the sounds of medieval cadences, open fifths, ecclesiastical and middle-Eastern modality, Renaissance polyphony, Elizabethan dances, vigorous neo-Baroque counterpoint, and spacious triadic harmony in the manner of Vaughan Williams.

At the age of forty-live, Rosner has ninety works to his credit, including The Chronicle of Nine, a full-length opera based on the story of Lady Jane Grey, a large requiem, six symphonies, three a cappella masses, and numerous other orchestral and chamber works. He is currently on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and, interestingly enough, teaches and directs games at a Brooklyn bridge club. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Arnold Rusher about his early development as a composer, the difficulties he has faced trying to establish himself during a period largely unsympathetic to tile kind of music he felt impelled to write, and, also, how he conceptualizes his own artistic goals and identity.

WS: Listeners who have noted the absence of either a sense of chronological identity or a sense of national identity in your music may be somewhat surprised to learn that you were born and raised in New York City.

AR: Yes, there’s certainly no sense of Americana in any music. But I had a typical New York upbringing, went to the public school, and worked in my father’s candy store-nothing particularly exotic or mysterious.

WS: Were your parents musical?

AR: No.

WS: So how did you get hooked into music?

AR: Well, the first music I heard was whatever was on the classical radio stations, with milk and cookies in the afternoon–that sort of thing. I was a snob about popular music-1 wanted no part of it, or folk music either. My father liked jazz acid show music, so of course I wouldn’t like that. (I’ve lately mellowed considerably, however.)

WS: Did you study an instrument?

AR: I took piano lessons from the age of nine. But almost immediately I tried to make up my own things, and 1 never practiced very much I had stopped lessons by the tine I was thirteen or fourteen.

WS: So you were composing pretty much from the start.

AR: It just seemed sort of natural. I remember, during the second week of piano lessons, I discovered the fantastic sound of major-minor effects (e.g., E-C-Eb-C). I showed my piano teacher and she reacted as if they were something illicit or immoral. Of course that gave me all the more reason to fool around with them, and I’m still using them in my pieces. So I used to listen to the radio a lot-mostly standard repertoire-and 1 liked what l heard. But nothing really knocked me out until–I was nine or ten–I went to the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. I wish I had met whoever it was that picked out the music: I don’t remember the context, but they were using (I later learned) Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, and that just knocked me right out. Then, soon after, I went to my first Carnegie Hall concert, to hear a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Eighth. Brahms’s Fourth was also on the program. The Vaughan Williams really got to me but the Brahms had me absolutely in tears.

WS: Yes, I can hear the influence of Vaughan Williams in your music–and also of Alan Hovhaness. There’s a certain sense of the ancient ecclesiastical that one hears in that music as well as in yours.

AR: Yes, 1 liked Hovhaness the first time 1 ever heard anything of his–I think it was a Stokowski television performance of Mysterious Mountain. 1 was twelve at the time, and I remember it utterly knocked me out. I never liked music that didn’t seem deep or intense, but I liked intense music, no matter what emotion it was being intense about. So it wasn’t just the religious-sounding pieces that got me rolling—a lot of standard stuff also: the Brahms symphonies, the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. By the way, it wasn’t until years later that 1 discovered actual Renaissance music.

WS: Did you study composition in any serious way when you were a kid?

AR: Somewhere along the line nay parents got me a few lessons with someone. But that was it. I didn’t take composition lessons again until graduate school. Then I had one year with Leo Smit, another year with Allan Sapp, and another with Lejaren Miller. This was at the University of Buffalo.

WS: I understand that your bachelor’s degree was in mathematics.

AR: Yes, but that was a lark right from the beginning. By the time I got to college, I had written about twenty pieces already, and I knew that’s what 1 really wanted to do. But 1 was doubtful that academic musical training was going to do anything for me. In the end, my suspicions were well founded: It did absolutely nothing for me-nothing that was pleasant, anyway.

WS: What was it like for you, forging your identity as a composer during the 1960s, when post-Webernian serialisrn was the “official” compositional style in university music departments? Did you come in contact with that?

AR: Oh yes, I came in contact with it. You see, somehow or other, I pretty much had my own language, with its own technical aspect and its own spiritual or expressive aspect, and that was the kind of music I was going to write. When I got to graduate school, I learned that I was expected to “progress” from what I was doing either to serialism or to some other type of experimental music. (In those days, simply to mention the name of Shostakovich would elicit snickers and sarcastic remarks.) Well, all I can say is, the scars are still there. The academic world is still full of those prejudices, even if serialism has played itself out in the concert and recording world. Remember, many of those same professors are now senior faculty members at colleges around the country. Some of them may have mellowed-if not in their own music, then in what they tolerate from others. Others not. I waited a long time for serialism to die out. And now the trend that replaces it–minimalism–is, in my opinion, a questionable improvement, and I sort of felt bypassed in the shift.
WS: So during the 1960s and 70s, you had quite a difficult time getting your work performed.

AR: Not difficult–impossible. It was partly a matter of the climate of the times, partly contacts and networking and stuff like that that one doesn’t want to admit to or have to think about.

WS: Do you see yourself as having an affinity with any of today’s trends in composition?

AR: Well, 1 try not to pay too much attention, although my friends make sure l keep well aware of today’s trends. There seems to be something of a new tolerance for music that has actual melody and harmonic progression. Composers who write pieces like that are getting more play than I was getting in the 60s and 70s. But most of their music strikes me as simplistic. I think there are some composers in Europe–Holmboe, Kokkonen, people like that–who managed to develop what I would call an artistically sound attitude. There are always some composers out there writing the good stuff, but I don’t know if this constitutes a trend. One of the problems today is that people want fast thrills: They want things–not just music–that are overtly shocking, or that digest easily. The best music doesn’t do this. You know, solid, conservative music isn’t as easy to understand as many people think. For instance, I don’t know how many listeners–or critics–can really distinguish middle-period Tippett from middle-period Britten, or can tell the difference, say, between Harris, Barber, and early Sessions. Unless you can really differentiate their styles, you don’t truly understand the music. It’s a lot more than just hearing the fact that they all use standard orchestration, that sort of thing.

WS: That’s certainly a point I’ve often made. But I think we may be getting closer to that music now, with efforts like Gerard Schwarz’s project to record all the symphonies of Hanson, Diamond, and Piston.

AR: There’s another three–how many listeners can tell them apart?

WS: That’s what Schwartz is trying to do. I think his point is: Here are three fine, distinctive composers. Let’s start learning their music.

AR: Yes, there are a few champions out there like that–Leonard Slatkin’s another–but we still have a long way to go. Of course, there’s David Amos, who is based in San Diego, but has conducted orchestras in Europe and in Israel. He’s recorded several of my works, including one with the Philharmonia Orchestra that should be out pretty soon: Responses. Hosanna, and Fugue, for string orchestra and harp, along with pieces by Hovhaness and Dello Joio. He’s also been conducting Creston, Morton Gould, and others. Then there’s the harpsichordist and organist Barbara Harbach, working out of Buffalo, New York, who’s recorded two of my pieces for Gasparo. I think she’s as great a performer as there is in this world, and certainly as great when it comes to really understanding each composer as an individual, and bringing nuances out of the harpsichord that I didn’t even know were possible.

WS: Yes, I’ve heard some impressive performances from her.

AR: I should also mention Max Schubel of Opus One Records, who has probably helped to put more American composers on the map than Grove’s Dictionary.

WS: I guess those pieces that Schubel released–the horn sonata and the cello sonata–are what started to draw attention to your work.

AR: The horn sonata actually led to the contact with Barbara Harbach and the harpsichord pieces, and so forth. 1 always say, you know you’ve arrived when they’re reviewing competitive versions of your piece. That hasn’t happened for me yet. But you know you’re starting to arrive when one of your pieces is recorded and someone totally and utterly unknown to you reads a review or hears it on the radio and flips over it and then writes to you and asks what else you have.

WS: At this point, it appears that most of the activity surrounding your music involves recordings.

AR: Well, I haven’t had that many top-of-the-line professional performances, although I’ve had any number of performances a notch lower with regard to audience size, reputation of the players, or critical exposure. Actually, of the ninety works I’ve written, I’ve now heard sixty or so played.

WS: I wrote in a recent review that what distinguishes your music from a great deal of other music that involves latter-day reworkings of ancient styles is that while for most of those pieces–like the Respighi Ancient Dances and Airs–the stylistic juxtaposition is the whole point of the music, for you, this hybrid language is a given, a point of departure, from which you build a rich and varied expressive range.

AR: I read your reviews and I much appreciated your point of view. However, my slant on it is a little different: In the first place, the ancient music character can be a little bit overemphasized; some pieces have a lot of it, others have only a little, and some have none at all. Furthermore, what I’m really using from early music is an attitude of seriousness and perhaps spirituality, a reliance on consonant rather than dissonant harmony most of the time, and an avoidance of the conventions of tonality, in the eighteenth-century sense. These features exist apart from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century practice; in my opinion; they’re simply one way to write good music. Hardly ever am I trying to write antique pictures even though some of the pieces may come close.  Some critics have described me as an anachronism, or my music as anachronistic, and I take some umbrage at that.  Is there something anachronistic about using ternary form, which goes back thousands of years? Is there something anachronistic about using a notational system that goes back a thousand years? Or in using variation forms? The difference is that Renaissance-style modal harmony–consonant harmony without tonal connections–went into eclipse for a while. Standard notation, ternary form, standard orchestration, and so forth never went into eclipse. It’s been in continuous use, so it’s never been considered obsolete. But some of the model style got to be considered obsolete; therefore somebody who tries to use it again is considered an antiquarian. If you want the Rosner version of music history, eighteenth-century tonality would have been O.K.as an alternativeway to write music, as it was for, say, Schuetz and Purcell or Frescobaldi. But once it became the way to write music, we took a step backward, with regard to elegance of harmony and counterpoint and expressive range. All I’m using is a vocabulary that was eclipsed when the exaggerated and somewhat misguided tonal system took over.

WS: You have written a number of works based in the Christian religious tradition–masses, a Magnificat, and so forth. But you are Jewish, are you not?

AR: That’s true. But I think there’s no denying that the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions contributed richly to the secular classical music mainstream in a way that, for various reasons, the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions did not, though they did create fascinating ethnic traditions. I am by birth Jewish and by identity a believer and I have written Jewish liturgical pieces–the “Kaddish” from my Requiem, a Sacred Service, not to mention non-liturgical Jewish pieces like the short piano piece, And He Sent Forth a Dove, and From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow, a piece for narrator and orchestra about the Warsaw ghetto. But there just hasn’t been a secular Jewish tradition in classical music upon which to build. And from a personal standpoint, for whatever reason, I have gotten much more resistance to my Jewish pieces from Jews than I have from Christians regarding my Christian pieces. Anyway, what I am really interested in is a spiritual attitude, and I have turned to several religious traditions in order to evoke a sense of spirituality. I guess what I am trying to do is to reach out from one human being to another and express as many emotions as I can as intensely as I can, in a vocabulary that I think works and is listenable.

ROSNER: String Quartets: No. 2, Op. 19; No. 3, Op. 32; No. 5, Op. 66. Duet for Violas, Op. 94

ROSNER: String Quartets: No. 2, Op. 19; No. 3, Op. 32; No. 5, Op. 66. Duet for Violas, Op. 94. Ad Hoc String Quartet (Paul Vanderwerf, David Belden, violins; Diedre Buckley, viola; James Fellenbaum, cello); Mark Ottesen, viola. ALBANY TROY210 [DDD]; 66:32. Produced by John Gladney Proffitt.

The string quartet is a particularly revealing medium through which to examine a composer’s methods. Thus this new release offers a fascinating perspective on the compositional development of Arnold Rosner. As the opus numbers suggest, the works span quite a few years, the earliest dating from 1963, when Rosner was 17 and had yet to undertake formal study in composition, and the latest from 1991, when he was 46. Observing what elements remain constant throughout and what elements have changed provides considerable insight into the fundamental aesthetic intentions and priorities of this remarkable figure, who has amassed one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic bodies of work of any American composer of his generation (see interview in Fanfare 14:5, pp. 414ff).

As those who have already heard and read about his music are aware, Rosner carved out a unique language for himself at a rather young age, vehemently rejecting the serialism that was fashionable when he was a student, along with every other “ism” that has come along since then, as well as much of the sophisticated development through which tonal composition has evolved during the past three hundred years. What he has devised instead is a language oriented chiefly around triadic harmony unencumbered by the obligations of tonal relationships. That is, the hierarchical functions through which chords are linked to each other to support a perception of tonalitv are disregarded. Hence, tonally unrelated chords serve to diminish tonal stability, while the avoidance of dissonance creates an acoustical purity that suggests a corresponding spiritual/emotional purity. Melodies are often modal, with catchy turns of phrase that are instantly recognizable as Rosner’s own; rhythm is generally very simple and straightforward, although patterns may be combined in more subtle, complex ways; counterpoint is used more as a “special effect” than as a natural aspect of melodic development, so that textures are often starkly homophonic.

I have been called to task in some quarters for using the word “primitivistic” in describing Rosner’s music, as if I were criticizing his compositional technique as inadequate. However, I am sure that, with a doctorate in music theory, Rosner was sufficiently exposed to advanced compositional techniques. What I meant to describe was a deliberate repudiation of much of that technical apparatus, not unlike what motivated Alan Hovhaness– whose music Rosner’s often resembles– and the original minimalists– whose music Rosner’s only occasionally resembles. This repudiation is implied rather defiantly in the program notes to this recording when, after enumerating his various composition teachers, he adds, “from whom I learned practically nothing.” The result is a direct, elemental type of expression, through which a wide range of emotions-including some very extreme states of mind– is presented without the dilution or distillation that often emerges from more complex elaboration. It is probably this directness– as well as the catchy melodies– that makes Rosner’s music so accessible to so many general listeners.

What I find most remarkable after listening to this disc is how different in form and expressive content each piece is, despite the rather restricted vocabulary within which Rosner chooses to work. This is not only true when considering Quartets Nos. 2, 3, and 5, but also No. 4, which is available on an Opus One CD (No. 150). The second quartet comprises one multi-sectional movement, largely based on the opening theme, a pregnant, wide-arching melody, essentially diatonic, but with some chromatic touches. In a number of ways, this quartet is “pure Rosner”– a work that displays many of the composer’s favorite effects and devices, often in their most blatant and obvious presentation, without the more sophisticated integration that occurs in later works. These effects and devices, which may be read as mannerisms or as stylistic traits, depending on one’s general sympathy toward the music, include major-minor juxtapositions, sudden shifts between moments of aggressive ferocity and ecstatic rapture, the familiar Shostakovich “galloping” rhythmic pattern, symmetrical phrases repeated in sequence, jolly jig-like tunes, and hymnlike pseudo-Renaissance modal polyphony. Yet despite its immaturity, the Quartet No. 2 is endearing for the authenticity of its conviction, as well as for its moments of incandescent fervor.

The third quartet was composed two years later, but underwent some significant revisions in 1992, in anticipation of its premiere performance by the Ad Hoc Quartet. I gather that the revisions were largely matters of tightening the structure so that, except for one episode, the music itself represents original date of composition. The longest of the composer’s string quartets, it is also the most conventionally structured, with three movements, of which the first is a sonata allegro form. Yet its basic style is essentially the same as that of its predecessor, its Classical aspects quite subsumed within Rosner’s unique and highly personalized rhetoric. This rhetoric does entail filling out forms with a good deal of literal repetition, likely to appall less indulgent listeners. But those who are captivated by Rosner’s infectious tunes and by his strange juxtapositions of emotional and musical content will not be d isappointed by this work (or by any other on this disc).

No. 4 is my favorite of Rosner’s string quartets, and rather than omit it from this discussion, I will draw the following comments from my review, which appeared in Fanfare 14:5 (p. to which I refer interested listeners. “Composed in 1972, this highly personal work carries to powerful extremes Rosner’s distinctive manner of turning ancient forms and devices to contemporary expressive purposes . . . . The Quartet No. 4 is one of Rosner’s most fully realized works — tightly constructed both expressively and motivically. Its virile, full-bodied — at times aggressively violent– use of the quartet medium may bring Shostakovich to mind, while its eerie serenity and sense of timeless spirituality may remind others of Arvo Part. Yet it maintains a stylistic consistency throughout. In fact, its prevailing tone of grim intensity, its resolute, unvarying D-Minor tonality, and its two successive slow movements — each based on a variation form — may be “too much” (in the Allan Pettersson sense for some listeners, while others will find its emotional urgency arresting and compelling.”

Rosner composed his Quartet No. 5 in 1977. In this work (and in No. 4 the elements found in the earlier quartets are integrated with somewhat more assurance, sophistication, and sense of unity. Reminders of Hovhaness and Shostakovich are less apparent, while other elements that have concerned Rosner in more recent works– techniques and sounds suggesting the music of India, busy textural patterns that evoke a trance-like mood, somewhat along the lines of the minimalists —  are more prominent. The quartet reminds me of the two-piano Of Numbers and of Bells(composed six years later), which has proven to be so popular, although I find that both works are stretched out longer than their substance can sustain.

The latest work on the disc is the Duet for Violas, composed in 1991. As I readily though not with pride) admit, music for unaccompanied unilinear instruments rarely appeals to me, and pieces for two such instruments don’t fare much better (although I do love the Bartok violin duos and some similar works by Kodaly and Martinu, come to think of it).  But Rosner’s eight-minute duo is surprisingly effective. Its two sections follow a slow-fast format and display a tightness of focus and concentration of expressive intensity reflective of a greater compositional maturity. I find it a thoroughly consummated work, and other skeptical listeners are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

The Ad Hoc String Quartet, based in Chicago, has devoted a great deal of time and effort to bringing Rosner’s chamber music to a wider audience, and they are to be commended for their courage, dedication, and generally fine results. But those who are the first to bring unusual and neglected works to life face such a challenge in creating an initial coherent statement that their renditions are rarely definitive. Besides, though generally easy to read and play, Rosner’s music requires impeccable intonation, his chromatically related triads requiring an attentiveness to enharmonic distinctions, e.g., the difference between C-sharp and D-flat. Approximations that would be tolerated in more conventionally tonal music — and in more dissonant music — can sound noticeably wrong in Rosner’s peculiar syntax. The performances on this disc are serviceable and valuable in making these works available to the listening public, but readings of greater precision and refinement will represent the music more convincingly.

Rosner enthusiasts will need no encouragement to grab this new release. Those who have yet to discover his music might better begin with the orchestral disc on Laurel (LR-849CD; Fanfare 13:3, pp. 279ff). And when will we hear one of Rosner’s six symphonies?

ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Sonata for French Horn and Piano. Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano. Nightstone

ROSNER: Of Numbers and of Bells. Sonata for French Horn and Piano. Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano. Nightstone. Randolph Lacy, tenor; Heidi Garson, French Horn; Maxine Neuman, cello; Timothy Hester, piano; Nancy Weems, piano; Yolanda Liepa, piano; Joan Stein, piano. ALBANY TROY-163 (DDD; ADDl; 67:13. Produced by John Proffitt, Max Schubel.

As American composer Arnold Rosner turns 50 this year, his large output of more than 100 works continues to reach increasingly larger audiences. This new release provides an opportunity for those who have discovered this unusual composer only since the advent of the compact disc to acquaint themselves with the two works that first introduced his name to recordings: the Sonata for Horn and Piano and the Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano, each of which first appeared on Opus One LPs (seeFanfare 8:1, p. 299; 9:5, p. 226). Thane excellent readings are reissued on this Albany disc, complemented by a couple of first recordings that also feature superb performances. Most important, all four works — duos for various media — are representative of Rosner at his most compelling arid most individual, making this an indispensable release for all those who are already admirers of his music, as well as for those who might be contemplating their first exposure to it.

By way of introduction to readers not yet familiar with the composer and his works (see also interview in Fanfare 14:5, pp. 414-19), Rosner is something of a maverick, rejecting virtually every compositional trend, from Neoclassicism and Neoromanticism to Serialism and Minimalism. Instead, he has developed a unique yet highly accessible language built largely around modal melodies, consonant, triadic harmony — often used in unconventional, non-tonal ways–and applications of such venerable techniques as cantus firmus and isorhythm, not to mention passacaglia, fugue, and sonata-allegro form. There is a strongly spiritual quality to much of his music, often Roman-Catholic in flavor, most obviously in his a capella masses, yet his own Jewish background is also evident in a number of works, either explicitly (e.g. the Sephardic Rhapsody) or through the appearance of a vaguely Middle-Easternmelos. More angular complex passages may suggest Shostakovich or Holmboe (to listeners familiar with the great Dane), while simpler, more diatonic sections often resemble Hovhaness. The propensity for spiritual states of mind and ancient techniques may lead the reader to suspect something along the lines of Gorecki, Part, or Tavener, but Rosner is much more accommodating to the listener’s desire for contrapuntal, rhythmic, and developmental activity dramatic tension and resolution, and variety in mood and emotion. His weakest aspect is a tendency toward a plodding rhythmic monotony in some works and, like many prolific composers who work within a highly idiosyncratic, circumscribed style (e.g., Hovhaness, Martinu, etc.), there is a tendency toward redundancy. But at his best, Rosner has something unique and refreshing to offer, and most of his work can be appreciated by listeners with little background in classical music.

The Cello Sonata No. 1 is the earliest work here, dating from 1968, when the composer was 23, although it underwent significant revision in 1977. It is rather similar to the Horn Sonata of 1979, although the latter — one of Rosner’s most fully consummated works — is more polished and sophisticated. This sonata seems well on the way to becoming a staple of the repertoire for the instrument. Both sonatas comprise three movements in a slow-fast-slow sequence. The first movements are angular and searching, with a piercingly brooding intensity, not unlike Shostakovich in his chamber works. The Horn Sonata opening is a brilliant passacaglia whose structure is neatly concealed by its expressive immediacy. Both second movements are scherzo-like in character, though the Cello Sonata’s is demonic and violent, while the Horn Sonata’s is jubilant and exalted. Both finales are incantational and hymn-like, with a rapturous, devotional quality.

Of Numbers and of Bells, dating from 1983, is the most recent of the selections offered here. Its title suggests its joint preoccupation with both sonority and numerology. Scored for two pianos, it presents a haunting and mysterious pattern of modal, Middle-Eastern-sounding arabesques that becomes a backdrop against which develop multi-layered textures based on irregularly overlapping rhythmic patterns, chordal patterns, and piano sonorities, culminating at times in thunderous, noble roars. The work may strike some listeners as New Age or Minimalist in effect, although both currents are anathema to Rosner. At 15 minutes, it does go on a bit too long, but there is much about it that is quite lovely, and the piece has already proven to have captivating effect on many listeners.

Nightstone(1979) comprises settings of three well-known portions of the Song of Songs in a folk-like, slightly Hebraic vein. The melodies are pleasantly ingratiating, and the second song, in particular, has real character. But the accompaniments could benefit from a more varied and colorful scoring — perhaps flute, harp, and tambourine, for example — because with piano alone, the simple arpeggiated and chordal figurations, with recurrent use of quintuple meter, become a bit monotonous Randolph Lacy has a light, accurate tenor whose quality is nicely suited to the music.