CRESTON: Invocation and Dance. HUSA: Apotheosis of this Earth; Monodrama (Portrait of an Artist).

CRESTON: Invocation and Dance. HUSA: Apotheosis of this Earth; Monodrama (Portrait of an Artist). LUTOSLAWSKI: Fanfare for Louisville. Lawrence Leighton Smith and Karel Husa conducting the University of Louisville Concert Choir and the Louisville Orchestra. FIRST EDITION RECORDINGS — LCDO05 [AAD]; 66:11. Produced by Andrew Kazdin

Paul Creston’s Invocation and Dance was originally composed for the Louisville Orchestra in 1953, and their subsequent recording, under the direction of Robert Whitney, was one of the orchestra’s first. That recording contributed toward making the work one of Creston’s most popular. It is certainly representative of one of his most characteristic veins: the two-part work in a slow-fast format that highlights the composer’s fondness for syncopated rhythmic manipulations. Such pieces seem to cry out for choreography and, indeed, Invocation and Dance became part of a successful dance work entitled Time out of Mind, presented widely by the Harkness Ballet. According to Creston’s format, the first part of these pieces is usually slow and improvisatory, while the second tends to be fast and heavily accented. The overall impression is one of spontaneity and exuberance, although both parts usually concentrate on a single motif, which is taken through an ingenious range of developmental transformations. Creston wrote many such works (of which the best, Janus, remains unrecorded)

Although this new recording, conducted by Lawrence Leighton Smith, boasts a vastly superior sonic dimension, the heavily interpretation itself shows far less familiarity with the composer’s idiom than Whitney displayed. ( As new conductors venture into the repertoire pioneered by Whitney, his deep understanding of American orchestral music, concealed to some extent by his orchestra’s limitations, emerges more clearly.) Smith exhibits a slow, straitlaced tentativeness that reveals no awareness of the work’s essential joie de vivre. ( The best performance of Invocation and Dance that I have heard comes from an Oakland Symphony Orchestra aircheck, conducted by Richard Buckley.)   As Creston’s distinctive music is discovered by a new generation of performers, one hopes that an informed performance tradition will develop, as is happening with the works of Samuel Barber.

Karel Husa is a Czech-American composer who has been widely performed and honored during the past 25 years. Much of this acclaim is due, it seems to me, to the composer’s penchant for topical subject matter, his use of a strikingly theatrical idiom that avoids such retrograde elements as melody, harmony, and counterpoint, and a warm and likable personality. The two works presented here, dating from the 1970s, are highly representative of Husa’s approach.

The more effective of the two works by far is Apotheosis of this Earth, originally composed for band in 1971, then re-written for chorus and orchestra two years later.  The work, in three movements, is intended as a stern warning against the destruction of the earth’s natural environment. It exhibits a wide array of explosive percussion, cluster effects, extreme dynamic contrasts, creative use of timbre and texture, and unconventional treatment of the chorus. This version is a considerable improvement over the band version. However, there is not much in the music itself that conveys its intended message — nor is there any way it could, beyond the use of blatant literalism. This is Husa’s aesthetic problem — I am tempted to call it a trick: Write a “politically correct” program note, affix a catchy title, then string together an array of gestural, timbral, and textural effects that create large volumes of sound. But, despite what Husa would have us believe, music is not an appropriate medium for abstract social, political, or philosophical theorizing. Apotheosis does create a stunning effect, for whatever that is worth, but the lack of musical substance raises gnawing questions.

These issues are even more problematic in the 1976 Monodrama, (Portrait of an Artist), a terribly pretentious and far less successful composition. Here the intent is to reflect on the artist’s role in relation to society, inspired by eloquent passages from James Baldwin’s The Creative Process. The musical are similar to those used in Apotheosis, but the result In fact, is less interesting. In fact, its lack of musical interest in the face of its pretentious is annoying. How does Husa think his music can express “thoughts of [the Artist’s) creative role” or “the Artist versus the Status Quo”? Well, it can’t and it doesn’t. In truth, despite his ambitious expressive aims, one is struck by Husa’s expressive limitations and the essential sameness of his music.

Witold Lutoslawski’s Fanfare for Louisville was composed in 1986, soon after the University of Louisville awarded him the lucrative Grawemeyer Award. It is two minutes of splatter and splash, in a manner not unlike Husa’s.