by Walter Simmons
SCHWANTNER: New Morning for the World. COPLAND: A Lincoln Portrait. WALKER. An Eastman Overture. Willie Stargell, narrator (Schwantner); William Warfield, narrator (Copland); Eastman Philharmonia conducted by David Effron. MERCURY 289-411 031-1, produced by John Santuccio and Rayburn Wright
Following the musical development of Joseph Schwantner rather closely for several years has given me a strong feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, an authentic musical sensibility can be discerned, together with an impetus toward direct and clear communication, and a gift for combining highly imaginative sonorities with affecting melodic/harmonic motifs. The result is a greater emotional immediacy than most of Schwantner’s contemporaries have been able to accomplish. On the other hand, after becoming familiar with even a small number of his works, one begins to realize that Schwantner’s range is quite narrow, relying on a small number of different devices: richly colored ascending arpeggios that are subsequently fragmented and re-articulated through staggered, interlocking effects; delicate use of percussion; lusciously orchestrated pyramids that build dramatically, often to solemn quasi-chorales, which cut abruptly to hushed, awesome, slightly elegiac quasi-hymns, squeezing every last tear from poignant appoggiaturas. All of this is quite irresistible on a purely endocrine level, but the effect is more predictable with each new piece.
What is especially disturbing, however, is that Schwantner—very much like such other young Americans as John Corigliano, David Del Tredici, Thomas Pasatieri, and even Philip Glass, in their own respective styles—seems to have focused his effort specifically on those effects that will engender the “big bang” from his audience, bypassing aspects of musical composition that may be harder to achieve. Overlooked, in particular, is the integration of emotional effect with musical development, which requires both disciplined formal logic and a strong contrapuntal foundation. While such virtues may not necessarily be appreciated on an initial encounter, they are essential for prolonged appreciation and enjoyment. In general this laxity seems to distinguish many of the “New Romantics” from the older generations of “Modern American Traditionalists,” exemplified by Giannini, Creston, Persichetti, Mennin, Flagello—or Copland, for that matter, who certainly was able to reach an audience instantly, without sacrificing craftsmanship. It is a matter of commitment to quality, regardless of immediate payoff, and has absolutely nothing to do with the question of accessibility vs. obscurity.
I feel this ambivalence more intensely in regard to Schwantner than to many of his colleagues, largely because of the considerable extent of his gifts, and I feel it more strongly in reaction to New Morning for the World, one of his most recent works, than to any other I have heard. First performed earlier this year on Martin Luther King’s birthday, the 27-minute orchestral work includes readings from speeches by the black leader.
One has the distinct impression that Schwantner has tried to produce something along the lines of A Lincoln Portrait, certainly a masterpiece of the genre, and comparisons are inevitable. Both works attempt a tasteful evocation of patriotic sentiment—a difficult endeavor, especially in today’s world when reactions to such efforts can vary widely, from jaded cynicism, to begrudging acknowledgment, to sincere pride and nobility, depending on one’s temperamental susceptibility as well as one’s political feelings. I have always found Sandburg’s presentation of Lincoln’s words to be quite sensitive and, indeed, inspiring. And, despite a general distaste for pieces that include narration, I find Copland’s music so ideally suited to its subject and so effectively constructed around the spoken portions that I never fail to admire it when I encounter it during the normal course of things; and my reaction seems to be echoed by most people, judging from the reception it is usually accorded. A Lincoln Portrait differs significantly from Schwantner’s piece in its use of folk melodies as thematic source material, giving it a more overtly national flavor than the more recent work displays. On this disc, incidentally, Copland’s piece is given a performance of breadth and richness, read ably by William Warfield. I would recommend this as a good choice for anyone seeking a new recording of the piece.
From the standpoint of a general concert audience hearing it for the first time, New Morning for the World achieves much the same sort of inspired nobility—indeed, I suspect many will be quite bowled over by it. Here, more than in any of his previous works known to me, Schwantner embraces the symphony orchestra’s capacity for richly romantic expression, thereby enhancing the almost hypnotic intensity of King’s words. The work builds to a climax of great emotional power, which some listeners will liken to a corresponding point in Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra. Yet, for the reasons described earlier, repeated listening, while not destroying my enjoyment of the work, has made me more aware of its rather obvious weaknesses and over-calculated effects. It is somewhat like weeping at a sentimental melodrama, while being fully conscious of the devices employed to induce such a visceral response. New Morning for the World is too long by a good one-third, padded by superfluous repetition, and too dependent on increases in orchestral texture and dynamic level as means of heightening its emotional impact.
Former baseball star Willie Stargell, who has been the sole narrator of Schwantner s work since its premiere, is given top billing on the disc. The contrivance of this gesture is mitigated by the fact that Stargell serves as an excellent speaker. Although ostensibly inexperienced in such a role, he captures the almost incantorial rhythms of King’s prose with remarkable sensitivity. The orchestra performs superbly, as it generally does on its recordings. The sound quality is also up to Eastman/Mercury’s usual high standards, although it is cut at a very low decibel level, so that a high gain setting is necessary.
George Walker’s eight-minute Eastman Overture is an uncomfortable attempt to create a breezy, concise piece in an essentially Berg-like, expressionistic vein. The Overture shows a degree of competence, but its incompatible elements prove unwieldy. Whether one likes the piece or not, however, it certainly deserves more commentary than the one sentence it is granted on the liner. In keeping with the informal, “everyman” sort of concept behind this disc, virtually no program notes are included. What little there are concentrate on Stargell’s cliché-ridden account of the experience of performing with an orchestra (“… it’s a BIG jump from the ballpark to Carnegie Hall!” ). I join my colleagues in protesting the decline in quality and quantity of program notes supplied by the major record companies. This is an insult to the consumer that should be recognized as such.