by Walter Simmons
MENOTTI: Apocalypse. DELLO JOIO: Meditations on Ecclesiastes. LO PRESTI: The Masks. James DePreist conducting the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7156-2H1 [DDD]; 58:07. Produced by Michael Fine.
The 1950s was an especially fruitful decade for American orchestral music. Many leading traditionalist composers were producing some of their best. work at this time, and Italian-Americans in particular were widely represented among them. Of course, some of these composers made more distinguished contributions than others. This new release offers three works written by Italian-American composers during the 1950s, although the front of the CD announces only two: Gian Carlo Menotti’s largest-scale orchestral composition, Apocalypse, written the same year as Amahl and the Night Visitors; and Norman Dello Joio’s composition for string orchestra, Meditations on Ecclesiastes, in its third appearance on CD. Apparently not deemed important enough to be noted on the front cover is The Masks, a short orchestral composition by the late Ronald LoPresti, a member of the faculty at Arizona State University for a good number of years. The release is part of what promises to be a series of recordings-• featuring the Oregon Symphony Orchestra under James DePreist, one of America’s most intelligent and knowledgable conductors, who is finally getting some of the discographic attention he has long deserved — with the Oregon Symphony as well as a number of other orchestras.
No doubt enthusiasts of American orchestral music will be curious to discover what one o£ the 20th century’s most celebrated opera composers had to say in what was for him a relatively unaccustomed medium. Apocalypse, here in its first recording, is a sort of triptych, a little more than 20 minutes in duration, and somewhat more heroic than catastrophic xn tone. It is lavishly orchestrated, with brilliant sonorities that produce a stunning impact. The second section, “La Citte Celeste,” displays a wistful tenderness that bears Menotti’s recognizable stamp. However, the music as a whole is quite impersonal and lacking in feeling, rather like a Respighi tone painting — Trittico Botticelliano, for example. Other works that are called to mind are Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony (in some aspects of actual content) and Martinu’s Frescoes of Piero della Francesca (in conception), although it is far less interesting than either. All in all, Apocalypse is another indication of the limited creative gifts of this prominent and widely performed composer.
Norman Dello Joio is another composer of minimal artistic distinction. As noted earlier, Meditations on Ecclesiastes has already been available — on a Bay Cities reissue of an early monaural recording with Alfredo Antonini and the Oslo Philharmonic, and on a fine recent Harmonia Mundi release with David Amos conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. I find the piece, a theme and variations, to be unremittingly pale, dull, and lukewarm, with a bland harmonic language that recalls the television background music of the 1950s (of which Dello Joio himself wrote a good deal). It is spiritually mundane, with hardly the reflective, elevated tone one might expect of a meditation on the Book of Ecclesiastes. This redundant recording of such a thoroughly distasteful work represents a distressing waste of fine performing talent and a rare recording opportunity. (In fairness, 1 should add that the piece was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, so it must have appealed to somebody.) Rudy Ennis’ program notes, incidentally, inflate Dello Joio’s importance to a preposterous degree, suggesting that he is “the most successful of his generation” with regard to both “critical acclaim and material rewards for the music (he) has put to paper.” Come now. I haven’t seen Dello Joio’s income tax returns, but consider for a moment Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, and William Schuman — not to mention Menotti.
It may seem like sheer perversity to say this, but the music that nearly redeems this new release is LoPresti’s unheralded 8-minute piece, The Masks, an unassuming work in two parts that reveals more sincere musicality than either the Menotti or the Dello Joio. Suggesting the style and tone of Barber’s Essay No. 1, The Masks conjures a touching and warmly elegiac nostalgia, balanced by a gently syncopated allegro section. LoPresti composed this piece in 1955 while still an undergraduate at the Eastman School. It was recorded soon after by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. I have known this recording for more than 30 years and have always retained a great affection for the work. LoPresti continued to compose until his death in 1986 at the age of 53, but his music never seems to have entered the public arena. He is not even listed in theNew Grove. I would certainly love to learn how his work evolved over the years.
In general, the performances are excellent. DePreist tends to favor a rather cool, dry approach, but not to an extreme. The Oregon Symphony sounds very impressive, and I look forward to future, more thoughtfully programmed releases.