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. .

FINZI: Intimations of Immortality; Grand Fantasia and Toccata.

FINZI: Intimations of Immortality; Grand Fantasia and Toccata. Philip Langridge, tenor; Philip Fowke, piano; Richard Hickox conducting the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI CDC7 49913-2 [DDDJ; 60:57. Produced by Brain B. Culverhouse.

The verdict on this recent release can be expressed directly: 1) If you are fond of the choral and vocal works of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and, perhaps, Walton, but you don’t know the music of Gerald Finzi (1901-56), don’t hesitate for another minute. Combining Elgar’s nobility of utterance and Vaughan Williams’ spacious grandeur, with a touch of Walton’s exuberance, Finzi may lack their breadth and depth, but the extraordinarily poignant sensitivity with which he could reflect poetic meaning through simple diatonic melody is second to no one. (Finzi is one of those 20th-century composers who could become a household name — at least among cultured households — if he were ever given broad exposure.) 2) If you already know Finzi’s music, it should be sufficient to state that Intimations of Immortality, a 45-minute ode for tenor solo, chorus, and orchestra, based on William Wordsworth’s reflection on “the disjunction between the ecstatic Before and the disappointing After,” is probably the composer’s magnum opus, occupying him–on and off–throughout most of his adult life and encompassing most facets of his artistic personality. 3) If you already know Intimations of Immortality through the 1975 Lyrita recording (later issued by Musical Heritage Society) featuring tenor Ian Partridge, with the Guildford Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, under the direction of Vernon Handley, then be assured that, on the basis of vastly superior choral and orchestral execution, this new release represents a distinct and significant improvement. Need I say more?

The component sections of the Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra actually date from two separate periods. The Fantasia, which is indeed “grand,” in a sort of neo-Bach manner, was composed during the late 1920s, while the Toccata, a lively, urbane, Waltonian romp, was added in 1953. This is not one of Finzi’s more personal works, though it is certainly pleasantly effective. The performance offered here is appropriately brilliant.

While on the subject of piano and orchestra, let me lobby for a new recording of Finzi’s Eclogue, an irresistable 10-minute morsel at least as universally lovable as Mozart’s contribution to “Elvira Madigan”.

HANSON: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth

HANSON: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth. Carol Rosenberger. piano; Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the New York Chamber Symphony. DELOS DE-3092 [DDDJ;68:35. Produced by Amelia S. Haygood.

It looks as though Howard Hanson’s time has really arrived. This is the fourth all-Hanson CD to appear before me during the past year or so. and the second release in Gerard Schwarz’s complete traversal of the symphonies. I understand that its predecessor. featuring the “Nordic” and “Romantic” Symphonies. has become a best-seller; I know that my review (Fanfare 13:2. pp. 228-31) was the most critical of any I read. and I placed the disc on last year’s Want List. And now Philips has begun to reissue the composer’s own Eastman performances on mid-priced CDs. starting with the “Nordic” and the “Romantic”. Let me comment, in passing, that those composer-conducted performances. most of which originally appeared during the 1950s. are excellent renditions, as well as landmarks of recording technology. Listeners who are new to Hanson and are interested in saving a few dollars or are inclined toward “composer-authenticated” performances are assured that there is no reason to avoid those reissues. On the other hand. older listeners who know the Hanson symphonies primarily through the Eastman performances will welcome the perspective offered by Schwarz’s fresh new interpretations, as well as the increased richness and depth of the sonic aspect.

The Symphony No.3, Hanson’s most extended essay in the form, was written during the late 1930s and is a representative example of the composer at the height of his powers — a much stronger, fully dimensional work than the overplayed “Romantic” Symphony. Written in commemoration of the first Swedish settlement in this country, it is the most obviously Sibelian of Hanson’s symphonies, its moments of dark, austere solemnity often calling the Finnish master to mind. Yet the familiar Hanson traits are abundantly evident as well: flowing modal counterpoint, throbbing melodies surging through the baritone and tenor registers of the orchestra, radiant chorales, lively rhythmic ostinatos, all orchestrated to brilliantly colorful effect. There is a strong spiritual undercurrent to the symphony as well — a statement of courage and fortitude in the face of adversity, supported by a simple, straightforward reliance on faith, hope, and trust. Such wholesome Protestant sentiments could easily result in music of banal, mawkish cheerfulness. However, the power of Hanson’s earlier works lies in the unabashed hyperbole of their gestures, the unstinting lavishness of their orchestration, and, most of all, their sincere fervor and conviction.

Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth is a 1951 composition for piano and strings based on a melancholy passage from Hanson’s Concerto da Camera (1917) for piano and string quartet. During the late 1940s Hanson began to “cool off” somewhat. Though he never abandoned either tonality or romanticism, he did temper the ever-throbbing ardor somewhat, stepping back to permit a bit of detachment, and emphasizing crisper, drier orchestral timbres. One of Hanson’s most thoroughly satisfying works, Fantasy Variations calls to mind Ernest Bloch’sConcerto Grosso No. 1 in its vigor and clarity of texture and sonority, as well as in its warm, romantic core.

The Symphony No.6 (1967) is a fascinating work — though perhaps more for its historical role than for its intrinsic musical value. Hanson, then in his early seventies, was one of the composers commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to commemorate its 125th anniversary, presumably to honor his half-century of dedication to the cause of American music, rather than to honor his compositional gifts, which were then held in remarkably low esteem. Like Giannini’s Medead, Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, and Flagello’s Symphony No.1, Hanson’s Sixth is a major, large-scale assertion of traditional romantic values and techniques, created during the single decade of this century when such an aesthetic was least acceptable to the classical music establishment — a period when Leonard Bernstein felt compelled to write an essay to justify — or apologize for — the composition of a straightforward, accessible work like the Chichester Psalms. Within this climate such music represented, at least to some extent, a self-conscious gesture of defiance. “A small, intimate soul surviving in the framework of cynicism and strife,” was Hanson’s own interpretation of his symphony.

The work comprises six short movements, played without pause. Apart from its central Adaqio — a typically Hansonian outpouring of full-breathed lyricism — the symphony is cool in tone, dry in sonority, stark in gesture, and relatively attenuated in tonality. In fact, its language may surprise those listeners unfamiliar with Hanson’s later music. On the other hand, it is brilliantly orchestrated, with two exciting scherzos, and a triumphant, affirmative finale. Viewed as a succession of episodes in contrasting tempos and moods, perhaps linked by a picturesque or literary association (like the composer’s 1957 Mosaics, for example), the work would be undeniably effective. However, despite the use of a unifying three-note motto, it lacks the qualities of organic development and dialectical continuity essential to the true symphonic form.

All three works are sympathetically interpreted, stunningly performed, and beautifully recorded. I found this to be an even more satisfying release than its predecessor, and it is sure to please those who have been enjoying Schwarz’s Hanson survey.

PARTCH: And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma; Castor and Pollux; Windsong (excerpts); The Bewitched (excerpts); The Letter.

PARTCH: And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma; Castor and Pollux; Windsong (excerpts); The Bewitched (excerpts)The Letter. Gate 5 Ensemble of Sausalito and other performers recorded under the supervision of Harry Partch. CRI CD-7000 [AADJ; 76:20.

There is little I can add to the enthusiastic recommendations and informative comments of Adrian Corleonis and James North regarding the music of Harry Partch (see Fanfare 14:1, pp. 328-31), beyond a few personal, subjective reactions. Ordinarily, music that renounces traditional Western syntax in favor of “originality” or “innovation” holds little appeal for me. Yet ever since I first encountered the music of Partch, nearly thirty years ago, I have been deeply impressed by its creative vitality, its visionary idealism, its authentic originality, and the grandeur of its bold, dauntless ambition — not to mention its profound primal resonance. However, like other works of extraordinary originality and ambition–from Wagner’s Ring to Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum — Partch’s grandest efforts can be taxing to one’s patience and concentration, unless one has undertaken some preparation.

Furthermore, despite Partch’ s gesamtkunstwerk aesthetic, articulated so eloquently in his book Genesis of a Music, and despite the acoustical uniqueness of an ensemble of Partch instruments heard without intermediating electronics, the novice might do well to discover his music through recordings — and in small doses. For such a purpose — and with some essential Partch LPs no longer in print — this CD reissue in CRr’s “Historic Recordings Series” provides an excellent selection of what Corleonis legitimately describes as “a significant part of the core of our national heritage, among the central achievements of music in our time.”

The major offering here — and the only one recorded in stereo — is And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, a 36-minute instrumental work dating from the mid-196Gs that served as something of a study for Partch’s magnum opus, the theater piece, Delusion of the Fury. …Petals…consists of 34 short sections of which the final 11 are overdubbed composites of the first 23. The enormous rhythmic, tonal, and timbral variety that results provides a rich and representative introduction to Partch’s unique sound-world.

The three earlier instrumental pieces are taken from private recordings on the composer’s own Gate 5 label. “Castor and Pollux” is an excerpt from the 1952 composition Plectra and Percussion Dances. The Bewitched is a theater piece dating from Percussion Dances. 1955, of which the final scene is included here. Windsong is an excerpt from the score to an experimental film made in 1958. All the performances were recorded under Partch’s own supervision and, in the case of Windsonq, the composer himself plays all the instruments, with the aid of overdubbing.

The Letter is a brief” song” dating from 1943 that reveals Partch’s special style of microtonal vocal monophony — heard here in his own rendition–as well as his indescribably haunting and dreamlike evocation of hobo life in the Southwest during the “Great Depression.”

There has never been a composer like Harry Partch. If you have not heard his music, you certainly ought to have the experience at least once. You will not forget it.

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.

BARBER: Knoxville–Summer of 1915. HARBISON: Mirabai Songs. STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress (excerpt). MENOTTI: The Old Maid and the Thief

BARBER: Knoxville — Summer of 1915. HARBISON: Mirabai Songs.STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress(excerpt). MENOTTI: The Old Maid and the Thief(excerpt). Dawn Upshaw, soprano; David Zinman conducting the Orchestra of St. Lukes. ELEKTRA/NONESUCH 9 79187-2 [DDDJ; 43:12. Produced by Robert Hurwitz.

This is an easy disc to review: a thoroughly delightful yet uncompromisingly artistic assemblage of 20th-century American vocal music. Try it, you’ll love it. There’s virtually nothing to criticize — OK, the timing is a little skimpy. As far as I’m concerned, my main reaction is, Give me more. How about Volumes 2 and 3?

I’ve been writing for years about the glories of 20th-century American vocal music — opera, song cycles, etc. (See my review of Helen-Kay Eberley’s wonderful American Girl collection back in Fanfare 7:4, pp. 292-4.) Finally, singers and producers have begun to select the gems of this repertoire, instead of the undistinguished dross indiscriminately thrown together on so many anonymous singer- or composer-funded contemporary recital discs.

Here, the program consists of an American classic, sui generis, a recent song cycle by a prominent member of today’s middle-aged generation of composers, and two opera excerpts. All are sung with great technical ease, idiomatic understanding, and superb musicianship by Dawn Upshaw, who is endowed with a lovely, penetrating yet smooth and light instrument. Instrumental accompaniments are excellent, as is recording quality.

Barber’s poignant evocation of nostalgic Americana needs little comment, but is rendered here as beautifully as I have ever heard. The Menotti excerpt, “What a curse for a woman is a timid man,” deserves to be more widely known, as it represents the composer at his most gorgeously lyrical and romantic. The four-part Stravinsky excerpt, “No word from Tom,” is also stunning, an irresistable tour-de-force of pseudo-Mozart. Both these fragments cry out to be heard again as soon as they end. John Harbison’s Mirabai Songs of 1982 represent the most demanding listening on the disc, although they are no less ingratiating. Mirabai was a mystical singer and dancer from 16th-century India and her songs have an ecstatic, erotic quality. Harbison’s brilliant and colorful settings most closely resemble the later vocal music of Leonard Bernstein, despite some exotic touches (such as the suggestion of gamelan music at the opening).

Harbison’s interesting, thoughtful notes on the entire program provide an additional bonus.

PERSICHETTI: Symphony No.6. Serenade No. 10. MILHAUD: Suite Francaise; . BADINGS: Ballade; Cavatina. & works by Katchaturian/Hunsberger, Rossini/Inagaki, Lauber, Renie, & Grosse/Dondeyne

PERSICHETTI: Symphony No.6. MILHAUD: Suite Francaise. KHACHATURIAN/HUNSBERGER: Spartacus (excerpts). ROSSINI/INAGAKI: William Tell Overture. GOSSEC/DONDEYNE: Offrande a la Liberte. Frederick Fennell conducting the Toyko Kosei Wind Ensemble. KOSEI — KOCD 3101 [DDDJ; 61:03. Produced by J. Timperly. (Distributed by Elf Enterprises, 557 East 140th, Cleveland, OH 44110-1999)

PERSICHETTI: Serenade No. 10. BADINGS: BalladeCavatina. LAUBER: Four Medieval Dances. RENIE: Legende. Louise DiTullio, flute; Susann McDonald, harp. KLAVIER — KCD 11019 [ADDJ; 63:33. Produced by Harold L. Powell. (Distributed by Allegro Imports, 3434 S.E. Milwaukie, Portland, OR 97202)

The 1950s was a period of phenomenal fertility for Vincent Persichetti. He produced forty-five pieces during this decade, including four symphonies, five piano sonatas, and eight song cycles, along with dozens of other assorted works. What is especially remarkable, however, is that this extraordinary quantity is matched by a consistently high standard of quality. In fact, one might argue that most of the composer’s greatest works — those in which he displays his full communicative power, within a wide-ranging, yet psychologically and aesthetically consistent, individually recognizable musical language — appeared during this decade. This pair of recent CD releases shares the musical distinction of offering two of Persichetti’s masterpieces — composed in 1956 and 1957 respectively — in performances that are superb on all counts, captured on recordings of breathtaking spaciousness and clarity.

The 1950s witnessed another area of explosive musical activity in America: the proliferation of symphonic bands and wind ensembles in high schools and colleges, along with the rapid growth of a viable repertoire for these media. Much of this music was relatively pedestrian, utilitarian fodder, but, in addition, substantial works — including full-length symphonies — appeared from the pens of many of America’s leading serious composers at the time. Vincent Persichetti was one of the most significant contributors to this new repertoire, ultimately adding to it 14 works. Indeed, of the many symphonic works for band that appeared during the 1950s, the most fully consummated artistically — as well as most enduringly successful — is probably Persichetti’s Symphony No.6.

With his fondness for warm chorales, transparent poly tonal textures, crisp, dry sonorities, and lively, syncopated rhythms, Persichetti displayed a tremendous natural affinity for ensembles of winds and percussion. In fact, his works for band are probably more representative of his distinctive musical personality than are his works for orchestra. The symphony for band, in four concise movements, illustrates the quintessence of the American neoclassical spirit — as well as style — with an effortless mastery of form and development and an exhilarating spontaneity of inventiveness that are truly Haydnesque, in the most favorable sense.

Another leading figure in the American band explosion of the 1950s (and early 60s) was a young conductor named Frederick Fennell, whose Mercury recordings with the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble provided a showcase for the finest examples of this exciting new repertoire, while setting a standard of disciplined precision and uncompromising musiciansnthat served as a model for high school and college bands throughout the country. Indeed, it may be fairly stated that Persichetti and Fennell helped to put each other on the musical map — certainly, the 30-year old Fennell/Eastman recording of the Symphony No. 6 stands as a milestone of its genre.

Now in his 70s, Frederick Fennell currently serves as music director of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, a group established and funded by a Japanese Buddhist organization called Rissho Kosei-kai. (For general information about the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and its series of recordings, see Ron McDonald’s article, “East Meets West: The Winds of Change,” in Fanfare 13:1, pp. 91ff.) Part of the purpose of this series of recordings appears to be providing Fennell with the opportunity to document his definitive interpretations of the works with which he has long been associated, using state-of-the-art recording techniques and an ensemble of musicians trained to his specifications.

The rendition of the Persichetti symphony presented here is virtually identical conceptually to the 30-year old Eastman performance; proficiency of execution is comparable, if not a trifle superior. Of course, Mercury releases from the late 1950s and early 60s are generally acknowledged to be among the finest recordings of their time, finding new generations of listeners .through subsequent reissues — and are now beginning to appear on compact disc. Whether the Eastman recording of Persichetti’s Sixth will be among those reissued I have no idea. Nevertheless, these new Kosei recordings are about as sonically splendid as one can imagine. Their major shortcoming, however, is the fact that An inexplicably shortsighted packaging decision.

Incidentally, the prospective purchaser is advised that Fennell’s is the second recording of Persichetti’s Sixth to be released by Tokyo Kosei. The first (KOCD 3076) was conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama, but was not available to me for comparison.

Many of Persichetti’s works reflect a propensity for miniaturism, exemplified in a series of 15 serenades — pieces comprising a number of tiny, epigrammatic movements of contrasting character — scored for various combinations of instruments. Each movement is like a haiku, concise yet rich with meaning and implication. Perhaps the most captivating of the serenades is the 12-minute No. 10 for flute and harp, consisting of eight movements, each of which suggests — subtly and concisely — such qualities as tenderness, delicacy, warmth, and mercurial lightness. Despite its modest dimensions, this is a work — performed ravishingly here — not to miss.

The remainder of the Tokyo Kosei disc is less compelling from a musical standpoint, although band aficionados may find it — along with the rest of the series — to warrant interest. Milhaud’s Suite Francaise is another piece that Fennell recorded during his tenure with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. I find the music to be irritatingly trivial for the most part, although the performance here is stunning enough. A quarter-hour of excerpts from Khachaturian’s Spartacus can be expected to make a lot of noise, and there certainly is no disappointment on that count. However, the shallow brutality and exotic Armenian clichés of the music offer little of substance. Gossec’s Offrande à la Liberté is a patriotic rouser that even includes the Marseillaise. Orchestral chestnuts transcribed for band provide valuable learning opportunities for young musicians, but have little value for the serious listener. Nevertheless, the TKWO’s brilliant rendition of Rossini’s William Tell Overture is sure to tickle the fancy of the present or former bandsman. Though the storm and its aftermath are played quite stiffly and metronomically, the final portion is truly sensational, with some impressive clarinet ensemble-work.

The remainder of the flute and harp disc offers somewhat more musical interest. Henk Badings (1907-1987) was a prolific and well-known Dutch composer whose musical involvements were wide and varied. Indeed, he was a pioneer in the early development of electronic music and his efforts in this area were outstanding. TheBallade for flute and harp (1950) is relatively conventional in style and rhapsodic in form. Although its approach is virtuosic, it is a substantial 14-minute work in an ornate and developmentally rich post-impressionistic idiom. The lovely Cavatina for alto flute and harp, composed two years after the Ballade, displays a sensuous, exotic lyricism. Both these pieces are worth knowing and they are impeccably performed here. Swiss composer Joseph Lauber (1864-1952) is represented by Four Medieval Dances, an attractive group of impressionistic evocations of archaic dance forms. French composer Henriette Renie’s Legende is an opulent, moodily atmospheric example of French late-romantic neo-chivalry for solo harp. The list of contents and annotation indicate the presence of another work by Mlle. Renie, but such is not to be found on the disc. Sound quality of this reissue from the late 19708 is extremely fine.

LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC: Michael Torke and David Zinman Share Their Points of View

LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC: Michael Torke and David Zinman Share Their Points of View

As the final years of the 20th century approach, many serious composers are confronting and accepting the responsibility for attracting, holding, and satisfying their listening audiences. This represents something of a change from the 1950s, 60s, and most of the 70s, when many composers aimed at shocking listeners with their originality, while others sought refuge in the ivory tower of the academic world. There they produced music through abstract mathematical processes, in an attempt to identify themselves with the objectivity of the “hard” sciences, instead of with the subjectivity and intuition traditionally associated with artistic expression. Although the “trend toward accessibility has been in the air for more than a decade, my experience as a lecturer and teacher, crusading on behalf of the large body of more “user-friendly” approaches in 20th-century composition, has indicated to me that most listeners still tend to avoid new music, often asserting that they simply don’t know how to approach it. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this problem with Michael Torke, a 30-year old composer from Wisconsin whose music is being received enthusiastically by audiences around the country, and David Zinman, the personable conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who recently presented a “mini-festival” of Torke’s music.

Simmons: Michael, do you have the audience in mind when you’re writing a piece of music?

Torke: Well, one thing I keep in mind is that nobody needs to come and hear my music. And if no one comes, then what have you got? You know, I think composers’ goals are different today from what they were right after World War II. At that time there was a feeling that unless their music was connected to complicated scientific and mathematical advancements, it was worthless. But that was a misconception — music isn’t like that. I think listeners were negatively conditioned by that period. Now composers are coming off their high horses and writing music that the ear can assimilate much more easily than what they were writing 30 or 40 years ago. They’re rediscovering how music really works — writing idiomatically for players and building a relationship with the audience.

Simmons: So what about listeners who may be a little timid, a little less sophisticated, but are willing to give it a try? How do you suggest that they approach the music of today?

Torke: Well, I think they should try to be as clear as possible about what the composer’s intention is.

Zinman: Yes, I think composers usually leave signs for people to grab on to. HTorke: You know, if a friend of yours said, “I read this great new book — you should read it,” how would you react? Most likely with a positive frame of mind, because the recommendation came from a friend. The idea is, just because a piece of music is new, doesn’t mean it’s going to be frightening. It’s funny, advertising in this country is usually based on the idea that newness sells.

Simmons: Aaron Copland made the point many years ago that music is practically the only art in which the main focus is on works of the past. I mean, people like to see the latest movies, read the latest books, see the latest shows. — they want to experience what’s going on around them. Certainly that’s true for pop music. It’s usually specialists or scholars who study older literature and films. David, what do you have to say to the average concertgoer who might have a negative attitude about hearing new or unfamiliar music?

Zinman: The most important thing is to go in with an open mind, not a negative attitude.

Torke: Some preparation helps too. A good audience is an educated audience.

Simmons: How about you, David? How do you listen to a new piece of music? HZinman: Well, I try to listen without a score first, to get an overall impression of what it’s all about. I really believe that repeated listenings are the most important thing. One hearing is just not enough, unless you’re totally turned off by it. If the piece begins to grow on me, then I’ll go to the score. My experience with new music is that first you perceive a general idea, a mood, along with certain details that stick in your mind.

Simmons: So you try to give the composer the benefit of the doubt. HZlnman: Well, I think you have to assume that if a composer goes to the trouble of writing a new piece, he’s not just spraying notes on a page.

Simmons: But I think that the average music lover feels that once he buys his ticket, he — or she — doesn’t owe anybody anything and is entitled to expect a good time.

Zinman: Well, it depends what you mean by “a good time.”

Simmons: I mean an enjoyable experience.

Zinman: Look, I don’t think music has to be soothing or enjoyable. I mean, you’re dealing with art here. Some new music is enjoyable and some isn’t. Also, you have to figure, performers aren’t going to play something for no reason. You have to give the performer a little credit for taste.

Simmons: But I think that often performers and conductors play a lot of new music that they don’t like any more than the audience does. Instead of everybody just sharing this unpleasant obligation, I’d like to see soloists and conductors taking the responsibility for selecting new music that will mean something to the audience. Let the audience demand a meaningful experience and let them judge a soloist or conductor on his ability to provide that.

Torke: That sounds like a good idea. But another thing to remember is that just because you don’t like a piece of music doesn’t mean that that piece has failed. It may not be to your liking, but it may be worthy of respect.

Simmons: But how are you supposed to know?

Torke: That’s where education comes in. You have to have the flexibility and humility to realize that your reaction isn’t the final say on whether a piece works or not. You don’t have to like it. But the excitement of witnessing a world premiere can be a fun experience in its own right. I think that more people will feel this way when America starts to take more pride in its own composers.


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to The New Grove and a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism.

CRESTON: Symphony No.2; Walt Whitman; Corinthians: XIII.

CRESTON: Symphony No.2; Walt Whitman; Corinthians: XIII. David Amos conducting the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7036-2Hl [DDDJ; 54:15. Produced by Michael Fine and Karen Chester.

As conductors and record companies–and listeners–continue uncovering neglected masterpieces of American orchestral music composed between 1930 to 1980. it is most appropriate that attention be turned to the major works of Paul Creston. Creston. who died in 1985–one year shy of his 80th birthday–was a unique figure on the American musical scene. The bright. ambitious son of a poor Italian house-painter who had immigrated to New York City. Creston (who was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio) was forced to drop out of high school at the age of 15 in order to earn a living. Attempting to compensate for the premature termination of his formal education by subjecting himself to a rigorous regimen of independent study, he taught himself music theory and composition, in addition to a number of other academic and artistic subjects. Not until he was in his mid-20s did he decide to focus his efforts on composition. Yet he quickly succeeded in impressing enough influential musicians of his talent that in less than a decade his works were appearing regularly in America’s major concert halls. HPractically from the beginning, Creston’s music revealed a language that was thoroughly and unmistakably his own in syntax. structure, and meaning, although its overall sound shared much with the familiar vernacular music of the time. The most distinctive feature of this language is its treatment of rhythm: syncopated polymetric and polyrhythmic patterns and ostinatos are all organized within a continuous, unchanging metrical pulse, creating a lively, swinging vitality that virtually cries out for choreography. This individual treatment of rhythm is combined with an equally idiosyncratic approach to harmony: expanded triadic chordal structures based on the overtone series are used almost exclusively, without resolutions or progressions that might define a tonal center. The result is what Henry Cowell termed “smooth dissonance,” or what Creston himself called “pantonality,” with full, rich sonorities floating in tonal weightlessness.

From about 1940 until the mid-1950s Creston was one of America’s most widely performed composers. In fact, in 1956 a BMI survey reported that he and Aaron Copland shared the lead in frequency of orchestral performances among living American composers. Then the virtual boycott of most of America’s conservative symphonists set in, sending Creston and his music rapidly into eclipse. For the last 25 years of his life, Creston attempted to recover the stature he had lost virtually overnight, repeating the techniques that had brought him success in the past, while attempting to meet whatever demand remained for his work–primarily from college bands in the middle West. As his creative power gradually dwindled–partly the result of bitterness about his neglect and partly the result of his inability to expand or develop the language he had formed during the 1930s–he devoted increasing attention to writing essays and books that attempted to clarify and systematize his particular views on rhythm and rhythmic notation.

Today, most listeners under the age of 50 who are familiar with Creston’s music at all tend to associate him with hearty, exuberant pieces for band or with lively virtuoso showpieces for “odd” instruments, such as the trombone, saxophone, and marimba. Although he was, finally, guilty of mannerism and redundancy, the music that initially defined his individual style and built his reputation is truly unique in its way, though now largely forgotten. Thus this new release is something of a milestone, as it serves to introduce–or to re-.introduce–listeners to what Paul Creston was really all about. HThe Symphony No.2 (there are six) was composed in 1944 and introduced that same year by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski. It is probably the best single introduction to Creston’s aesthetic realm. Attempting to illustrate the proposition that song and dance form the basis of all music, the two-movement work is designed to glorify both melody and rhythm respectively and, in the process, epitomizes Creston’s own approach to handling these elements. The result is a masterpiece of structural unity achieved through ingenious thematic transformations, of stylistic consistency, integrity, and origi.nality, and of robust, spontaneous joie de vivre. The symphony was a tremendous success with audiences right from the start and was soon performed allover the world. It was recorded in 1954–along with the Symphony No. 3–by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Howard Mitchell (Westminster XWN-18456), who championed many of Creston’s major works. This recording, which featured impressive, committed performances, marred somewhat by dull, opaque sonics, was reissued several times, finally disappearing during the late 1960s, by which time the works had been forgotten by the music world, displaced by the next generation of novelties. Yet to those who remember it, Creston’s Second looms as one of the most personable, fully realized American symphonies of the 1940s.

The two remaining works — Walt Whitman (1952) and Corinthians: XIII (1962) — both exemplify one of Creston’s favorite structural devices: A literary, artistic, or philosophical concept is divided into several component sub-concepts; each is then given musical expression, unified by a single theme that is transformed in various ways according to the different aspects of the extra-musical concept. The 16-minute Walt Whitman captures Creston’s personal reflections on one of his favorite writers (who provided the inspiration for more than half a dozen of his works). The sub-concepts are the poet’s celebration of the Individual, his love of Nature, his glorification of Challenge, and his serene attitude toward Death. Creston evokes these aspects of Whitman’s art with an eloquence that is both sumptuous and virile.

This work was recorded in 1960 by RCA Victor (LM-2426) in an unbelievably execrable performance by the Academy Symphony Orchestra of Rome conducted by Nicola Rescigno, captured in dismal sound quality. The disc was dropped from the catalog in about a year, making this new release almost a premiere recording.

Corinthians: XIII offers the composer’s musical meditations on the famous New Testament verse. Here the concept is love, and the work’s three sections deal with love between mother and child, between man and woman, and between man and mankind. The first section touchingly evokes a tender maternal ardor; the second becomes more lively, with some characteristic rhythmic felicities, and builds up to an appropriately heated climax that leads directly into the final section, a solemn, reverent hymn in which the work’s unifying theme is transformed into the Gregorian melody “Salve Regina,” cloaked in diaphanous, richly harmonized orchestral dress. As in much of Creston’s best work, both these pieces express the extra-musical concepts in logical, coherent, autonomous musical structures that nevertheless reflect the composer’s own personality with genuine warmth and spontaneity.

Corinthians: XIII was recorded during the mid 1960s in a decent performance by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. That rendition has been reissued on an Albany CD (TROY021-Z).

Conductor David Amos is a persuasive exponent of Creston’s music (see article elsewhere in this issue) and does an impressive job of presenting his work in an advantageous light. But Creston’s music is American to the core, with technical idiosyncracies that a Polish orchestra — unfamiliar with the composer’s work — would understandably find challenging, at least initially. Realistically, how much can a visiting conductor from America be expected to extract from such an orchestra over the course of a few days of recording sessions? With this reservation in mind, one can be safely assured that these performances serve adequately to bring this long-neglected music to the attention of today’s generation of listeners, enhanced by the virtues of current audio technology.

To record companies interested in further enlarging the Creston discography I would recommend a disc devoted to his solo piano music, especially the Three Narrativesof 1962, a virtuosic work somewhat in the manner of Gaspard de la Nuit, and the Metamorrphoses of 1964, a brilliant set of variations on a 12-tone theme. These are two of Creston’s most ambitious and fully realized works. Such a disc might be sensibly filled out with the early (1936) Piano Sonata and the appealing Six Preludes from 1945.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by Vittorio Giannini

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by Vittorio Giannini

Background

As we follow the political thaw in Eastern Europe known as Glasnost. it is fascinating to observe another form of glasnost taking place — this one in the arena of American musical politics. For about a decade we have been witnessing the gradual re-emergence of a group of composers — most born between 1890 arid 1920 — whose music had been suppressed and whose reputations had been anathematized for more than a quarter of a century. This suppression was the result of their seeking a continuity with the past by embracing traditional forms, techniques, and musical values, rather than dissociating themselves from the past.

After World War II, contemporary music in the United States came under the sway of a militant form of Modernism that called for the repudiation of tonality and other traditional principles . The prohagonists af this position espoused it as the sole, inevitable path toward musical progress; those composers who failed to follow jt could be safely 19nored as irrelevant and worthless. Though this position found very little resonance among the musical public. it was embraced by prominent spokesmen who. in turn. influenced — or at least intimidated — composers. scholars. students. performers. and members of the press into accepting their notions of historical inevitability and the imperatives of artistic progress.

This orthodoxy. which dominated the music world from about 1950 through the mid-1970s. had a number of very significant consequences: One was a loss of rapport. of “good faith,” between living composers and the listening public that has led to a near-fatal stagnation of the repertoire; another was the virtual disappearance from concert halls and recordings of music by dozens of talented, well-established creative figures whose aesthetic aims did not conform to prevailing doctrines. This unofficial boycott was so effective that many composers who had attained considerable prominence during the 1930s and 40s suddenly found themselves, in effect, “blacklisted.” Many lived to see their music fall into oblivion and their names all but disappear from the standard reference books. One highly distinguished victim of this boycott was Vittorio Giannini.

However, much of the music produced during the mid-twentieth century by the fashionable avant-qarde has proven to be stillborn, and the aesthetic notions that supported it to be sterile. Musicians have begun to take a second look at some of the more traditionally conceived music that was once so summarily dismissed; works that lay unheard for decades are now suddenly being hailed by both audiences and critics.

Vittorio Giannini

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was an avowed conservative, whose considerable output of fifteen operas, seven symphonies, and numerous other works largely ignored Modernist assumptiorts. Instead, Giannini dedicated himself to mastering the musical practices of the preceding certturies and embodying them in music that expressed his own personal-feelings. “A composer’s duty,” he said, “is to express what is in him with the utmost sincerity.” For him, “beauty” was “the ultimate goal of composition.” From this perspective, “originality” was a presumptuous:display of arrogance. Echoes and reminiscences of other composers indicated a sense of homage, rather than an unintentional “derivativeness.” (One is reminded of Brahms’ famous reply to a listener who observed that his Symphony No. 1 showed the influence of Beethoven: “Any fool can see that.”)

Although Giannini was born in Philadelphia, his musical roots were firmly planted in Europe. At the age of ten, he won a scholarship to study in Milan, where he remained for five years. Then, after concentrating on both the viulin and composition for several years at the Juilliard SchoOl, he returned to Italy as the recipient of three consecutive Prix de Rome. Giannini deeply absorbed the European musical ethos, particularly as filtered through the sensibility of late-romanticism. His music during the 1920s and 30s exhibited an ingratiating melodic warmth rooted in the bel canto tradition, enriched by the chromatic harmony of Wagner and the sumptuous textures of Debussy. His predominantly lyrical emphasis was reflected in a concentration on vocal music — severaloperas and dozens of songs, a number of which appeared regularly on recital programs (the most popular being Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky).

Giannini’s first opera, Lucedia, was introduced in Munich in 1934 via a major production that starred the composer’s sister, Dusolina. Reviewing the premiere in the New York Times, Herbert Peyser wrote:

There is enough beautiful music in Lucedia to outfit a second opera. I can think of no operatic work by an American… that approaches this one in melodic lavishness and lyric fluency, in spontaneity, in whole-souled sincerity, in consummate mastery of musical means. .

Four years later, The Scarlet Letter was produced in Hamburg, under the direction of Eugen Jochum, with Dusolina Giannini and Hans Hotter in leading roles. Peyser found this work to be

something of a milestone in the history of American opera, . . . a wholly sincere expression of a nature refreshingly true to itself, that scorns to force its growth and development by recourse to idioms and agencies foreign to it. And it is music which flows spontaneously, which sings and invariably ‘sounds.’

These early operas also won the praise of Richard Strauss, who hailed Giannini as the most talented American composer known to him. During the same period, Giannini’s Piano Concerto was premiered in New York, with no less than Roslyn Tureck as soloist. Returning to the United States, Giannini joined the composition faculties of the Juilliard School (1939), the Manhattan School (1941), and, later, the Curtis Institute (1956) . During the 1940s and 50s, he expanded his compositional range, increasing his output of orchestral and chamber music and devoting attention to the rapidly growing symphonic band medium. In addition, he developed a fondness for imbuing Baroque forms with a neoromantic touch. It was during this period that Giannini composed his opera buffa based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

During the early 1960s — the last years of his life — Giannini developed a darker, more intense vein of romanticism, characterized by a concern with more serious subject matter, tighter structural procedures, a more attenuated sense of tonality, and a greater use of dissonance. But by this time there was little interest in his music and many of his later works were never performed. Known then primarily as a composition teacher, he became in 1965 the first director of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he served until his death the following year. When he died, Giannini was working on his sixteenth opera, Edipus Rex.

During the years since his death, Giannini’s music has been all but forgotten. Most of the operas and songs are out of print or otherwise unavailable. Virtually no recordings of his music have appeared. Yet the time for a revival may have arrived. The John Brownlee Opera Theatre’s production of The Taming of the Shrew is the third major Giannini performance to take place during the 1990-91 concert season in New York City alone. When the soprano Johanna Meier performed the four-movement monodrama The Medead with the Manhattan Symphony last September, the Times’ James Oestreich called it “an impressive creation” by

a skilled composer in a conservative post-Romantic idiom that fell out of fashion at mid-century but might thrive in today’s climate if given wider exposure.

Last month, the American Chamber Opera produced Giannini’s Last Blennerhassett, a work originally written in 1939 for radio. Bernard Holland noted in the Times that

the operas of Vittorio Giannini may be due for a comeback. . . . The vocal lines pour as thickly and smoothly as sloe gin. The climaxes are perfectly calculated. There is not a single stumble during the dramatic interchanges of this five-person cast. . . . far cry from the clumsiness of some of his colleagues today.”

The Taming of the Shrew

Composed in 1950, The Taming of the Shrew was Giannini’s eighth opera. The composer fashioned the libretto himself, with the help of Dorothy Fee. Although most of the words are Shakespeare’s own, some of the lines (in the love-scene between Lucentio and Bianca) are taken from Romeo and Juliet and one of the sonnets.

The Overture sets the buoyant, ebullient tone of the opera right from the start, and introduces most of the themes and motifs that pervade the Ylork and provide its basic material. Despite the sparkling Rossinian exuberance that characterizes much of the opera — especially Act I — the music is subtly conceived throughout, the orchestra creating a continuous symphonic development into which the voices — while dominating the sonority — are thoroughly integrated. This is the essence of Giannini’s operatic style: free and uninhibited Italianate lyricism emerging from and soaring above a richly Straussian orchestral fabric intricately woven from a small number of unifying motivic elements. In keeping with the work’s cheerful good humor, the harmonic language is straightforwardly tonal — even diatonic much of the time — although moments of romantic ardor expand with lush, chromatic opulence.

Among the work’s high points are the effervescent three-part fugato among Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello in Act I; Lucentio and Hortensio’s respective attempts to court Bianca while disguised as tutors in Act II, Scene 1; the passionate love-scene between Lucentio and Bianca, also in Act II, Scene 1; Katharina’s aria in Act III; and the glorious finale of the opera, beginning first with a male quintet in a confused melange of mistaken identity, which is then resolved in a richly lyrical sextet involving the two couples and the two fathers, Baptista and Vincentio, and finally concluding with an ardent love duet between Katharina and Petruchio.

The Taming of the Shrew was first performed in 1953 by the Cincinnati Music-Drama Guild and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Thor Johnson. Virgil Thomson, who attended the premiere, commented on the work in the New York Herald Tribune:

[Giannini’s] talent has long been known as phenomenal, and now in his fiftieth year he writes like a master. . .with such fine skill and such pretty taste that no one can deny him a place among the authentic composers of our time. By following none of the contemporary aesthetic trends, in fact, he has arrived at a highly individual position.

“The Taming of the Shrew” is a strong work, a practical work; a highly professional achievement that holds the attention by musical means and that communicates dramatically. I suppose this is the definition of an opera, a real opera. . . a perfect opera. It has a good plot and its words are Shakespeare’s. But it tells its story through music, vocal and instrumental; …

It also represents an achievement in the field of today’s major operatic need, which is English-language opera. In this sense it is a work of “advance,” in spite of its stylistic old-fashionedness. . .

The libretto. . . is compact, expeditious, seems to have no major faults. His musical setting also has a clear trajectory, falls in a virtually perfect curve from its farcical beginning to its romantic close, and the effectiveness with which its dramatic line is sustained is due. . . to the composer’s skillful ex:ploration and equilibration of the musical opportunities offered. But the air-borne quality of the opera is most of all a result of sustained musical inspiration. . .

A sort of symphonic continuity involving thematic developments and transformations gives formal coherence, makes a musical shape of each scene, each act, the whole work. This thematic and orchestral elaboration points up the story, of course, colors its emotional content and underlines its dramatic syntax. The vocal lines chiefly follow rather than lead it, though they do become the center of attention in tenderl moments. . .

Dramatically it is strong and musically it is masterful. . . . its melodic charm constant, its orchestral sound delicious. It is a professional piece of work that communicates and is built to wear. Oner suspects that it might stand up even in the great houses. It rather asks for grand execution, in fact. . . It is also by its vast energy and high musico-dramatic competence and by its sweet warmth sentiment born for big time. . . . For Giannini’s possession and exuberant exercise of all these qualities let us today be thankful. . . .

(In view of Thomson’s enthusiasm, it is interesting to note that Giannini’s name does not even appear in the composer-critic’s book, published in 1970, American Music Since 1910)

The following year, The Taming of the Shrew was presented on NBC-TV, in a production conducted by Peter Herman Adler, with John Raitt and Susan Yager in the leading roles. This presentation too was a popular and critical success. (Olin Downes, writing in the New York Times compared the opera favorably with Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Proqress.) The work was mounted by the New York City Opera in 1958, and then elsewhere around the country. Its last New York production was in 1983, when it was presented by NYU’s Reimann Opera Studio.


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who writes regularly for Fanfare magazine. A recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism, he is also the author of the entry on Vittorio Giannini in the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.