Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas: A Romantic Opera for the Twenty-First Century

Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas:
A Romantic Opera for the Twenty-First Century

Classical music has always led a precarious existence in the United States. With historical roots in European aristocracy, it has served as a symbol of wealth and prestige for those who aspire to the sociocultural elite. Yet those very roots have led it to be regarded warily and with some distaste by populists who have always represented the dominant American attitude toward the arts. This uneasiness has been especially strong in relation to opera, with its relatively small canon of classics usually performed in a European language, its “unnatural” manner of singing, and its idiosyncratic requirements for suspension of disbelief, especially regarding the importance of physical attributes in casting decisions, not to mention a host of quaint customs known only to initiates. It is, of course, somewhat ironic that for much of its European history, opera was actually a populist form of entertainment.

Opera’s vitality as a living art form is further threatened in America by the unfortunate fact that its active repertoire effectively closed with the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1924. Not that there has been any dearth of new operatic compositions since then, but few if any have made an enduring impact on the public, in spite of a virtually endless parade of experiments that have sought to invigorate the increasingly alien genre. In America, these experiments have included performing standard operas in English, incorporating elements of the popular musical theater or rock music into the genre, creating new works that adhere to the styles and aesthetic values of the classics, or, at the other extreme, applying to them the “advanced” musical techniques espoused by the intellectual avant-garde. More recent attempts have included using “pre-sold” subject matter, such as items from recent news events (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer), or popular movies (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Man Walking), the use of English “super-titles” to facilitate comprehension, even when the opera is performed in English, as well as commissioning librettos from established playwrights like Wendy Wasserstein and Terence McNally. Understandably, some of these efforts have generated considerable publicity, along with enthusiastic reactions from more receptive, open-minded opera-goers. But such enthusiasm is typically short-lived, as few such efforts have demonstrated real staying power.

One recent opera that seems capable of achieving more than ephemeral acclaim is Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, scheduled for a return engagement this February, after its sensational Seattle premiere in 1998. Florencia had been commissioned jointly by the opera companies of Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle, who introduced it in 1996, 1997, and 1998 respectively. When Houston’s David Gockley initially approached composer Catán, he had specified not only that he wanted a work in Spanish (as a welcoming gesture to Houston’s growing Hispanic population), but also that it be “nothing less than the most beautiful opera in the last fifty years.” Completing the work in 1996, Catán seemed to take Gockley’s demand to heart, producing what San Antonio critic Mike Greenberg called, “a score that is unabashedly, soaringly lyrical, its impeccably flattering vocal lines displayed in an orchestral jewel case of Puccini harmonies and Debussy colors and textures.” Some critics, like Los Angeles’s Mark Swed, patronized its accessibility, calling it “an opera meant to please—it is comfortable for singers, comfortable to listen to; it at least will not displease audiences.” Indeed, audiences were ecstatic, with word-of-mouth evidently spreading to Seattle so that the 1998 production outsold the previous two. Since then, the plethora of follow-up productions is almost unheard of for a new work—especially a work intended specifically to be performed in a foreign language. It has also been produced by Opera de Colombia in Bogotá, Opera Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and in Manaus, Brazil, whose opera house actually figures in the fictional libretto. Houston Grand Opera reported it to be the largest-grossing premiere in the history of the company, and, in 2001 revived the work by popular demand, in a production that was released on commercial recording the following year. Catán arranged an orchestral suite of excerpts from the work, which was introduced by the Madison (WI) Symphony Orchestra in 2003. A semi-staged version was mounted in 2004 by Opera Nova of Los Angeles. And now the opera is returning to Seattle, where Director Speight Jenkins states, “We have never had a new work that engendered so many requests for revival.”

How is one to explain Florencia’s phenomenal success? With its unmistakably Italianate lyricism, the work may be described as “neo-romantic,” belonging to the category of new operas “that adhere to the styles and aesthetic values of the classics,” as noted earlier. But that in itself is not enough: There are plenty of neo-romantic operas that have not been welcomed so whole-heartedly by audiences. One factor that sets Florencia apart is the boldness with which it embraces its idiom, playing it to the hilt. Catán almost outdoes late Puccini in the shimmering, pulsating luminosity of his orchestration, creating a luxuriant cushion upon which the voices seem to float with an effortless sensuality. The orchestration is lent an exotic Amazonian touch by the subtle contributions of cow bells, a marimba, a steel drum, and a South American drum called a djembe. Catán’s vocal lines resemble Puccini’s in their fluid rhythms and the freedom with which they soar, in spontaneous, uninhibited expressions of emotion, in aria after aria, with little of the declamatory recitative that dominates most contemporary opera. Indeed, some critics have carped at Catán’s appropriation of a successful style from the past, calling it “derivative.” Los Angeles critic Alan Rich complained that “nothing [about it] would have shocked opera-goers a century ago.” 

But such cavils reveal a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between musical language and musical history: Composers do not copyright a “sound” reserved for them alone, nor is a particular style limited to a particular time period: A composer embraces a language that feels natural to him or her and well suited for conveying a certain type of feeling. Simply because a style emerged at a particular time doesn’t mean that style speaks only for and to that period. After all, if that were true, the classics of the past wouldn’t be as appealing today as they are. In Scene 3 of Florencia the Captain could be reflecting upon this very issue when he sings, “Things always move forward/In life, there is no going back/No one step is ever the same/no turn is ever a return.” But while many recent opera composers have adopted a lyrical style reminiscent of Italian opera, the results often seem apologetic and half-hearted. The music of Catán, on the other hand, is projected with full-throated conviction through long-breathed melodic lines. It is worth noting that when Florencia was revived in Los Angeles in 2004, Alan Rich acknowledged somewhat apologetically that his earlier comments had been “not particularly kind,” adding that this second look at the work “turned out not bad at all—rather more than that, in fact,” finally admitting, “All this turned out as stronger, shapelier music than I remembered.” Other critics have been less restrained. English opera specialist Graeme Kay wrote, “Catán deliberately set out to write ‘beautiful music’ and he certainly succeeded. The soaring melodic lines supporting the eminently singable Spanish libretto are of the most grateful kind for the singers, yet underscoring the music which one hesitates to call Pucciniesque (because Catán does have a distinctive voice) is an insistent and exotic rhythmic pulse—the ‘jungle’ music—in which the marimba is prominent. Catán successfully handles all the operatic building blocks—choruses, solo arias, duets, trios and ensembles … We will, I hope, hear and see a lot more from Daniel Catán.” Austin’s Michael Barnes opened his review by saying, “The tides have shifted in a favorable direction when the best thing about a late 20th-century opera is its music. The world premiere of “Florencia en el Amazonas” … will be remembered for Daniel Catán’s luxurious score, … “ and concluded that “it ought to enjoy a longer life than most late 20th-century operas.” While acknowledging the work’s embrace of a familiar musical language, Jerry Young, also from Austin, noted that “it somehow avoids seeming derivative or retro, and it certainly avoids the sort of righteous, calculated pandering one hears in works by so many business-minded neo-romantic composers…. The effort is terrifically daring in its modesty, making for beautiful vocal music that could make the most staid opera-goers change their minds about modern opera.” 

In addition to the ardent lyricism and rich, luxuriant orchestration of the music, there is the subject matter itself. Catán wanted to make his opera a homage to the celebrated Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who had heard Catán’s previous opera, Rappaccini’s Daughter, in Mexico City. At that time the Nobel Prize-winning writer, associated with the Latin-American literary movement known as “magical realism,” had expressed interest in working with Catán. (“Magical Realism” refers to a kind of fantastic surrealism that permits symbolic, unconscious elements to interact with more naturalistic action.) As plans evolved, the composer decided to base his opera on thematic elements from García Márquez’s work Love in the Time of Cholera, which the author approved on the condition that his student Marcela Fuentes-Berain write the libretto. She and Catán worked together for several years, and Florencia was the result. The story is set in the early 20th century, and takes place on a steamboat traveling from Colombia to Manaus, Brazil, in the mysterious heart of the Amazon jungle. On the boat (but traveling incognito) is FlorenciaGrimaldi, a world-renowned operatic diva, who is returning to her native city to re-open the opera house there. Her journey represents much more than that, however: She is seeking her spiritual roots, her soul, and her lost passion, symbolized by Cristóbal, a butterfly-hunter, the embodiment of her romantic ideal, whom she left behind to pursue the glory of an operatic career. (The butterfly, with its suggestion of ephemeral beauty, is a favorite symbol of Catán’s.) Also on board is Rosalba, a young journalist, at work on a biography of the great singer without realizing she is a fellow-traveler; the Captain; Arcadio, the Captain’s nephew, who is searching restlessly for life’s meaning, until he and Rosalba fall in love; and Alvaro and Paula, a bickering middle-aged couple who hope that this romantic journey might help them to rekindle their passion. The remaining character is Riolobo, a supernatural river creature with multiple identities, who re-appears throughout the opera, sometimes as a commentator on the action, at others as a kind of magician who intervenes in the action, almost like a deus ex machina. The journey is obviously a symbolic one, a voyage into the exotic unknown, during the course of which the characters face external dangers, while delving deeply into their hearts, ultimately to achieve profound transformation with the realization that love is the source of life’s meaning, or, in Catán’s words, “Love and beauty become indistinguishable from each other.”

Although the story itself seems relatively simple and straightforward, its propitiousness for operatic treatment is almost self-evident. If opera requires an especially generous suspension of disbelief, then an exotic setting and magical atmosphere evoke the inevitability of myth, awakening the audience’s receptiveness to a truth greater than reality, and creating a fertile backdrop for the development of allegory. Add to this a character like Florencia, herself an opera singer in search of a lost love, two romantic couples, one younger and one older, and you have an ideal and virtually endless opportunity for romantic arias and ensembles, filled with longing and ecstatic passion. As Catán has said, “What opera is really about is those expressions which are the foundation of our humanity: love, death, passion, happiness and that kind of basic emotion…. There is really very little else in life that is as powerful as that which makes two people’s destiny into one—that, and death. That’s where the great tradition lies. That is what opera is great at doing: … It’s something that has been absent from modern works for a long time and we need to get back to that.”

Daniel Catán, a Sephardic Jew, was born in Mexico City in 1949. When he was 14 he went to England to study both music and philosophy. After receiving degrees in each subject, he came to the United States to pursue the study of composition at Princeton. There he earned a PhD in 1977, working under with Milton Babbitt, J.K. Randall, and Benjamin Boretz, the doyens of serialism during the 1960s and 70s, the most cerebral and audience-unfriendly of modernist approaches to musical composition. How did such appealing music result from such stringently anti-hedonistic tutelage? Catán explains that he found Babbitt and company to be less dogmatic than their reputations suggested, and relatively receptive to his own explorations. Furthermore, he adds, although his music may sound rooted in tonality, he attempts to apply to it the sort of abstract theoretical rigor that he learned as a student at Princeton. After receiving his degree, Catán returned to Mexico City, where he worked as a music administrator as well as a teacher. He admits that he reached compositional maturity rather slowly, spending many years on what he now considers “studies and exercises.” Most of the music that he considers “finished” and worthy of performance was written after he had passed the age of 40.

The success enjoyed by Florencia has been very gratifying to Catán. One peak experience was witnessing the production at the very Manaus Opera House that figures so significantly in the libretto. “It just felt, as I was listening to the opera in that theater, that life couldn’t get any better than this. It brought me everything I dreamt about and more. I felt like the happiest person in the world at that moment.” One observes with interest as opera-goers and CD-listeners continue to discover this still-very-new work. It is hard not to wonder whether Florencia en el Amazonas just might be the first opera from the turn of the 21st century that endures.

Florencia on Recording

In 2002 Albany Records released the previous year’s revival of Florencia en el Amazonas by the Houston Grand Opera on a commercially available recording. The cast features Patricia Schuman as Florencia, Mark S. Doss as Riolobo, Ana Maria Martinez as Rosalba, Chad Shelton as Arcadio, Susanna Guzmán as Paula, Hector Vasquez as Alvaro, and Oren Gradus as the Captain, all under the direction of Patrick Summers. Peter Kermani, the president of Albany Records, whose releases are largely limited to contemporary music, reports that relative to the company’s norm, Florencia must be considered a “best-seller.” It appeared on many critics’ “best-of-the-year” lists (including my own) and has elicited rapturous reviews from professionals as well as from “just plain folks” whose comments now appear on many websites. Following is a sampling of critical comments:
“On the operatic front, nothing has stayed near my player more than Daniel Catán’s brilliant Florencia …, an exuberant musical and dramatic journey that grips the listener from the first bar.” Tom DiNardo, Philadelphia Daily News, 12/19/03

“This is an opera that rings with romantic gusto and Puccini-inspired grandeur…. Catán proved why he is the great new hope for 21st century opera.” William Gregory, Great Lakes Den, 2003

“Catán’s remarkable consistency of inspiration, his melodic gift, and his orchestral craft all keep his music from being derivative, and instead make it gripping. Florencia may be a genuine masterpiece.” Henry Fogel, (Fanfare, Nov/Dec 2003)
“The music is intensely emotional in Catán’s sincerely adopted Puccinian approach … but there is also a touch of Korngold about this vibrantly lush and imaginative writing…. I detected no weak links among the cast. In particular Patricia Schuman is magnificent…. I must also praise the great Houston orchestra…. This is a potently Puccinian opera and is not to be missed by those thirsty for mystery, grandeur and emotional staying power.” Rob Barnett (Classical Music Web, 6/03)

Florencia is a beautifully crafted work…. There is a stunning ensemble in Scene 8 … as well written as anything in the best of 19th-century opera…. The music glistens like sun on the river; it is graceful and ravishing…. I bought it hook, line, and sinker, including the redemption-through-love and journey-into-your-soul business—and so has everyone I’ve played it for. It’s not an opera you can excerpt—it flows and flows, uninterrupted…. Patrica Schuman sings Florencia as if she believes every word, … The sound is as lush and big as the jungle, but decidedly unmurky…. Search as I may for an outlet for my cynicism, I can’t locate it; I’m too enchanted. This is a gorgeous, fascinating, familiar-yet-new experience, and I recommend it to everyone.” Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com, 7/5/03)

Here are some consumer comments, found on Amazon.com:

“I saw this opera four times when it premiered in Los Angeles and loved every minute of it. I have been waiting years for a recording. Loved this recording!”

“I first discovered this opera during a car ride on a Saturday afternoon…. After I heard the title, I called a friend of mine who was in the process of calling me to tell me he thought I would love this new opera. Both of us were held captivated by this unusual music.”

Florencia … is, in a word, beautiful…. It comes as a delight to hear a work that takes pure, unadulterated pleasure in a flowing, beautiful line. Arioso blooms to aria with an unaffected grace, voices entwine around each other like lovers, and not a line feels clumsy or out of place…. Its subject matter, too, is worth a few words of praise: it is a delight to see a modern opera so full of innocence and wonder; and if the soprano has to die in the end, then what’s wrong with transforming into a giant butterfly? Florencia … stands as a hopeful reminder that love, faith, and beauty can be liberating powers in a world all too trapped in its own cynicism and irony.”

“Buy this recording to familiarize yourself with the lush score and intriguing story. Then book a flight to Seattle for winter 2005 to see it.”


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in traditionalist approaches to contemporary music. A contributor to The New Grove, he is a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music criticism, and his reviews have been appearing regularly in Fanfare Magazine for almost 30 years. He is the author of Voices in the Wilderness (Scarecrow Press, 2004), a study of neo-romantic composers.

(c) Seattle Opera Magazine, Winter 2004/2005

Picks of the Year: 2004

Another year has gone by, the mainstream classical music world continues to degenerate into terminal fluff, the number of retail stores selling classical recordings continues to dwindle, yet exciting repertoire continues to appear in superb recorded performances in sufficient quantity to tax most listeners’ budgets, not to mention their capacities to assimilate new material. Here is my list of recent offerings, all of it easily accessible via Internet sources, if not in neighborhood stores, presented in the belief that each of these entries will delight most listeners who seek new discoveries that embrace traditional musical values.

At 42, Jennifer Higdon is the youngest composer to appear on this list. Her music, presented here under the auspices of her longtime advocate Robert Spano, displays an appealing, though contemporary, surface, not unlike the recent work of Michael Torke, but with a greater sense of spiritual and emotional depth. This release is highly recommended to those interested in keeping up with the most talented composers arriving on the scene (see Andrew Quint’s interview and review in Fanfare 27:5).

Until recently, the name of Robert Kurka, whose career ended with his premature death from leukemia at age 36, had largely disappeared from notice. But this recent Cedille release (reviewed by me, probably in this issue) presents cogent evidence that he was among the most distinctive creative voices of his generation, and might have developed into one of the most significant, alongside such contemporaries as Ned Rorem, Peter Mennin, and Benjamin Lees (see below), had he lived longer. 

At 80, Benjamin Lees is three years younger than Kurka would have been. He has been the beneficiary of a number of fine recent recordings that confirm his stature as one of our most potent compositional voices, although his stern, uncompromising music has never achieved anything approaching widespread popularity. With three of his symphonies and an additional work of substance, Albany’s two-CD set (reviewed in Fanfare 27:6) is perhaps the most valuable representation of his music on recording.

Just a few years younger than Lees, Robert Muczynski has lived to see much of his work enter the active repertoires of both chamber music and solo piano literature; indeed, most of his music can now be found on current recordings in fine performances. This latest Centaur release (reviewed in 27:4) is perhaps the most impressive of all, featuring riveting performances of some of the most engaging and compelling American chamber music of the latter part of the 20th century.

Julián Orbón is the only composer on this list who was not from the United States (although Lees was actually born in China). However, a student of Aaron Copland, this Hispanic figure wrote music that often sounds American. Regardless, his work is remarkably ingratiating, and this recent Naxos release brings together three of his most appealing pieces, in excellent performances. Listeners who sample this recording are not likely to be disappointed.

HIGDON Concerto for Orchestra. City Scape • Spano/Atlanta SO • TELARC CD-80620

KURKA Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music. Julius Caesar • Kalmar/Grant Park O • CEDILLE CDR-90000 077

LEES Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3, 5. Etudes • Gunzenhauser/Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Dick/Spano/Texas Fest O • ALBANY TROY-564/65 (2CDs)

MUCZYNSKI Piano Trios. String Trio. Gallery • Davidovici/O’Neill/Enyeart/Wodnicki • CENTAUR CRC-2634

ORBÓN Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso• Valdés/Asturias SO • NAXOS 8.557368

PASATIERI: Letter to Warsaw

PASATIERI Letter to Warsaw • Jane Eaglen (sop); Gerard Schwarz, cond; Music of Remembrance • NAXOS 8.559219 (70:34)

For those readers to whom the name of Pasatieri is unfamiliar, let me offer a brief summary: Now in his late 50s, Thomas Pasatieri was something of a sensation during the 1970s: a student of Giannini and Persichetti at the Juilliard School, he had revealed a prodigious compositional talent, especially within the realm of vocal music. His fifth opera, The Trial of Mary Lincoln, composed when he was 26, won an auspicious award and was televised nationally. Other operas followed quickly thereafter, and were produced by regional American companies with leading singers, who adored them, in the major roles. By the time he was 40, he had seventeen operas to his credit. However, for the most part, Pasatieri’s operas were vilified by critics, who seemed to bend over backwards to find justification for the most vicious invective. In essence, the criticisms were the standard charges made against traditional-style music during the 1960s and 70s: Music with lyrical melody and rich harmony—music that communicated emotion directly was simply not acceptable; it was a) warmed over Puccini, or b) a cheap, meretricious attempt to appeal to the unadventurous listener, or c) proof of the composer’s lack of aesthetic depth and/or sophistication, or d) shoddy trash not meriting serious consideration, or e) all of the above. One might look at this a little more deeply and surmise that much of the carping—especially that which came from other composers—was pure and simple envy that this kid, barely 30 years old, was captivating audiences to an extent that eluded most others toiling in the operatic field. Or maybe it had something to do with the impression made by Pasatieri’s own personality. I myself saw and heard quite a few of his operas, and they definitely exhibited their own distinctive and recognizable style. Some—Black Widow and Washington Square in particular—I loved, their arias haunting my memory for hours, even days; others made less of an impact. All seemed to suffer—to one extent or another—from a sense of haste, largely noted in certain infelicities of orchestration.

It was therefore quite a surprise to learn during the mid 1980s, when he was about 40, that Pasatieri had stopped writing operas and gone out to Hollywood to work as an orchestrator—not a composer—of filmscores. The orchestrations with which he is credited include The Shawshank RedemptionRoad to Perdition, American Beauty, and The Little Mermaid. However, he had not ceased “serious” composition altogether, continuing to write vocal, choral, and instrumental works that were performed locally, receiving little national attention. Then, apparently coinciding with a largely positive response to a 2002 New York revival of one of his operas, The Seagull, Pasatieri announced that he was moving back east, and maybe even returning to opera.

All this is relevant background to the new release at hand, the first new work of Pasatieri’s that I (and many others, I imagine) have heard in the past 20 years: a cantata commissioned by a Holocaust-related organization called Music of Remembrance, based on the poetry of a Polish cabaret performer named Pola Braun, who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto (along with pianist Wladyslav Szpilman, whose story was told in the film The Pianist) and, later, in the concentration camp at Majdanek, where she eventually perished while still in her early 30s. Pasatieri composed the work in 2003, and it had its premiere in Seattle, just two weeks before this review is written, in May, 2004, with the same performers appearing here. 

Although it is scored for soprano and chamber ensemble, I refer to the work as a cantata, rather than a song cycle, because only six poems are set, with six additional sections that are purely instrumental, the entirety totaling some 70 minutes. The instrumental ensemble comprises woodwind quartet, string quintet, trumpet, harp, and piano.

The style of the work is essentially the lyrical, unabashed neo-romanticism that has been Pasatieri’s mode of expression all along, with little suggestion of Hebraic inflection, aside from the prevalent use of minor-key tonality. The song settings are spread unevenly throughout the work, so, for example, at one point there are three consecutive instrumental sections. These instrumental portions reflect motivic interrelationships with the vocal sections, and seem to be abstract elaborations of mood. The poems, sung in English translation, begin with reflections on the contempt in which Jews have been held, and move on to a nostalgic longing for home, and the universal suffering of mothers who lose their sons to violence; the work culminates in the dread of inevitable doom, the inconsequentiality of the individual in the face of mass annihilation, and the senseless refusal to give up hope. Individually, the sections are quite appealing, displaying the composer’s characteristic insinuations of motifs into one’s consciousness—the 5-minute Lento that precedes the final long section is an especially beautiful example. But taken as a whole, this very large work gives many indications of over-extension, so that the whole seems a good deal less than the sum of its parts. One has the impression of an attempt to turn one original concept into something else, and, without knowing much about the genesis of the work, one can only guess: for example, perhaps a request to turn what was originally a much shorter cycle of six songs into something larger, but without utilizing greater performing forces. In any case, a work of this dimension, and dealing with subject matter so extreme in its tragic brutality, would seem to require a deeper and broader range of expression. Instead, the work remains largely confined to a tone of mournful melancholia—more in keeping with romantic disappointment, say, than imminent genocide. I suppose that one might say in defense, we’ve had the large-scale treatment in movies like Schindler’s ListThe Sorrow and the Pity, and music like Pergament’s The Jewish Song and some of the pieces actually composed in the concentration camps. This, one might argue, is more intimate—one woman’s reflections. But if so, this one woman exhibits a rather restricted emotional range. 

The performance is generally quite good: The instrumentalists are largely members of the Seattle Symphony, and the participation of someone as distinguished as Jane Eaglen is a coup of which most composers can only dream. Yet in truth, her huge voice at times overpowers the intimacy of the music and, at others, is even a bit harsh. Then there is the matter of Pasatieri’s orchestration, which many commentators—myself included—have considered to be the major weakness of his operas—a stridency that might be attributed to overly close spacing of harmony and the misguided use of the trumpet as a lyrical voice. But I think that Pasatieri’s apparent success as a commercial orchestrator can be taken as evidence that he knows what he is doing, and for some reason intends the orchestral effects he creates.

In summary, Letter to Warsaw can be seen as an ambitious if flawed entry of some significance in the gradually dwindling succession of traditionally neo-romantic-styled works as we move further into the 21st century. 

ORBÓN: Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso

ORBÓN Three Symphonic Versions. Symphonic Dances. Concerto Grosso • Maximiano Valdés, cond; Asturias SO • NAXOS 8.557368 (66:17)

Julián Orbón was born in Asturias, Spain, in 1925. His mother died while he was a boy, so Julián and his father—also a composer—settled in Cuba in 1940. Aside from a period of study with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood in 1945, he remained there throughout his early adulthood, becoming one of the most important creative artists in pre-Castro Cuba. Although he worked actively for the overthrow of the totalitarian government, he was soon disillusioned by the Castro regime, and escaped to Mexico in 1960. He finally moved to New York in 1963, and died in Miami, Florida, in 1991, at the age of 66.

According to the program notes by Ramón García-Avello, Orbón’s music falls into three style periods. The three pieces on this release—all dating from the 1950s—belong to the second of these, and comprise much of Orbón’s best-known work. This period is said to reflect the strong influence of Copland, and this is apparent through the CD. But don’t get the idea that it’s all more or less afterthoughts on El Salón México. Orbón’s music has considerable expressive range and depth, along with tremendous listener appeal. The overall sound might be described as combining the transparent textures and triadic and diatonic simplicity of, say, 1940s Copland with the vaguely ethnic modal lyricism of Orbón’s Portuguese contemporary Joly Braga Santos. 

The earliest of the three works presented here is perhaps Orbón’s best known: the oddly titled Three Symphonic Versions (perhaps it makes more sense in Spanish). This is an extraordinarily likable piece, the first two (“Pavana,” “Conductos”) of whose three movements feature the sort of romantic/archaic fusions that are so successful in pieces by Vaughan Williams, Respighi, Rosner, and others. The third movement (“Xylophone”) is the exciting, highly percussive, perpetual-motion sort of piece one associates with Latin-American composers like Ginastera (in his earlier pieces). 

Orbón’s Symphonic Dances followed a few years later. Interestingly, this piece had its premiere in Florida, under the direction of Villa-Lobos(!) It is much more overtly Hispanic in effect, with many of the coloristic devices generally associated with that genre. Another notable observation: the final movement is based on the same rhythmic pattern as “America” from West Side Story.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the three works is the Concerto Grosso for string quartet and orchestra, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. Two warmly exuberant outer movements flank a strikingly beautiful, hymnlike slow movement, the total lasting a little less than half an hour. This work reveals the unmistakable influence of Bohuslav Martinu in addition to that of Copland—and I’m not simply thinking of the Czech’s lifelong attachment to the concertato principle: the melodies have much the same delightfully—almost ecstatically—lilting quality. 

Although at least two of these pieces have been recorded before on Hispanic miscellanies, I believe that this is the only current recording devoted exclusively to the music of Orbón. I must admit to something of a bias against the predictable clichés of Hispanic music, but Orbón successfully overcame any resistance I might have had. The performances, by the resident orchestra of his native city, conducted by the Chilean-born, Italian-trained Maximiano Valdés, are perfectly adequate, and constitute a fine introduction to this rewarding composer’s work.

KURKA: Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music for Orchestra. Julius Caesar

KURKA Symphony No. 2. Serenade. Music for Orchestra. Julius Caesar • Carlos Kalmar, cond; Grant Park O • CEDILLE CDR-90000 077 (64:00)

Well, here we go again: Just a few issues back (Fanfare 27:6) I was reviewing an Albany Symphony miscellany in which by far the most interesting piece was the Second Symphony of Robert Kurka, making its first appearance on CD after languishing in oblivion for decades since its release in 1961 on a Louisville LP. In that review I recounted the sad circumstances of Kurka’s short life: his death from leukemia in 1957 at age 36, just as his music was beginning to engender widespread attention in auspicious circles. Then, of course, I went on to advocate a more comprehensive survey of his work, etc. Now, just a few months later, arrives a new, all-Kurka CD, courtesy of Cedille, the Chicago-based company whose mission seems to include highlighting the work of lesser-known composers from that part of the country. (It was Cedille that released Kurka’s last, largest, and best-known work, an opera, The Good Soldier Schweik. [see Fanfare 26:1] in 2002). Kurka was born and raised in the large Czech community of Cicero, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

Although Kurka’s current reputation—such as it is—rests chiefly on Schweik, the opera suggests a direction in which the composer may have been going, but it is not really representative of the music he had been writing up to that time. Kurka is one of those composers with such a strongly individual voice that his music is instantly recognizable as his own. The most obvious influence on his style is Prokofiev, whose musical fingerprints are often clearly apparent. However, equally obvious is Kurka’s fascination with clashing major- and minor-thirds. This mitigates Prokofiev’s looming presence somewhat, while giving Kurka’s music a superficially American sound, leading some commentators to describe his style as “jazz-influenced.” However, there is an obsessive quality to Kurka’s attraction to this modal ambiguity that makes it seem more personal than a “national” trait. Take these two factors and distill them into the rhythmically vigorous, exuberantly optimistic generic language of American symphonic music of the 1950s and you have a good idea of “the Kurka sound”—except for one rather ineffable element: a most distinctive melodic/harmonic synthesis that is startling at first encounter and unforgettable forever after. (Two examples of this phenomenon found on the recording at hand: Symphony No. 2, third movement, second theme; Serenade, first movement, second theme). 

As with all composers whose lives have ended prematurely, one wonders what further accomplishments might have lain before him, in what directions his style might have evolved. Of course, such speculation is idle and fruitless. However, on the basis of what he did accomplish, Kurka stands as one of the leading contributors to the American orchestral repertoire of the 1950s, an enormously fertile decade for American composers. (I can cite more than 25 American symphonies composed during that one decade that qualify as works of the highest merit.) 

The earliest work on this CD is called Music for Orchestra, and dates from 1949, although it was not heard until June, 2003, when Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra performed it in conjunction with this recording. Predating the emergence of Kurka’s personal voice, it is a tight-fisted work in one movement of about 15 minutes duration. Far more fiercely aggressive and dissonant than the composer’s later works, the piece calls to mind the Bartók of, say, The Miraculous Mandarin and the Dance Suite. Although some passages are a little dry and uninteresting, for the most part it is quite compelling, and brilliantly performed here.

Kurka’s Symphony No. 2 dates from 1953. This was the first work of his that I heard, more than 40 years ago, and it made an immediate and powerful impact on me. These two new recordings—the recent Albany SO performance and this even more polished and tightly focused reading with the Grant Park Orchestra—have rekindled my enthusiasm, as they reveal subtle details barely audible on the old LP. As I wrote in the Albany review, Kurka’s Symphony No. 2 falls right into the mainstream style of the mid-century American symphonic genre: “conventionally classical in form, brash and assertive in attitude, propelled by energetic rhythmic syncopations, which are offset by more subdued, nostalgic passages. Fresh and exuberant, it reveals a certain naivete, both compositionally and emotionally, and the influence of Prokofiev weighs heavily…. And yet, from the moment I first heard it, I was struck by both the authenticity of its expression and the strength of its unmistakable personality …”

In four movements, the Serenade for Small Orchestra appeared the year after the symphony, and bears the following opus number. That it is the work of the same composer is unmistakable from the first phrase, although it is, on the whole, a more relaxed, somewhat less driven work. Each movement is associated with familiar lines from the poetry of Walt Whitman, although—as is typical of composers with strong personal styles—the result is far more Kurka than Whitman. This work was also first recorded—a year or two after the symphony—by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. Although it always sounded a little lame in their rather scrappy performance, the Serenade sounds fresh and bright in this new recording.

The latest work on the recording, composed the year following the Serenade, is Julius Caesar, subtitled, “Symphonic Epilogue after Shakespeare.” Once again, only by the greatest stretch of imagination might one infer a connection with either Caesar or Shakespeare—but Kurka is everywhere apparent, notwithstanding an especially strong whiff of Prokofiev. The piece is notable, however, for a stronger sense of drama than one notes in the previous works, and a less obviously American flavor. It is also structured quite tightly, so that its 9-minute duration passes by disappointingly quickly.

Featuring little known music of distinguished merit, meticulously performed and superbly recorded, this recording meets my Want List criteria, as one of the most rewarding releases of the past twelve months. I recommend it strongly and without hesitation to all enthusiasts of mid-20th-century American orchestral music—I’m tempted to offer a money-back guarantee!

CORIGLIANO: Symphony No. 2. The Mannheim Rocket

CORIGLIANO Symphony No. 2. The Mannheim Rocket • John Storgårds, cond; Helsinki PO • ONDINE ODE-1039-2 (56:02)

John Corigliano has enjoyed one of the most successful careers of any American composer of his generation. Now in his mid 60s, he began more than forty years ago as a talented scion of the Barber-Bernstein axis, producing works characterized by ingratiating showmanship and lyrical warmth. But that was during the 1960s, when accessible lyricism could relegate one to the American aesthetic equivalent of Siberia. Not temperamentally suited to an impoverished life spent beating his head again the wall in the name of artistic “truth,” Corigliano assessed the musical climate and calculated how he might turn his talents to profitable use. What he arrived at during the mid 1970s was an unabashed eclecticism: Rather than renounce the neo-romanticism that was his birthright, he surrounded it with virtually every new compositional “ism,” including extended instrumental usages, aleatoric techniques, atonality, exotic multi-culturalism, quotations from earlier music, surrealistic soundscapes of the sort associated with Gyorgy Ligeti and Jacob Druckman, and, later, touches of minimalism. This placed him within the movement Druckman termed, “The New Romanticism,” referring to those composers who felt that the innovative techniques that emerged after World War II needed to be placed in the service of poetic or expressive aesthetic objectives. While the term “New Romanticism” never really took hold, the approach itself has proven to be one of the more fruitful compositional movements of the late 20th century, and includes most of those figures who are neither die-hard serialists, die-hard traditionalists, minimalists, or explorers of the more recent postmodern tributaries. It is probably safe to say that Corigliano stands today as the most celebrated exponent of this approach, having earned the most prestigious awards and commissions available to the American composer, even including an Academy Award for his soundtrack to the film The Red Violin.

Initially Corigliano’s work in this vein was characterized by a sort of manic “kitchen-sinkism,” with incongruous elements of all kinds thrown together to produce dazzling entertainment spectacles that flattered the audience’s desire to appreciate “new music” relatively painlessly. But during the course of the past thirty years or so, he has matured as a creative artist, and seems in his recent major works to be aiming toward deeper levels of expression. This is not to suggest that Corigliano has joined those composers for whom music is a revelation of one’s “inner heart and soul”; rather, he is one of those who prefers to present a “show,” and probably always will be. But some of his recent “shows” have been more serious in their aesthetic content.

These reflections are prompted by this remarkable new release: a Finnish production devoted to first recordings of two of Corigliano’s most recent compositions, in performances by the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, who has been active throughout Scandinavia as a violinist as well as conductor. As I listened to these two pieces, the Symphony No. 2 (2000) and The Mannheim Rocket (2001), it occurred to me that Corigliano’s approach has moved toward that pursued by Dominick Argento, who uses music to develop “concepts” rather than to bare his “heart and soul” (see Fanfare 27:4, pp. 96-100 for further discussion of Argento). In fact, although it is a third again as long, Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2 is remarkably similar in impact to Argento’s In Praise of Music (1977). Both works are designed to illustrate intriguing concepts, both fulfill them with remarkable ingenuity and in a way that is clearly perceptible to the attentive listener, while both produce a sense of satisfaction that is more intellectual—though aesthetic—than visceral.

Corigliano’s Symphony No. 2, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa. Comprising five substantial movements lasting some 45 minutes, it is a revision and adaptation for string orchestra of his 1996 String Quartet. The first movement begins in near inaudibility, as disparate threads of sound eerily coalesce into cluster textures, then achieve a sense of concord, before gradually dwindling away. The second movement is a dissonant scherzo in which wild, slashing gestures surround a “trio” passage of gentle serenity. The third movement, a mysterious and terrifying nocturne inspired by a night in Morocco, is the lengthiest and most impressive movement of the work. This is followed by a most unlikely fugue, relatively active, but not contrapuntal in the conventional sense, and quite dissonant. It too achieves repose in a central oasis. The final movement begins darkly with some microtonal textures, and builds to a climax of intense severity before subsiding into mystery, ending the symphony as it began. 

Despite the evocativeness of the concepts on which the work is based, and the imaginativeness of the musical treatment, the symphony is quite demanding of the listener, largely because of the long duration and slow rate of activity of each movement, and the nearly complete absence of tonal melodic contours and regular rhythmic pulse. In fact, knowing the way Corigliano offers his work in multiple packagings, I suspect that at least some of these movements—especially the central Nocturne—will be authorized for individual performance. Indeed, they may be more effective in such short doses than joined together in full-length form.

Corigliano composed The Mannheim Rocket for the National Theater Orchestra of Mannheim. The title refers to the familiar device developed by the early symphonic composers who flourished in Mannheim, Germany, during the 18th century, whereby a movement is launched by a theme in rapid ascent (e.g., the fourth movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony). However, Corigliano joins this musical meaning with a more literal, yet fanciful, concept, suggesting a space vehicle gradually ascending through musical history until it reaches a timeless aether, before making its inevitable descent. Corigliano fulfills this intriguing notion through an ingenious application of evocative imagery, combined with the cleverest and most effective use of quotation-collage I can recall having heard. The result suggests such pieces as Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Villa-Lobos’s Little Train of the Caipira, but in 2001 style. The listener who takes the trouble to understand and follow the program as it plays out will be rewarded by a brilliant 10-minute tour-de-force of pictorial orchestral imagery.

Both works are performed with the astounding proficiency and polish we have come to expect from the major—and some of the minor—Finnish orchestras. The sound quality of the recording is notably superb.

BERNSTEIN A Jewish Legacy

BERNSTEIN A JEWISH LEGACY • Various performers • NAXOS 8.559407 (55:47)

PSALM 148 (1935). HASHKIVEINU (1945). REENAH (arr. 1947). SIMCHU NA (arr. 1947). YIGDAL (arr. 1949). FOUR SABRAS (c. 1950). SILHOUETTE/GALILEE (1951). ISRAELITE CHORUS (1958). THREE WEDDING DANCES (1960). THE DYBBUK (1974): Invocation and Trance. HALIL (1981). YEVARECHECHA (1986). ARIAS AND BARCAROLLES (1988): Oif Mayn Khas’ne. VAYOMER ELOHIM (c. 1989)

This release belongs to Naxos’s American Classics series, as well as being a part of its recently-undertaken project on American Jewish music sponsored by the Milken Archive. It is a real grab-bag of scraps, which I have attempted to organize and clarify somewhat, by listing the contents above in chronological order, although I couldn’t begin to include the variety of different performers and ensembles in the headnote. However, grab-bag though it may be, this compilation is not without value, albeit unevenly so, and I suspect that all enthusiasts of Leonard Bernstein’s music will want to have it once they realize what it holds.

The release itself seems to have been annotated and compiled by or under the direction of Jack Gottlieb, a close associate of Bernstein and his preferred program annotator, as well as a composer of Jewish music in his own right. Most of the selections were recorded at the Eastman School of Music, under the musical direction of Samuel Adler. Most of the choral numbers feature the Rochester Singers; an assortment of pianists and vocalists are heard as well. Though I will comment little about the individual performances here, I will state that, collectively, they are excellent.

Judaism was a prominent element in Bernstein’s world-view and an important aspect of his compositional personality—far more than was the case with Ernest Bloch, for example. Many of Bernstein’s major Jewish works—such as the “Kaddish” Symphony and the Chichester Psalms—are well known. But a glance through the list of contents above indicates the presence of some very unfamiliar items. The material assembled here can be divided into three categories: a) arrangements of folk or folk-style melodies done for particular publications or recordings; b) originally-composed fragments or occasional items that have been rescued from oblivion; c) extracts from and/or arrangements of larger, more familiar works. The latter group, e.g., Halil in an arrangement for flute, piano, and percussion, seems largely pointless and comprises the least interesting material, although the excerpt from The Dybbuk does serve as a reminder that there is some haunting and intriguing music in this often overlooked, relatively late ballet score. But the first two categories offer some real surprises and delights, of which I will mention just a few. 

Listeners who love to discover pieces with which to stump their friends should have some fun with the 17-year-old Bernstein’s first surviving completed piece of music: a setting for mezzo-soprano and piano (here, Angelina Réaux and Barry Snyder) of the Psalm 148. Though utilizing a musical language rooted in those of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and even Elgar (the latter probably coincidental), it is a surprisingly poignant setting.

Simchu Na is perhaps the most exciting of the choral folksong arrangements. Bernstein arranged this “composed folksong” for a 78 rpm record of Jewish dance music. There is no original score, so the arrangement heard here was notated off the recording by another hand. 

I am sure that piano teachers would find the Four Sabras—relatively easy character studies for piano solo—very useful, should they be published and made available to the public. 

The first of these found its way into Candide, as “Candide’s Lament;” a few phrases from the fourth appeared in the score for On the Waterfront. All are catchy and appealing.

The foregoing gives some sense of the kind of music found on this disc. Other selections include three dances scored for two pianos, written for the wedding of Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman; the Yiddish song from Arias and Barcarolles, marvelously sung by Michael Sokol; and the setting of a Lebanese folk melody presented at a birthday celebration for Jennie Tourel. 

None of the music on this CD will have any significant impact on our understanding or assessment of Leonard Bernstein’s place in musical history. On the other hand, those whose interest in Bernstein’s music goes beyond the essential canon, and those with a special interest in Jewish folk music will surely find much here to enjoy. However, this latter group is likely to notice that—perhaps inadvertently—Hebrew and Yiddish texts are missing, though the English translations are included.

BARBER Vanessa

BARBER Vanessa • Gil Rose, cond; Ellen Chickering (Vanessa); Andrea Matthews (Erika); Ray Bauwens (Anatol) et al; National SO of Ukraine • NAXOS 8.669140-41 (2 CDs: 120:59)

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is one of the greatest American operas, and a masterpiece of the composer’s maturity. By this time (1957) Barber’s compositional language had evolved into an eloquent vehicle for reflecting the decadent implications of the romantic world-view. The opera offers a rich and sensuous blend of Puccinian romantic passion and Straussian luxuriance of orchestral texture, intensified by the greater tonal freedom and more dissonant harmony available to the 20th-century composer. Vanessa’s entire fabric is interwoven with a variety of motifs that plant elusive melodic threads in one’s mind, leaving one yearning to hear it again.

The opera’s only serious weakness is the ludicrous libretto written by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer’s longtime companion. The ultra-romantic story takes place “at Vanessa’s country house in a northern country, the year about 1905.” There she lives an isolated life with her niece Erika and her mother, the Old Baroness, who will not speak to her. As the opera opens, the once-beautiful Vanessa awaits the imminent arrival of her beloved Anatol, whom she has not seen in twenty years. However, the man who arrives presently is not her long-awaited love, but his son, also named Anatol. Both Vanessa and Erika are drawn to the charming but opportunistic stranger, who proceeds to seduce them both, impregnating Erika, while offering his hand in marriage to each of them in turn. Realizing the shallowness of his feelings, Erika rejects him and aborts the baby; Vanessa accepts his offer and departs with him for Paris, leaving Erika alone in the house with the Old Baroness, who now refuses to speak to her grand-daughter. 

Menotti carefully tailored his libretto to the composer’s tastes, making “inside” references to Barber’s special interests, from fine food and wine to the plays of Chekhov, and cited as inspiration for his story the literary works of Isak Dinesen, which Barber enjoyed. But there is a fatal incongruity between the shallow, foolish main characters and the glorious music through which they express their foolishness, making it difficult to empathize with them and their plights. In fact, two of the opera’s most haunting and deeply moving arias are those sung by Anatol in his respective attempts to win over each of the two women. Nevertheless, as has always been the case, the music wins out: Once one has snickered sufficiently at the absurdity of the libretto, one surrenders oneself to the music; by the time the justly acclaimed concluding canonic quintet comes to an end, one has become intoxicated enough to find ways to rationalize or at least accommodate the fatuity of the story.

Vanessa’s triumphant premiere by the Metropolitan Opera Company was hailed by critics and listeners, earning for the work the 1958 Pulitzer Prize in music. It was recorded the same year by the original cast, featuring Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Nicolai Gedda, and conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Richard Conrad, who plays the role of the Old Doctor on this new recording, wrote the program notes, and seems to have been its overall artistic director, exclaimed about the original recording, “It is difficult to believe that every note was not tailored to [Steber’s] soaring soprano.” That recording has been reissued on CD and is (to the best of my knowledge) currently in print. Beautifully sung and recorded, that performance still—nearly half a century later—sounds stupendous.

So what can one say about this new performance? Sopranos Ellen Chickering and Andrea Matthews and tenor Ray Bauwens are heard frequently in operas, concerts, and recitals in the New England area. Highly praised by local critics, they are, however, hardly household names on the international circuit. Initially relying on my memory of the earlier recording, I was about to damn the new entry with faint praise. Yet a direct comparison of both recordings reveals the new Naxos release to hold its own surprisingly well. The cast members, especially tenor Bauwens as Anatol, fulfill the requirements of their roles with convincing passion, supported by considerable artistry. And placing the 2002 National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine alongside the 1958 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra could easily inspire an entire study of the drastic rise in orchestral proficiency that has occurred throughout the world during recent decades—an elevation of standards that has profoundly altered—and continues to alter—the classical recording industry in ways that have yet to be fully grasped. The new recording itself, of course, boasts somewhat greater richness and immediacy, though my praise for the sound quality of the older recording is not exaggerated. The fact that the Naxos set is about 30% less expensive than the RCA original may tempt more skeptical, hesitant consumers to take the risk, while the publicity attending the new release may bring the opera to the attention of younger listeners not aware of its existence. For any of these reasons it serves a useful purpose and will leave few disappointed.

Program Notes: Psalm 130 By Vittorio Giannini

Program Notes

Psalm 130
By Vittorio Giannini

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was one of the many Italian-American composers who flourished during the 20th century, contributing to a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. However, the extent of Giannini’s contribution is little known today, his name and reputation kept alive chiefly by a few songs and a symphony for concert band that is a beloved staple of that repertoire. 

But during the first half of the 20th century Giannini played an important role as teacher as well as composer. He spent decades on the compositional faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. His students include John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri, among many others. Giannini’s creative work centers around more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, vocal, and chamber works. These works are notable for their warm immediacy of expression, their ingratiating lyricism, and their impeccable craftsmanship. Like many traditionalists, Giannini had no interest in being a trend-setter. His musical creed is perhaps best embodied by his statement that he was driven by “an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners.” 

Giannini was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family. His father was a successful operatic tenor, as well as the founder of both an opera company and a concert band; his mother had been a professional violinist. His three siblings were all musicians, the most celebrated of whom, his sister Dusolina, became one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos. Vittorio began taking music lessons from his mother when he was five; after four years he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, where he concentrated on both violin and composition. Returning to the United States, he continued his education at the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied composition with Rubin Goldmark.

During the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s, Giannini’s compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs, all in a highly romantic, even sentimental, vein. One of his earliest songs became his most famous, “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” written in 1927, and later championed by Leonard Warren, Mario Lanza, and, more recently, by Thomas Hampson. He had two major operatic successes in Europe during the 1930s, Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter, the latter with his sister Dusolina and Hans Hotter in the leading roles. Although the New York Times critic called it “a milestone in the history of American opera,” it has never been produced again. However, several years later CBS commissioned Giannini to compose two short operas for radio—Beauty and the Beast and Blennerhassett—both of which have been produced on stage a number of times. Giannini’s most enduring operatic success, however, is a buffa adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

During the early 1940s Giannini began to turn his attention to instrumental music. His compositions became clearer, more concise in design, and less inflated by romantic rhetorical extremes than his earlier works. Many of the pieces from the 1940s and 50s are light and diverting in character, and easier and more practical to perform. During the 1950s and early 60s he composed five symphonies, of which No. 3 (1958), scored for concert band, is the perennial favorite mentioned earlier.

Around 1960, another side of Giannini’s creative personality began to emerge, perhaps prompted by a serious heart attack that brought the realization that his life was likely to be cut short, followed by the dissolution of his second marriage. These late works are dark, even tragic in character, revealing an emotional depth and intensity hitherto unexplored by the composer. With a markedly attenuated sense of tonality and an increased level of harmonic dissonance, they reflect a considerable advance with regard to density of texture and concentration of activity, and represent the most profound and fully realized works of his career.

Among these compositions stands the Psalm 130, for double-bass and orchestra, composed in 1963 for double-bass virtuoso Gary Karr. Karr later recalled that the work was written “during the period when his young wife was divorcing him. He told me that he was so much in love with her that he found it impossible to sleep, so during those agonizing nights, he poured his heart out into this work.” An abstract, rhapsodic commentary on the Psalm (“Out of the depths my soul cries out …”), it presents the solo instrument as a tortured protagonist, crying out against the orchestral backdrop, somewhat similar in conception to Bloch’s Schelomo. The work is based largely on a motif-presented at the outset-that outlines a minor-seventh chord, and may have had some sort of coded autobiographical significance, as this same motif appears prominently in the Variations and Fugue composed for band the following year. Despite the improvisatory effect created by its rhapsodic structure, Psalm 130 falls roughly into three sections-the opening and closing, proclamatory, agitated, and anguished, while the central section is poignant and meditative. It is one of Giannini’s most personal, deeply moving, and fully realized utterances, and was first performed by Karr in August, 1963, at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Contributor, The New Grove
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)

PANUFNIK Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” Nocturne. Rhapsody

PANUFNIK Symphony No. 2, “Sinfonia Elegiaca.” Nocturne. Rhapsody • Robert Whitney, cond; Louisville O • FIRST EDITION FECD-0017 (51:40)

Aficionados of 20th-century music in the United States owe a considerable debt to Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra for their role in bringing to light otherwise unknown composers and their works. During its heyday from the early 1950s through the mid 1960s, when Whitney was serving as its music director, the orchestra was releasing six new recordings per year by subscription on its own label. True, the orchestra was no rock-solid virtuoso showcase, by any means; in fact, it typically sounded scrawny, soloists were often quite shaky, and ensemble was frequently ragged. But the music they recorded was rarely available in any other incarnation, and many of the works I discovered through those releases remain favorites to this day. And, somewhat to my surprise, as the years have passed, and other, more proficient orchestras have taken up some of the works first launched as part of the Louisville series, it has become apparent that many a celebrated conductor doesn’t have a clue as to how this music is meant to go. Returning to the Louisville originals often produces the realization that ol’ Whitney and his scrappy group had the right idea after all. (Examples of this would take us too far afield from the recording at hand, which does not especially prove the point. However, I would be happy to cite examples to anyone who wishes to write to me at www.Walter-Simmons.com.) Therefore, one is grateful to discover this new First Edition series, undertaken under the guidance of Matthew Walters, which is re-issuing some of these venerable Louisville recordings onto CD. 

Recently—perhaps in this issue—I wrote about Whitney’s discovery and advocacy of the music of Robert Kurka. Now the subject is the Polish-English composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), another distinguished figure championed almost exclusively at the time by Whitney—at least in the U.S. (Another Panufnik advocate was Leopold Stokowski, but he had yet to record any of the composer’s work.) As a subscriber to the Louisville series during the early 1960s, I received their new releases as a matter of course, and most often the composers were unfamiliar to me. I will never forget my first exposure to Panufnik’s music: It was back in 1962, and the work was the Sinfonia Elegiaca. From the first minute I knew I was hearing music of great importance and individuality; though it sounded like nothing else I had ever heard, I found it to be profoundly moving.

Well, more than forty years have passed, Panufnik gradually achieved worldwide recognition, and most of his major works were eventually recorded under his direction, or direct supervision, by some of the world’s great orchestras. On the other hand, many of us who were captivated by works like Sinfonia Elegiaca, the symphony that followed, Sinfonia Sacra, and others from that time, such as Autumn Music and some shorter pieces, were more than a little disappointed by the compositions from the late 1960s on, when the composer’s attraction to rigid structural schemas based on intervallic parsimony and geometric structural concepts seemed to have supplanted his humanitarian concerns and their expression through music. In the process, the remarkably individual musical language that made works like Sinfonia Elegiaca so instantly arresting-a language strongly characterized by dual inflections of both the 3rd and 7th scale steps, as well as by an emphasis on extreme registers and other subtleties of orchestration-seemed to give way to the aural outcome of his rigid constructs, which often seemed arbitrary and offered very little in the way of listener-gratification.

All of which leads me to the main point of this review: that for some reason, utterly incomprehensible to me, Sinfonia Elegiaca, which stands today as one of Panufnik’s most strikingly original and profoundly moving works, has never been recorded again. The composer did revise the work in 1966, but, of course, it is the earlier version captured on this Louisville release. Furthermore, despite a noble effort, the Louisville performance of the work is not one of its more stunning successes. The delicate sonorities and subtle harmonic details of this music, requiring the most impeccable intonation, did not exactly play into the orchestra’s strengths, so that one must concede that this performance leaves much of its expressive potential as yet unrealized.

There are two other Panufnik works offered here, in addition to Sinfonia Elegiaca.Nocturne was first composed in 1947, then revised in 1955. Louisville issued it in 1965. It is a fascinating work-a true “dreamscape,” as annotator Marco Shirodkar terms it, mysterious and more than a little frightening as the music seems to coalesce from virtually nothing and gradually takes shape ominously, building to a wildly terrifying climax. This work was re-recorded, and stunningly indeed, by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970, conducted by none other than Jascha Horenstein. That recording, which also included the remarkably original and exquisite Autumn Music, was available intermittently on the Unicorn label. It is another essential item in the Panufnik discography.

Rhapsody
 dates from 1956 and was the first work Panufnik composed after his daring escape to England. It was released by Louisville in 1966, and as far as I know, has not been re-recorded. The 16-minute composition is one of those that draw upon elements of Polish folk music, although Panufnik typically treats this material in such an idiosyncratic and personal way that few are likely to identify its source. The piece is unusual, and quite uneven in its impact: an opening section presents several modal ideas in barren, unaccompanied monophony, which seems something of a miscalculation. The second section seems most clearly based on Polish material, but its treatment is dismally banal and obvious. Then suddenly the final section appears, starkly recalling the material from the opening, but now in a noble polyphony that is pure Panufnik. The piece gradually fades away in hushed beauty.

In summary, Sinfonia Elegiaca is a must for all admirers of Panufnik, and while this performance does not do the work justice, in the absence of any other it is indispensable. And enthusiasts of the composer will no doubt be interested in the Rhapsody as well.