Alex SHAPIRO: NOTES FROM THE KELP . Slipping. Bioplasm. Current Events. For My Father. At the Abyss. Phos Hilaron. Music for Two Big Instruments. Deep

Alex SHAPIRO: NOTES FROM THE KELP • Robin Lorentz, Miwako Watanabe, Connie Kupka (vn); Victoria Miskolczy, David Walther (va); David Speltz (vc); Los Angeles Flute Quartet;7 Brice Martin8 (fl); Charles Boito9 (cl); Carolyn Beck (bn); Leslie Lashinsky (cbn); Alan Baer (tb); Susanne Kessel, Teresa McCollough, Frank Basile, Bradley Haag (pn); Kathleen McIntosh (hpd); Thomas Burritt (mmb, vibe); Dan Morris, Peggy Benkeser (perc) • INNOVA 683 (73:18)

Slipping. Bioplasm. Current Events. For My Father. At the Abyss. Phos Hilaron. Music for Two Big Instruments. Deep

Now in her late 40s, Alex Shapiro was born, raised, and educated in Manhattan, where her composition teachers included Ursula Mamlok and John Corigliano. At some point she moved to the West Coast, and now lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. All the works on this program feature small instrumental ensembles and were composed between 1996 and 2006, while she was living in Malibu, California. Throughout her program notes (beginning with the album title noted above) she makes abundantly clear that proximity to the ocean is of paramount importance to her, and many of the pieces in some way draw upon that affinity. This, and the overall “tone” of her notes prepared me for the prospect of more than an hour of environmentally-oriented sonic landscapes—the sort of thing generally associated with a “New Age” sensibility. Perusing the package, I expect that old-fashioned collector types, as well as hard-nosed academics, would be likely to sneer at its overall informality (“When she’s not at sea or exploring the tide pools, Alex procrastinates on her next piece by updating her website, …”; and in a note “From Alex: Composing is a lot like making love….”; somehow I can’t imagine that line in a program note by Charles Wuorinen, for example). On the other hand, I’m sure that Shapiro and her fans would defend her attitude as a healthy antidote to the stuffiness and pomposity of conventional classical music sociology—and they would have a good point. 

The fact is that the music on this CD embraces a fairly wide range of expression. One piece, Deep, an 8-minute piece for contrabassoon, percussion, and electronically generated sounds, is a sort of sonic landscape; extremely evocative, it would be ideal background music for a film documentary on the ocean depths. But other pieces that I expected might be along the same lines were not. 
For example, Bioplasm is a 12-minute piece for four flutists, who play a bunch of flutes—alto, bass, piccolo, in addition to the usual—and also vocalize. “Alex” writes, “I wanted to create an organism from the four flutists that oozes across the sonic floor as a unified entity, sometimes slowly, sometimes at a quick pace, but always as one, like a Slinky toy.” So I expected something evocative of a giant amoeba crawling across the ocean floor. Instead, Bioplasmproved to be an engaging substantive work, with a definite sense of musical “progress.”

Eventually I concluded that despite Shapiro’s titles and the concepts upon which she draws for inspiration, most of these pieces are reasonably absorbing and satisfying musical works, emanating from a roughly neo-classical stylistic frame of reference. For example, Current Events, perhaps the most ambitious and actively substantive piece, is a 16-minute string quintet in three movements. Despite the subjective and metaphorical nature of the composer’s comments (“Current Events ponders the ocean’s tides as well as waves of a more internal, emotional nature….”), the piece itself utilizes a highly chromatic but not harshly atonal language in a traditional manner that more than once calls to mind the string chamber works of Ernest Bloch (another devotee of the sea who resided on the shores of the Pacific). 

The other work of more extended proportions is At the Abyss, a 14-minute piece for piano, marimba, vibraphone, and other percussion. (“I titled this piece At the Abyss because as members of a species which remains too savage for its ultimate survival, we’re staring directly into a crevasse that is our future. We are poised to plummet to its depths if we do not react accordingly.”) Although I share Shapiro’s outlook, I can’t really say that any of it comes through in the music, which is never the right vehicle for such speculation. On the other hand, it is a fairly exciting piece in three movements, tinged with the influence of jazz. For the most part, the outer movements are rhythmically driving, with irregular meters, while the middle movement is slow, contemplative, and dark in mood. 

Of the other pieces, Slipping, for violin, harpsichord, and percussion, intends to give the harpsichord an array of musical styles as dissimilar to its customary repertoire as possible. The 10-minute piece is a playful potpourri of everything from tango to Japanese to Dixieland to rock to country. Somewhat similarly, Music for Two Big Instruments is a 7-minute piece for tuba and piano that sets out not to indulge in the sort of caricature customarily assigned to the lowest member of the brass family. The result is a straightforward piece of good music that builds to quite a serious climax.

For My Father is a short piano piece inspired by the composer’s experience of watching her father descend into dementia—a most painful experience to which her piece doesn’t really do justice.
The large array of musicians brought together on this recording seems drawn from among the West Coast’s top freelance musicians. The performances are almost all extremely fine. My only complaint is that the reading of At the Abyss seemed unduly restrained, with regard to both tempo and dynamics.

In summary, an intriguing and varied program representing a composer with a sincere interest in musical expression.

“AMERICAN MUSE: The Life and Times of William Schuman” By Joseph W. Polisi

Book Review

AMERICAN MUSE: The Life and Times of William Schuman. By Joseph W. Polisi. New York: Amadeus Press, 2008. xvii + 595pp, inc. 127pp. musical examples. 8 b/w plates. Hardcover. $32.95

This past weekend I attended a dinner-party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The guests comprised some ten senior citizens, all of whom are highly cultured and remain actively involved in the arts, though not classical music especially. Nevertheless, pre-occupied with the subject at hand, I decided to ask the group how many of them could identify William Schuman. Not a single one could. Once I announced that he was a composer, and had been the president of Lincoln Center during the 1960s, one or two indicated some vague recognition of the name. I thought that this was fairly remarkable, in view of the fact that in 1992, the year of Schuman’s death, Edward Rothstein had characterized him in the New York Times as “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century” and “at one time … probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music.” Furthermore, my own recollection is that during the 1960s he was generally regarded as one of America’s two or three foremost symphonic composers, and I suspect that many enthusiasts of the American symphonic repertoire of the 20th century still feel that way today.

Schuman belonged to a group of composers that might be termed “modern traditionalists,” i.e., composers who renounced the opulent emotionalism and clear tonal adherence of the “neo-romantics,” refrained from dipping into the overtly American vernacular elements that attracted the “nationalist-populists,” and avoided the spare textures and restrained expression of the “neo-classicists,” while shunning the strictures of 12-tone serialism and other experimental approaches that came to command critical attention during the 1950s and 60s. The modern traditionalists embraced familiar genres, such as the symphony, concerto, sonata, etc., and standard techniques like counterpoint, motivic development, and thematic transformation, while using the gradient of tonality as an expressive device, rather than as an organizing principle. The modern traditionalists comprise a large group of composers, a group that is in many ways epitomized by William Schuman. The stranglehold that serialism exerted on public discourse within the music profession loosened considerably during the late 1970s and 1980s, to be replaced by minimalism, along with a variety of eclectic approaches. A more open, tolerant atmosphere prevailed, and with it a revival of interest in the long-disparaged neo-romantics. However, the modern traditionalists have continued to remain in the background, their more challenging, sometimes abrasive language not as immediately appealing to casual listeners. Their names may still be familiar to some, while their creative identities have grown dimmer and dimmer.

Perhaps in anticipation of his centennial in 2010, there has been a sudden flurry of interest in Schuman, heralded by the appearance of Polisi’s book, to be followed by several others currently in progress (including one of my own, I should disclose, although mine is not limited to Schuman alone). Of course the broad outlines of Schuman’s career have been long familiar, even legendary: Born in New York City, this all-American boy spent his childhood consumed with baseball, later forming a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with lyrics by his friend Frank Loesser. Classical music meant nothing to him until, at the age of 20, he was dragged reluctantly by his sister to a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini, when the sound and appearance of the symphony orchestra precipitated a conversion experience: The next day he dropped out of business school, walked into the first music school he could find, and announced to the receptionist that he wanted to become a composer—what should he do? Amazingly, nine years later his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. At the age of 35 he became president of the Juilliard School, revamping the entire faculty and curriculum, and 17 years later became president of the brand-new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all “performing arts centers” to follow. By the time he died in 1992, he had completed ten symphonies, a couple of operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which had been performed and recorded by the world’s leading soloists, conductors, and ensembles. But, of course, there is much more to the story than that.

I approached Joseph Polisi’s book with great interest, as he, as the current president of the Juilliard School, clearly has access to the widest array of documents and reminiscences. However, I expected the result to be biased and hagiographic, as I was aware that Polisi has personal ties to the Schuman family. I had also heard a number of stories documenting Schuman’s attempt to control what was said and written about him. In fact, in her book Juilliard: A History, Andrea Olmstead asserted that after Juilliard president Peter Mennin’s sudden and premature death in 1983, Schuman had advocated Polisi for the position, “because Schuman knew he could control Polisi.” It appeared that such control was continuing posthumously when Polisi began the “Acknowledgments” section of his book with an account in which Schuman’s widow stated that she wanted the story of her husband’s life to be told “only in his own words…. [She] emphatically stated that she did not want a musicological study that would analyze her husband’s life through a revisionist or psychological lens, …” Therefore I am both pleased and relieved to state that not only is American Muse a fascinating and enormously informative study, but also that it presents a remarkably balanced picture of the man. Of course it presents Schuman in a favorable light: As the first comprehensive study of the man, how could it be otherwise? (Hatchet-jobs usually come later.) But as a man of professional stature, grand vision, supreme self-confidence, and boundless energy, Schuman did not look favorably upon anyone or anything that stood in his way, and he was both clever and charming enough to manipulate most situations in such a way as to achieve the outcomes he desired. (Phillip Ramey recounted to me an incident he witnessed personally in which Schuman, upon learning that a pianist he knew was scheduled to perform the concerto of another composer with one of America’s leading orchestras, simply phoned the orchestra manager and insisted that his own concerto be played instead. Not only did he get his way, but the composer whose music had been elbowed out never learned what had happened, and continued to regard Schuman as a “good friend.”)

The fact is that a good deal of the book is told in Schuman’s own words, as he had provided several “oral histories” during the latter part of his life, and, although such recollections inevitably present the perspective of the subject, one can “read between the lines” and glean a good deal more. Although the primary focus of the book is biographical, Polisi presents Schuman’s creative work as a parallel track, stopping every few chapters to “catch up” with his compositional output during the years just discussed, including the basics, such as source of commission, first performance (when, where, by whom), and a general description of the approach and content of the work in question. Then, following the body of the book, an appendix of some 150 pages is devoted to more elaborate analyses of ten works, in which Polisi was assisted by one of Juilliard’s music theorists. Though accompanied by copious musical examples, these analyses are intended to be self-sufficient even for those who do not read music. They are largely effective as fairly in-depth program notes, although references to measure-numbers may be distracting and disheartening to those less trained listeners. The selection of ten compositions encompasses Schuman’s entire career, and embraces most of the genres in which he worked, although other commentators might choose differently. Polisi’s writing is clear and fluent, so that the narrative is consistently compelling, even when delving into the complexities of budgetary issues and inter- and intra-institutional conflicts among boards of directors. The author does not avoid potentially sensitive areas, such as Schuman’s ambivalent relationship with Judaism, his hostility toward Peter Mennin (his successor at Juilliard), his relationships with his children, and the rigidity and arrogance that inflamed his conflicts with the Lincoln Center board of directors—especially, John D. Rockefeller III. 

However, what I miss from this study are summaries and conclusions: Putting together the various contradictory elements of Schuman’s personality, what is the central character that emerges; i.e., how are these elements integrated? Polisi does make some general evaluations of some individual compositions, but what about Schuman’s overall stature as a composer? What are the central strengths of his output? What are the chief weaknesses? How is he viewed today, and how apt is this perspective? Aside from the absence of such summary points, American Muse paints a fascinating and vividly detailed portrait of one of this country’s most important musical figures, placing it within the rich context of American musical life during the middle third of the 20th century.

PASATIERI: Before Breakfast. Lady Macbeth

PASATIERIBefore BreakfastLady Macbeth • Lauren Flanigan (sop); Joseph Illick, cond; (pn); Voices of Change Chamber Ens • ALBANY TROY 1083 (54:00)

Recent releases suggest that Albany Records has embarked on a project to release the operas of Thomas Pasatieri, not that this goal has been stated explicitly, as far as I am aware. Two years ago they released Frau Margot, his 18th opera, written after a hiatus from the medium that had lasted two decades. That release was reviewed favorably by Colin Clarke and by me in Fanfare31:3. Last year they issued the composer’s next opera, the uncharacteristically Menottian Hotel Casablanca, an entertaining bit of fluff, billed as Pasatieri’s “first full-length comedy” (although it is only about an hour and a quarter in duration). The excellently performed and remarkably well-recorded release of this opera (one can actually follow the text by listening), based on a farce by Feydeau, was praised highly by Henry Fogel in Fanfare 31:6 (and by all the other critics whose comments on the work I’ve encountered). La DivinaThe Seagull, and Signor Deluso have also been released by Albany during the past decade. My own favorites, Black Widow and Washington Square, have yet to appear, and I’m holding my breath.

Pasatieri, now in his early 60s, is arguably the foremost living exponent of the genre that has been called “American Verismo,” or, perhaps less kindly, “the Arthur Avenue school of composition” (an appellation that may be meaningful only to New Yorkers). In any case, it is an unjustly disparaged genre that seems only now to be finding a respectful, receptive, and comprehending audience. 

This review addresses the latest release, which was also discussed by Ronald Grames in Fanfare32:5. Pasatieri’s 15th opera, Before Breakfast was originally composed in 1977 for Beverly Sills, who ultimately retired before she had the opportunity to perform it. However, subsequently, as the director of the New York City Opera, she presented it as part of a triple bill with two very different operas by very different composers. Having been present at the 1980 premiere, which featured soprano Marilyn Zschau, I can report that it made a rather poor impression, for reasons I no longer recall, although this seemed to be the general audience reaction. However, in 2003 the composer re-orchestrated the work and revised it for Lauren Flanigan, who is not only one of Pasatieri’s current leading exponents, but a brilliant soprano who has concentrated much of her efforts on recent, lesser-known operas. The libretto was written by Frank Corsaro, who based it on one of Eugene O’Neill’s earliest (1916) plays—little more than a sketch, really. While she is preparing breakfast for her presumably lazy, good-for-nothing husband (who is offstage and silent throughout), his embittered wife carries on about him and his shortcomings, as well as her own regrets and disillusionment. At the end she discovers that he has killed himself during her monologue. As my colleague pointed out in his review, it is really the music that breathes life into this rather trite conceit. The 35-minute score is based on an exquisitely haunting little waltz that is not heard in its entirety until almost halfway into the work, when it is played on the phonograph within the dramatic context. Having worked its way into the opera’s entire musical texture, virtually from the first note, it creates a sense of unity and pathos that elevates the work beyond its source. (This waltz is too lovely to remain merely a component of the opera, and should be published independently as a little piano piece. It would be irresistible as an encore.) 

Lady Macbeth, composed in 2008, is the most recent of three monologous character studies that Pasatieri has based on Shakespearean heroines. This work was also written for Lauren Flanigan, who gave the premiere in Dallas later that same year. I did not find this work to be quite as satisfying as did Grames. Despite the far removed time and place, Pasatieri does not alter his musical language one iota from its neo-romantic norm, which is fine, and quite customary in adaptations of Shakespeare. But I’m not sure that the expressive character of the music quite fits the emotional and dramatic content of the text. The work is certainly a tour-de-force for the soprano, and even Flanigan shows some strain. Perhaps the piece would gain in stature if orchestrated. Joseph Illick, conductor of the Fort Worth Opera (which introduced Frau Margot) and the new music ensemble Voices of Change, fulfills his role as pianist adequately.

NELHYBEL: Sinfonia Resurrectionis. Symphonic Movement. Two Symphonic Movements. Antiphonale. Appassionato. Corsican Litany

NELHYBELSinfonia ResurrectionisSymphonic Movement. Two Symphonic MovementsAntiphonaleAppassionatoCorsican Litany • Frederick Fennell, cond; Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra • KOSEI KOCD-3577 (65:40)

Vaclav Nelhybel, born in Prague in 1919, was already active as a professional composer when he came to the United States in 1957. He died in 1996 while serving as composer-in-residence at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. His music shares much in common with other Czech composers of his generation: that is, an elemental, almost brutally forceful aggressiveness, often highly dissonant, yet obstinately tonal, frequently focusing on notes 7-1-2-3 of the Aeolian mode. Other composers who exhibit these qualities to one extent or another include Miloslav Kabelác, Lubos Fiser, Zdenek Lukáš, Jirí Jaroch, and even Karel Husa at times. 

The mention of Husa raises an interesting point: Husa and Nelhybel were near contemporaries; both were born in Prague and came to the United States during the 1950s. But while Husa spent time in the music capitals of Western Europe, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and Arthur Honegger, and associated himself with the centers of “advanced” composition before immigrating to this country, Nelhybel maintained a lower profile. Husa was immediately invited to join the music faculty at Cornell. Having composed for most of the standard media, he began to turn his attention to the symphonic band and wind ensemble—aggregations that were especially receptive to new music. In 1969 he composed his first major work for band, Music for Prague 1968, in recognition of the failed rebellion against the Communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia. That powerful work was performed literally thousands of times during the years that followed, while Husa, winning award after award, became one of the most highly regarded composers in America during the 1970s. Although he didn’t neglect other media, his list of works includes about a dozen for wind ensembles of various kinds.

Nelhybel, on the other hand, is barely known to the larger classical music audience. Upon arriving in America, he too discovered the voracious appetite of wind ensembles for new music, and began to focus his compositional efforts in that direction. His works were rapidly embraced by bands throughout the country and soon entered the active repertoire. (One of the most popular, Trittico, can be heard in a stunning performance featuring the Dallas Wind Symphony, conducted by Frederick Fennell, on Reference Recordings 52CD.) But Nelhybel was somewhat less sophisticated than Husa, and somewhat less adventurous stylistically; his reputation never really extended beyond this subculture, although his is virtually a household name among those who participated in high school or college bands during the 1970s and 80s. I am not about to argue that this is one of the great injustices of music history, nor am I asserting that Nelhybel is as significant a figure as Husa. But not only did Nelhybel’s reputation remain confined to the band subculture, he suffered the ignominy of being dismissed as something of a hack—a purveyor of mediocre utilitarian fodder for “the educational music market.” And this I believe is a grave injustice. Nelhybel’s music has an individual style and personality, is stunningly and expertly scored for the media he chose, is gratifying to those who perform it, and flamboyantly exciting to listeners. In Nelhybel’s hands, the contemporary Czech style takes on a sort of neo-Medieval quality, with his emphasis on modal themes, chorale settings, and a forceful, insistent rhythmic drive, along with a generous use of percussion. 

The program here includes some of Nelhybel’s best known shorter pieces, along with one work of somewhat grander aspiration, the 22-minute Sinfonia Resurrectionis. In his program notes, Frederick Fennell states that the composer left no information about this work, aside from the fact that it was composed in 1980 for Arnald Gabriel and the U.S. Air Force Band, one of America’s most distinguished service bands. It resembles Nelhybel’s shorter works, but pushes the limits of his customary approach, diffusing the familiar chorale-like material through a distorting lens, with cluster harmony, polytonality, and other starkly contrasting devices, in addition to some extended woodwind solos. The work is extravagantly scored, but I’m not sure that its episodic structure coheres as a fully satisfying entity. 

The shorter pieces share in common the general approach described toward the beginning of this review, although each has some distinctive features. Included is one of Nelhybel’s most popular pieces, Symphonic Movement of 1965. As its title implies, this is a straightforward work in which an eight-note theme is stated, and then subjected to an energetic, colorfully scored, but structurally free development. The harmony is largely consonant or mildly dissonant. In 1969 Nelhybel composed Two Symphonic Movements. Not surprisingly, this pair of pieces—the first longer and generally slow in tempo, the second shorter and generally fast in tempo—is conceived along much the same lines, i.e., straightforward development of a motif. In this case both pieces are based on the same thematic idea. The opening of the first piece seems to suggest the sound of gamelan music; this material returns at the end of the piece, and then at the end of the second piece, further linking the two together.

Antiphonale is scored for brass sextet and band, somewhat along the lines of a concerto grosso.Like the Sinfonia, this piece from 1971 adds cluster harmony and other more novel techniques and gestures to the consonant, polyphonic chorales that form the basis of much of this composer’s music. But whatever material he adopts, Nelhybel always shapes a convincing dramatic trajectory, abstract though it may be.

Appassionato (1966) is an especially lovely piece with a particular emphasis on woodwinds. Although “passionate” music is generally associated with the string section, here the passion is conveyed, rather than by means of intense vibrato, through the ebb and flow of gentle dissonances rooted in polyphonic voice-leading. 

Corsican Litany (1976) is a little less interesting than the other pieces. Inspired by the Corsican practice of using professional mourners at funerals, it focuses on chant-like melodies.
The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra was founded in 1960 by a Japanese Buddhist organization. Highly selective, it developed into an ensemble of impeccable precision. In 1984 the group invited Frederick Fennell (1914-2004), probably the world’s most celebrated and admired conductor of wind ensembles, to serve as its music director, and he held this position until 1996. Under his leadership the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra developed into one of the world’s leading wind ensembles. This reputation is readily confirmed by the stunning performances heard on this recording. In view of the quality of both the program and the performances, this CD is confidently recommended as the most favorable recorded representation of the music of Nelhybel available, enabling the broader listening public to discover and evaluate for themselves the distinctive qualities of his work. This compact disc may be obtained from the Florida Music Service in Lakeland, Florida (www.floridamusic.com).

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes. JANÁCEK: Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” Three Fugues MARTINU: Piano Sonata

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes JANÁCEK: Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” Three Fugues MARTINU: Piano Sonata • Ivo Kahánek (pn) • SUPRAPHON SU 3945-2 (68:37)

This is a most intriguing survey of Czech piano music of the 20th century, presented by the exciting young pianist Ivo Kahánek. To begin with, any new recording of music by Miloslav Kabelác is noteworthy. Kabelác (1908-1979) was the most important Czech composer of his generation—roughly contemporaneous with such figures as Shostakovich, Panufnik, and Lutoslawski—but his music remains little known outside his native country (and not that well known within it, I gather). A generous portion has been recorded over the years, but most of those recordings are no longer available. This is most unfortunate, because Kabelác was an immensely fascinating composer, who used a simple musical language to express extremely complex affective states, and who embraced tight structural controls in producing powerfully emotional music. Perhaps what is most worthy of note is that the expressive content of his music is unique—unlike that of any other composer, although a passage here and there may suggest Shostakovich, while a concern with extreme motivic economy may call Panufnik to mind. 

My own personal favorite among Kabelác’s works—and the one that seems to have attracted the most attention internationally—is an extended orchestral passacaglia, entitled The Mystery of Time. But the Eight Preludes for piano date from the same period (mid 1950s) and are probably his most fully realized music for the keyboard, offering a fairly representative sample of his compositional concerns. Kabelác’s musical language during this period was largely consonant and emphatically modal, with very simple textures and repetitive patterns. Each Prelude creates the impression of an improvisation oriented around a particular compositional device or pattern figuration, and is identified by an Italian adjective, e.g., ostinato, meditativo, sognante, etc. Much attention is focused on the open fifth and the triad—its polarization between minor and major, and its tonal transformation through the alteration of individual pitches, one at a time, while others are held constant. Rhythmic asymmetries are produced through subtly shifting accents within simple patterns. Some of these devices produce an effect that might be termed “proto-minimalist.” Others suggest non-Western musical languages and/or instruments. Despite the composer’s deliberately limited means, the Preludes embrace a wide and compelling array of unusual moods and attitudes, as well as a variety of keyboard usages. My own favorite—and the one I would present as a means of introducing the composer’s work—is No. 4, “Preludio Corale,” a piece that evokes a sense of sinister foreboding that must be heard to be grasped. Some are solemn, others are ethereal; but what is rarely found in Kabelác’s music is humor—his music is dead serious. 

Interestingly, this is not the first recording of Kabelác’s Eight Preludes. A CD devoted to a complete traversal of the composer’s piano music appeared about ten years ago (Panton 81 9012-2 131; see Fanfare 25:1), featuring the Czech pianist Daniel Wiesner; both recordings, incidentally, were produced under the direction of Milan Slavický. Although the older disc is now so obscure as to render any comparison between the two performances largely pointless, I will nevertheless note that Wiesner’s approach is somewhat drier and more literal, while Kahánek is freer, more “pianistic,” and more dynamic, showing greater attention to sonority. As fine as this new recording may be, any listener with an interest in Kabelác who encounters Wiesner’s recording is advised to grab it, as none of the other pieces on that recording are available elsewhere. I look forward to the day when Kabelác’s music begins to win recognition beyond the Czech Republic.

Less obscure than Kabelác’s Preludes, but not exactly a repertoire favorite, is Bohuslav Martinu’s late (1954) Piano Sonata. A highly rhapsodic work in three movements, these do not exhibit the customary contrasts in tempo and mood, nor is there much differentiation among them, although the central movement is longer than the others, and somewhat more probing. The overall character of the work is warmly luxuriant, almost bucolic, with figurations and harmonic voicings that are often surprisingly Brahmsian. Like a number of Martinu’s later works, the music is characterized by shifting shapes and patterns, and rhythmic irregularities within a consistent texture, with a spontaneity suggestive of a fantasia. It is less driven and more gemütlich than much of the composer’s music, while the textures are generally dense and busy. In comments quoted in the program notes, the pianist states that the challenge in performing Martinu is to accomplish “the sharpest possible projection of the work’s outlines” without sacrificing its spontaneity, so that it become more than “just a tangle of notes.” Kahánek manages to accomplish this pretty well.

Probably the best-known work on this new release is Janácek’s Sonata 1.X.1905, “From the Street,” supposedly inspired by an incident during which a political demonstrator was slaughtered by a soldier. The sonata was originally conceived in three movements, but the composer was dissatisfied with the finale, and discarded it, leaving only the other two, entitled respectively, “Presentiment” and “Death.” The work opens with a motif typical of the composer—distinctive and when once heard can never be forgotten. The movement develops this motif throughout, in the process creating an expression of great emotional and psychological complexity. The second movement does not exhibit the dirge-like quality one might associate with its title (that was the movement that was discarded). But in its strange, moody way supplies the needed balance to its predecessor.

As a special bonus, Kahánek includes on his program three little-known fugues by Janácek, written while he was in his mid 20s. In G minor, A minor, and A major respectively, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the composer’s treatment of this relatively precise mode of composition. The first is the most interesting, because its subject is a melody recognizably characteristic of the composer. The subject of the second includes a rapidly descending scale pattern, a quirk that becomes the chief focus of the piece. The third is the longest but least interesting, as its subject is abstract and devoid of character, and its development rather mechanical.

As indicated by the plentiful photos in the program booklet, Kahánek is quite young and rather Mephistophelian in appearance—unusual for a blonde. He seems deeply dedicated to the Czech piano repertoire and his performances on this recording illustrate his vital commitment to this music. I look forward to further samples of his artistry. 

HOVHANESS Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken.” Meditation on Zeami. Floating World. Ode to the Temple of Sound

HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken.” Meditation on Zeami. Floating World. Ode to the Temple of Sound • Chung Park, cond; Frost SO • CENTAUR CRC-2954 (58:00)

Here is a new release of music by Alan Hovhaness that will be largely unfamiliar to most listeners. The only one of these pieces that has been previously recorded is Floating World, written in 1964 for André Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic, who gave the premiere shortly thereafter, and then recorded it for Columbia Masterworks (MS-7162). However, Kostelanetz seemed to think that his devotion to Hovhaness’s music entitled him to modify it at will, in this case tightening it up a bit by shaving almost a minute off its duration. Therefore, the performance offered here is billed as the “First Complete Recording,” although given the “loose” nature of the composer’s approach to form, the impact of the cut is negligible; and Kostelanetz’s was otherwise a fine recorded performance.

The program assembled here highlights the years 1963-1966. Hovhaness had just spent time in India, Japan, and Korea, studying the indigenous music of those countries. What he discovered left a major impact on his own compositions during those years and shortly afterward, adding a number of new devices to his compositional palette. Interestingly, the timing of his incorporation of these new devices corresponded to some of the modernist trends then drawing the attention of critics and commentators. During those years Hovhaness turned away to some extent from the modal counterpoint, triadic harmony, and specifically Armenian sources of inspiration that had characterized so much of his music up to that point. Instead one heard much secondal (cluster) dissonance, stentorian unison melodies accompanied by clanging bells, dissonant canons at the unison, portamento (sliding tones) in the trombone and other instruments as well as the strings. There was also a greatly increased use of quasi-aleatoric senza misura passages (controlled chaos), in which each instrument repeats its own, somewhat different material without specific rhythm or tempo, the duration and dynamics of these passages suggested in the score, but controlled by the conductor. (Hovhaness had actually devised this technique during the mid 1940s, but it became one of his primary devices during the 1960s. Some works, such as the Symphony No. 19, “Vishnu” [1966], consist of virtually nothing but such passages.) Many of these techniques grew out of the composer’s fascination with the music of Japanese Gagaku and Noh drama, as well as from attempts to replicate the sounds of some Japanese instruments. The pieces from this period represent Hovhaness’s most “modern”-sounding music, as well as the music whose impact is most purely “sonic.”

Symphony No. 10, “Vahaken” (named for an ancient Armenian god) is an exception to the generalizations above. It was largely composed in 1944, although revised in 1963; hence its connection with the rest of the program. I must confess that it is not one of my favorite Hovhaness symphonies, although this is largely due to my subjective distaste for the Ionian mode (otherwise known as the major scale), which pervades the outer movements of the work. The symphony shares much in common with the composer’s other works from the 1940s; the 1963 revisions are not obvious. Its style reveals many usages associated with the explicitly Armenian pieces, although annotator Marco Shirodkar (Hovhaness authority and curator of the excellent Web site www.hovhaness.com) identifies the music of India as the dominant source of inspiration. Much of the first movement is pervaded by simple melodies accompanied by drum and polymodal counterpoint played pizzicato by the strings. The brief second movement is most uncharacteristic: a delicate minuet that almost recalls Ravel, highlighted by flute, accompanied by string pizzicati (very similar to the second movement of the Concerto No. 8 [1957] for orchestra—one of the composer’s masterpieces). The third movement is similar in concept and content to the first, whose material returns at the conclusion of the work.

Meditation on Zeami
 was composed in 1963 for Leopold Stokowski (another Hovhaness champion), who conducted the American Symphony Orchestra in the work’s premiere (which I attended some 45 years ago). (The notoriously provocative Stokowski was surprisingly timid about employing some of Hovhaness’s more unusual techniques, such as the portamenti, and tended to “downplay” them.) Zeami was one of the pioneers of Noh drama during the 14th-15th centuries, so in this 15-minute work the composer gave full rein to the Japanese-inspired techniques described above.

Floating World
 was composed the following year and, based on a Japanese epic and related concepts, its content and treatment are very similar to those found in both other works composed at this time. However, I find Floating World to be the most convincing and effective of all Hovhaness’s pieces from the period discussed here. This is partly because its primary melody (which the composer believed to have healing properties) is unusual and boldly striking, but also because it reveals a sense of powerful and concentrated dramatic focus, with something approaching a true “climax”—quite unusual for this composer, while capturing the sense of wild abandon for which he often strove less successfully.

Ode to the Temple of Sound
 was commissioned for the inauguration of Jones Hall in Houston in 1966. Sir John Barbirolli led the Houston Symphony in the premiere. Of all the pieces on this program, this is the one in which the element of instrumental color and sonority is most dominant—understandable in light of the circumstances of the commission. The treatment of the orchestra is lavish, with an emphasis on dynamic extremes that range from passages of ethereal delicacy to explosive outbursts. A central dance-like melody is a little heavy-handedly pentatonic, and is treated with primitivistic polymodal counterpoint.

These are generally very good performances. The Frost Symphony Orchestra is in residence at the University of Miami, while conductor Chung Park (presumably Korean), who also served as the producer of the recording, is based in Idaho, although the disc was recorded in Florida. Despite the frequent association of Hovhaness with the “New Age” sensibility, and with mystical evocations of spiritual serenity, there was also an angry, violent side to this composer, and he often complained that performances failed to capture this aspect of his expression; he was also frustrated that conductors—like Stokowski, as noted above—lessened the impact of some of his more original devices. Though adequate to the challenges of the music, the Frost Symphony does not meet the highest standards with regard to precision or refinement. But what is most valuable about all the performances on this recording is that they really go all out in emphasizing the music’s extremes—dynamic contrasts, both delicacy and power of sonority—as well as the other unusual devices. During the days of LPs, where much of Hovhaness’s music first appeared, these extremes had to be compressed to avoid distortion or to be audible above surface noise. But today, with the advances in digital recording technology, this music is freed to achieve optimal sonic impact.

HAILSTORK: Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3

HAILSTORK Symphonies: Nos. 2, 3 • David Lockington, cond; Grand Rapids SO • NAXOS 8.559295 (77:32)

This recent release of two hefty symphonies from Naxos American Classics represents my introduction to the music of Adolphus Hailstork. Now in his late 60s, Hailstork was born in Rochester, NY, and was educated at the Manhattan School of Music and Michigan State University. He is currently a professor at Old Dominian University, in Norfolk, Virginia, and has received many distinguished awards and commissions. 

The two symphonies offered here provide a pretty illuminating impression of what Hailstork’s music is about, as they are both mature works and share much in common, although the composer’s program notes make an effort to distinguish them. (Speaking of program notes, I must say that I find it annoying when the accompanying material fails to include the dates of composition of the works on the program. As for these two symphonies, the best I can tell you is that No. 2 was composed during the late 1990s, and No. 3 sometime after that.) Despite the recency of their composition, the musical language and “feel” of these two works is quite traditional, harking back to the music of the Boulanger-trained composers who contributed so much to the American symphonic mainstream of the 1950s. (Although it shouldn’t need to be said, the foregoing statement is a description, not a criticism.) More specifically, they suggest something of a fusion of the chromatic, dissonant, but not atonal styles of David Diamond and Walter Piston—not surprising because both of the latter studied with Boulanger, and Hailstork himself studied with Diamond and Boulanger (not that composers are necessarily genetic clones of their teachers). What does distinguish these two works from typical neo-romantic Americana of the 1950s is their more active use of percussion (almost always an indication of post-1985 composition), and their use of certain African-American melodic and harmonic inflections, as well as infectious rhythmic devices that suggest a similar source. (Of course, one might note that Piston et al. were also pretty inventive in their treatment of this element as well.)

I found both symphonies to be approximately equally satisfying—enjoyable enough to warrant deeper acquaintance, with slow movements of considerable beauty and emotional conviction, while the faster movements are pleasingly exuberant. To my ears they are more graceful than Diamond, but less concise than Piston. In fact, my chief criticism of both works is that as rather lengthy, four-movement affairs, each approximately 40 minutes long, neither has the expressive weight to justify or sustain such an expanse of time. The result is that the outer movements of both works—though entertaining enough—are quite episodic, and seem as though they might easily have been shortened, without much sacrifice of their overall impact. The slow movements, moving as they are, might have benefited from some pruning as well. 

The Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by and introduced by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The composer indicates that the slow movement was written in response to a visit to Ghana, where he witnessed dungeons in which slaves had been housed before being shipped overseas. It is quite affecting, as noted above. I must say that the show-stopper of the work—of the entire CD, in fact—(I could actually imagine a performance being interrupted for an immediate encore)—is the Scherzo of No. 2. At five minutes, it is simply sensational, and too exciting to be so short. The finale also has much brilliant music, and concludes triumphantly. 

At this point I prefer No. 2 slightly to No. 3, but the performance of No. 3 (commissioned and introduced by the orchestra and conductor represented here) seems somewhat stronger than that of No. 2. I think that No. 2 would benefit tremendously from a tighter, more incisive, and more full-throated reading; there is a tentative quality here that seems to sap its energy and constrain the work’s full impact. 

The Symphony No. 3 adds a touch of Reichian minimalism to the American symphonic mix (and if that sounds too unlikely to you, I urge you to listen and hear for yourself). Of course, what I am likening to Reich may be the influence of African drumming, which, after all, was a major factor on that composer’s development. All in all, this, like its predecessor, is a very enjoyable work, though it lacks a sense of creative urgency that might enable it to make a stronger impact or justify its length.

CORIGLIANO: A Dylan Thomas Trilogy; Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Three Hallucinations; Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus.” Gazebo Dances (3 CD’s)

CORIGLIANO A Dylan Thomas Trilogy • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Nashville SO and Ch • NAXOS 8.559394 (66:48)

CORIGLIANO Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Three Hallucinations • JoAnn Falletta, cond; Buffalo Philharmonic • NAXOS 8.559331 (52:21)

CORIGLIANO Symphony No. 3, “Circus Maximus.” Gazebo Dances • Jerry Junkin, cond; University of Texas Wind Ensemble • NAXOS 8.559601 (52:54)

One of the most widely praised and highly regarded American composers of his generation, John Corigliano, now in his early 70s, is currently enjoying significant attention from Naxos’s American Classics series. The three recent releases discussed here represent a broad survey of his work, drawn from all periods of his composing career. Corigliano’s early pieces reveal a strong affinity with the sensitive, nostalgic music of Samuel Barber. However, as he was approaching the age of 40, he transformed his creative identity, embracing the general approach known for a time as the “New Romanticism”—a style associated during the 1970s with the music of Jacob Druckman and others who were struggling to free themselves from the aesthetic straitjacket of serialism, but without regressing to traditional tonality. The proponents of this style attempted to impress listeners in more spontaneously visceral or emotional ways than serial music typically did, by creating richly orchestrated aural canvases, highlighted by strongly characterized gestures and striking juxtapositions, at times incorporating quotations of earlier music within the context of such soundscapes. However, Corigliano came to this approach from the opposite direction, producing compositions whose vivid flamboyance and unrestrained eclecticism greatly appealed to listeners who were favorably inclined toward the innovative, but nevertheless sought some measure of immediate sensual gratification. By the 1980s he had settled into a broadly based and highly flexible approach of his own that rejected nothing on principle, while tailoring each composition according to its own specific requirements. Perhaps what is most characteristic of the mature Corigliano is his attraction to novel, provocative conceits that generate interest in and of themselves; this he shares in common with, for example, Dominick Argento. In fact, the program notes to one of these releases states, “For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material.” Long series of numbered sonatas or string quartets are antithetical to his nature. The results of his approach have proven to be spectacularly successful: Corigliano has won the Pulitzer Prize and the esteemed Grawemeyer Award—perhaps the two most prestigious awards available to the serious composer; his opera The Ghosts of Versailleswas commissioned and produced by the Metropolitan Opera, and subsequently elsewhere as well; of two filmscores, the first (Altered States) was nominated for an Academy Award, while the second (The Red Violin) actually won the award. And he has drawn praise—even if begrudgingly at times—from listeners and commentators representing all points on the compositional spectrum.

The most important of the works discussed here may indeed prove to be Corigliano’s magnum opusA Dylan Thomas Trilogy. This composition, completed in 1999, was nearly four decades—and several stages—in the making. If I have had a complaint about Corigliano’s work over the years, it is that he seems to focus more on elements that will make an impact on his audience than on searching for and expressing his own inner life (yes, how hopelessly sentimental and old-fashioned of me). But this work, occupying the composer as long as it did, comes close to being a personal autobiography in music. Corigliano had long been strongly drawn to Thomas’s poetry, and found much in the Welsh poet’s expression that he could relate to his own life; his selection of poems written at different times in the poet’s life, and the settings he composed at different times in his life created a natural parallel between the two. The trilogy began in 1961 with a setting for mezzo-soprano, chorus, and orchestra of Thomas’s Fern Hill, which attained considerable success as an independent work. This was followed in 1970 by Poem in October, also an independent work, for tenor and chamber ensemble. Almost as long as those two sections combined, Poem on his Birthday followed in 1976, this time for baritone soloist, with chorus and full symphony orchestra. This completed the trilogy, as presented at that time as a full evening in recognition of the American Bi-Centennial. But Corigliano was not satisfied with the result. The first two sections owed much to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Summer Music, although Poem in October ventured into a pan-diatonicism somewhat more prickly than Barber might have employed. Both evoked a peaceful, playful past, recalled wistfully. The third section reflected the poet’s state of emotional turbulence at the time of his 35th birthday (he was to live only four years more), with fiercely extravagant imagery to which Corigliano responded with the full range of his recently-liberated musical imagination. But he was not convinced that the juxtaposition of incompatible musical styles really worked. Not until the late 1990s did he come upon the idea of creating a framework that would supply the necessary coherence. Turning to Author’s Prologue, one of Thomas’s final works, he found what he was looking for—a selection that captured the poet’s untamed earthiness, while providing the retrospective posture of an older, more seasoned protagonist. Drawing upon musical material used in Poem on his Birthday, Corigliano set this passage for baritone soloist against a backdrop of chorus and orchestra, using a largely atonal, and at times spoken, declamation. The first portion of this Prologue serves as an introduction to the entire work, while the second half is inserted between Fern Hill and Poem in October. This re-shaping treated the two earlier pieces as “flashbacks,” reflections on the innocent past from the perspective of the turbulent present, the transitions occurring naturally and convincingly. With a few other adjustments, such as changing the mezzo-soprano to a boy soprano in Fern Hill, and expanding the scoring of Poem in October to match the rest of the work (though retaining the harpsichord, which creates a wonderful effect), he finally achieved the coherence and integration he had sought. The result, which spans the majority of his compositional career, is not only a convincing structure, but it is also a very moving work—more so than in any of its previous incarnations. It is not an “easy” work by any means—not something one can expect to enjoy in the background: It requires a good deal of concentration, as well as close attention to the texts, in order to derive its full meaning. But it may prove to be Corigliano’s greatest, most deeply personal, and most emotionally sincere work. The performance here is extremely fine: The vocal soloists are excellent, and Leonard Slatkin directs a fully sympathetic and convincing performance. My only complaint is that the choral rendering of the text is barely intelligible, even for one who is following it in print.

Of all the unusual compositional conceits that Corigliano has devised, perhaps none is more provocative and unlikely than Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. Explaining that Bob Dylan’s career as an iconic folk poet during the 1960s totally passed him by, the composer was prompted by a colleague to look at Dylan’s song lyrics as a possible source of texts. (I must admit that the notion that Corigliano might have lived through the 1960s without ever having heard, say, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Mr. Tambourine Man,” strains my credulity to the breaking point; but for the moment I’m willing to take it at face value and let it go at that.) Convinced upon examining them that many of these texts had some merit, Corigliano decided to set a selection of seven to music—but without any knowledge of or reference to their original melodic settings, and without any attempt to evoke the style of folk or popular music. He explains with admirable clarity in the program notes: “Folk music tends to set choruses of ever-changing words to the same simple melody: reflecting the emotion or the sound of the words is simply not what folk music tries to do. Whereas concert composers … often change the melodic and accompanimental settings of the words to reflect the particular colors and sounds, as well as the feelings and meanings, of the text. Obviously I belong to this latter category of composer, and this is reflected in what you’ll hear.” Composed for soprano and piano in 2000 at the request of Sylvia McNair, the cycle was orchestrated in 2003, now calling for an “amplified soprano.” Corigliano writes, “I wanted a fully-trained virtuosic concert singer who could still perform in a more ‘natural’ voice. I didn’t want her to need to give an ‘operatic’ performance of texts so antithetical to that cultivated sound just to project over the orchestra.” The premiere of this version was given by the Israeli soprano Hila Plitmann, who performs it here.

“Listeners familiar with Dylan’s music for these songs will no doubt be surprised at these settings,” writes the composer. As someone who lived through the 1960s and was well aware of Dylan’s own versions of about half of the texts selected, I can tell you that that is a tremendous understatement! I cannot deny that my reaction upon hearing the first minute of Corigliano’s setting of “Mr. Tambourine Man”—which serves as a prelude to the cycle—was to laugh hysterically at the preposterous incongruity of the basic conceit. Checking upon the reactions of several friends and colleagues who are contemporaries of mine, I discovered that most responded roughly as I did. However, the difference was that some of my consultees could not get past the absurdity and simply bailed out; while others, such as myself, were able to calm down and try to experience these settings on their own terms. I am forced to conclude that the result is largely successful, and—whether or not Corigliano truly never heard “Blowin’ in the Wind”—he has managed to create musical settings that a) bear no resemblance whatsoever to Dylan’s music; b) capture the spirit and meaning of the texts, and do so with remarkable imagination; and c) form a satisfying song cycle that meets the standards of a serious concert work. It is presumably for reasons such as these that this work won the most recent Grammy Award for Best New Classical Composition—the third such award Corigliano has received. My only reservation about the songs is that Corigliano’s music offers little melodic interest of its own; there is nothing “catchy” about these settings. As with the ambitious Dylan Thomas work, no one can expect to relegate this cycle to background music. Each song is a work of serious art that must be followed with close attention. Finally, what I would truly love to know is the reaction of Bob Dylan himself (who of course had to grant permission for this endeavor), assuming that he has heard Corigliano’s settings. And if he has not bothered to hear them, he loses a lot of stature in my mind. 

Soprano Hila Plitmann seems to render the songs with just the qualities the composer was seeking, while the Buffalo Philharmonic realizes the extraordinarily varied orchestrations brilliantly. And for those baby-boomers who are interested, the other songs whose texts were selected are: “Clothes Line,” “Masters of War,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and, as a postlude, “Forever Young.”

For a long time I felt that the music Corigliano supplied for Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States was his best work. And even as a fervent and unashamed Russell enthusiast (who saw the film the day it opened), I asserted that the music was the most impressive component of the film, which struck me as rather a potboiler. When the soundtrack album was released shortly thereafter, I raved about it in these pages. Several years later the soundtrack was reissued on CD, but I gather it is no longer available. With a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States is a science fiction film in which a research psychologist attempts to discover the essence of life by reversing his own human evolution through immersion in a sensory deprivation tank, and later by indulging in Indian rituals involving hallucinogenic mushrooms. Corigliano’s score was one of his early ventures in the aforementioned “New Romanticism” style, and the result achieved a degree of flamboyant extravagance that left Druckman and his cohorts far behind, and might be likened to Le Sacre on LSD. Corigliano subsequently extracted from the score a 15-minute “concert suite,” entitled Three Hallucinations, which seems to have developed a pretty successful life of its own. These selections certainly provide a representative sample of the film music—eerily ominous and wildly psychedelic—although a dreamlike treatment of fragments of “Rock of Ages,” as refracted through elegiac and mysterious cluster-harmony, gives undue emphasis to one of the weaker ideas in the score. It is performed here with considerable zest. However, serious admirers of Corigliano’s music are urged to search out used copies of the complete soundtrack, which can be found on the Internet.

Ever since its world premiere in Austin, Texas, by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jerry Junkin, in February, 2005, followed later that year by a performance by the same forces at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Corigliano’s Circus Maximus has become something of a sensation within the band sub-culture. Completed the previous year, on a commission from the Texans, the work is predicated on the notion of a spatial conception—i.e., a work in which the audience is surrounded by the players, whose physical placement is clearly and precisely specified. Those specifications, which call for a band on the stage, a smaller marching band, and another ensemble placed at various points throughout the hall, are clearly indicated on a diagram included in the accompanying booklet. However, the recording at hand, as fine as it is in conventional terms, is a standard two-channel recording. Therefore, the listener is left to his imagination in attempting to conjure this all-important aspect of the work’s structure and—more important—sonic impact. The title of the work and its point of reference, both of which came later, concerns the brutal entertainments enjoyed by the ancient Romans during their period of “high decadence,” and attempts to draw a parallel between that time and our own, what with our relish of vulgar “reality” shows and public scandals. As apt and intriguing as this concept may be, instrumental music is simply not a suitable medium for social commentary. Furthermore, nothing in the music actually creates a connection with the title concept; indeed, any number of other concepts would be equally plausible as correlates to the music itself. Therefore, the extra-musical “message” of the work is an enticement that doesn’t really deliver, while the fundamental premise of antiphonal spatiality is compromised by the limitations of the recording technology used, although it may be quite effective in a live performance.

So the somewhat deflated reality that confronts the listener to this recording is a 35-minute work subdivided into eight connected movements of contrasting tone, scored for large wind ensemble. But this is not to suggest that there is anything routine about the music itself. It has been said that Corigliano’s primary compositional concern is to make a tremendous splash on his audience, but to accomplish this at a high artistic level. I will avoid the temptation to raise the question as to whether there isn’t an inherent contradiction between the two portions of that objective, but will state unequivocally that this piece makes one helluva splash! The work opens in a state of intense alarm, and introduces the primary motif, an exceedingly frightening, siren-like idea that seems to herald an imminent crisis of immense proportion. This motif recurs at various points throughout the work. Corigliano seems to possess a limitless imagination for creating musical “special effects,” and Circus Maximus, not unlike Altered States, provides the opportunity for him to give full rein to this gift. After the sense of distress created by the opening “Introitus,” the second section, “Screen/Siren” provides some relief, as a saxophone quartet evokes a mood suggestive of a nocturnal urban street scene in a detective show from around 1960 (not that there’s anything wrong with this). The third section, “Channel Surfing” presents a series of brief, contrasting musical images, including some really striking effects that shift rapidly from one to the next. This is followed by “Night Music I,” which suggests another nocturnal scene, but this one taking place in some isolated area untouched by human beings, so that time seems infinite, the only motion resulting from natural phenomena. “Night Music II” is intended to evoke “the hyper night music of the cities,” and calls forth sounds and gestures associated with jazz. This culminates in the sixth movement, “Circus Maximus,” intended to be the high point of the work, “a carnival of sonoric activity,” the composer writes. It is wild, as all that has come before seems to be happening at once, leading to a climax that truly shakes the rafters. “Prayer” follows—a quiet, hymnlike melody that unfolds against a simple, triadic accompaniment that is not, however, always in the same key as the melody. Perhaps the most simple and direct portion of the work, it was not as affecting emotionally as I had anticipated. This section leads directly into “Coda: Veritas,” which returns to the disturbing music of the opening section, mounting in intensity, and finally ending with “a 12-gauge shot gun” firing a “full load-black powder ‘popper’ made by Winchester.” I think it is apparent that music this strikingly vivid might be associated plausibly with any number of different scenarios. But what is also apparent upon reflection, as one listens repeatedly to the work, is that one’s first couple of auditions make the strongest impact; after that one’s interest begins to pall.

Filling out the CD is the composer’s arrangement for band of his Gazebo Dances from 1972, one of the last works of his “early” period. Although it was originally conceived as a work for piano, four hands, its title points to “the pavilions often seen on village greens in towns throughout the American countryside, where public band concerts were given on summer evenings early last century.” The work also exists in a version for orchestra, but the band arrangement is clearly the most effective. Very slight in aesthetic weight, it might be said to fall somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento and Aaron Copland’s Outdoor Overture

The University of Texas Wind Ensemble, under its conductor Jerry Junkin, perform the Gazebo Dances suavely and with panache, while they bring to Circus Maximus an explosion of well-controlled power. 

Picks of the Year: 2008

Once again I come up with fewer than the prescribed number of selections. I hasten to add, however, that this is not a reflection on the quality of new releases, but, rather, attributable to my own scattered musical involvements. This year I offer one “official” selection, but this one is absolutely a no-brainer: Geoffrey Burleson’s historic, masterful, pioneering survey of the twelve brilliant piano sonatas of Vincent Persichetti, reviewed by both Peter Burwasser and me in Fanfare 31:6. Both my colleague and I pretty much agree, and our reviews speak for themselves. This set is an indispensable acquisition for all listeners interested in American music, American piano music, 20th-century piano music, … It is simply indispensable. Once you hear it, you will never again refer to Persichetti as “the guy who wrote all that band music.” One more point: In my review of this set I mentioned that I was involved in a project to record this same music for Naxos. That project has been canceled (for reasons unrelated to the Burleson recording), so listeners who were planning to wait for a less expensive alternative are advised to grab the New World release. 

Although my own involvement as producer prevents my listing it as a Pick of the Year selection, I would like to direct readers to Naxos 8.559347, also reviewed in 31:6. This release comprises two “symphonic masses”—orchestral works that follow the structure of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. The two composers are Nicolas Flagello and Arnold Rosner, and, despite their shared source of inspiration and the gross structural similarity of the two works, they are worlds apart stylistically. However, having been familiar with the two for more than thirty years, I believe that they are both stunning compositions that will appeal greatly to listeners who enjoy 20th-century romanticism. They are conducted on this recording by John McLaughlin Williams, who has proven to be an inspired—and inspiring—interpreter of neo-romantic music. And the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine plays like a world-class ensemble for him. 

I have one more item to mention: It wasn’t released during the past year, and it isn’t even available at all right now. But it is my biggest discovery of the past twelve months: Bernard Herrmann’s operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Herrmann regarded this as his magnum opus, and worked on it from 1943 until 1951. He wanted desperately to see it mounted, but this did not happen within his lifetime. However, he did preside over a recording of it in 1966, which was released as a set of LPs first on Pye, then on Unicorn in 1972. It was reissued on CD by Unicorn/Kanchana during the early 1990s, but that set is no longer available. I remember when it was first issued on Unicorn, but at that point I wasn’t interested enough in Herrmann to pursue it. I was finally introduced to it only recently by a friend, and was simply blown away by it! So much atmosphere, so much intensity, so much irresistible vocal writing! Nothing I’ve ever heard by Herrmann comes close to the depth of expression found in this work. I do not know who currently owns the rights to this recording, but, considering that Herrmann is taken far more seriously as a composer today than he was thirty or forty years ago, I can’t believe that a reissue of this opera wouldn’t be snapped up by thousands of enthusiasts.

PERSICHETTI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-12 • Burleson • NEW WORLD 80677-2 (2 CDs)

GIANNINI: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1934) Symphony No. 4 (1959)

Liner Notes

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1934)
Symphony No. 4 (1959)
by Vittorio Giannini
NAXOS 8.559352

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia, to a distinguished musical family. Not only were both his parents professional musicians, but his sister, Dusolina, was one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos during the 1930s and 40s, and another sister, Euphemia, was a member of the vocal faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music for many years. Today Vittorio is perhaps best known as a teacher, having spent decades on the composition faculties of the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, and Manhattan School of Music, and ending his educational career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Among his students are John Corigliano, David Amram, Adolphus Hailstork, Alfred Reed, Nicolas Flagello, and Thomas Pasatieri. 

However, Giannini was a prolific composer as well, one of the many Italian-Americans who flourished during the 20th century, contributing to a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines. His output includes more than a dozen operas, seven symphonies, scores of songs, and a variety of concertos and choral, band, and chamber works. His music is notable for its warm immediacy of expression, its ingratiating lyricism, and its impeccable craftsmanship. A true traditionalist, Giannini had no interest in being a trend-setter. His musical creed is perhaps best embodied in 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.” 

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 (whose students also included Gershwin and Copland).

Giannini’s creative work embraced all standard musical genres, but he is best known today for his operatic and vocal music, and for his pieces for concert band. During the 1920s, 30s, and early 40s, Giannini’s compositional output centered chiefly around operas and songs. One of his earliest songs became his most famous: “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” written in 1927, and still frequently performed today, while his operas Lucedia and The Scarlet Letter had successful European premieres during the 1930s. But Giannini also composed instrumental works during that period, among them a piano quintet, a symphony, subtitled, “In Memoriam Theodore Roosevelt,” and the Piano Concerto presented here.

Although Giannini is generally classified among the neo-romantic school of American composers, his Piano Concerto, like his other music from the 1930s, is more accurately characterized simply as “romantic,” as there is little trace in these works of the innovations in harmony and rhythm that appeared toward the beginning of the 20th century, influencing much of the music of even his conservative contemporaries; nor is there any sense of “Americana” in these early works: It is pure European late-romanticism, somewhat similar in effect to the music of the Hungarian-American Ernst von Dohnanyi (who was, admittedly, some 25 years Giannini’s senior). 

Giannini composed his Piano Concerto in 1934; its premiere took place in New York City in 1937. The soloist was none other than the 22-year-old Rosalyn Tureck (later known as the “High Priestess of Bach”). The concerto was well received by both audience and critics. Writing in the New York Times, Olin Downes stated, “There is the sense of a young man who is born to express himself in music, … This concerto is significant of an unmistakable talent, finding itself, … and turning out a very creditable piece of work in so doing.” Francis Perkins (New York Herald Tribune) opined that ‘‘the opulence and expansiveness of Mr. Giannini’s score proved welcome. He did not hesitate to dwell upon frankly expressed melodies, while his orchestral coloring proved warm and vivid.’’ Similarly, Robert Simon (The New Yorker) found it ‘‘full of juicy melodies, and it has a healthy virtuoso bounce,” concluding, “pianists who want a ‘real concerto,’ one that comes off paper and gets to work on an audience, will find an answer in this composition.’’ Yet despite these enthusiastic comments, there is no indication that the work was ever performed again, until now.

The concerto is composed on a grand scale. Much of its bulk derives from Giannini’s propensity for extensive development—including long chains of sequences—throughout the composition. He is also generous with opportunities for the soloist to elaborate the material by means of the full arsenal of standard virtuoso pyrotechnics. The work is cyclical in construction, clearly unified by the motifs presented at the outset, and while the overall texture is relatively simple, the thematic material is combined and manipulated with a thoroughness that is almost compulsive. The overall character of the concerto is extravagantly emotional, from its grimly portentous opening, through its moments of delicacy and sweetness, to its final triumphant peroration.

The first movement, Sostenuto, introduces the stern primary motif of the concerto, while clearly establishing a tonality of D minor. After considerable elaboration by the solo piano, a second idea—plaintively pleading—is introduced, Allegro moderato, still part of the first theme group. After considerable further elaboration, the solo piano introduces the second thematic idea, Andante cantabile, a seductively yearning melody in F-sharp major. After this theme has been explored by both soloist and orchestra, the development section subjects the thematic material to still further elaboration, as the soloist takes every opportunity to emote instrumentally over each motif. Finally, at Largamente, the recapitulation is announced by a richly chordal statement of the second theme, but this builds with apparent spontaneity to a passionate lyrical outburst in which all the thematic ideas are combined in quasi-operatic ecstasy. This is the passage of the concerto in which Giannini’s own individual voice emerges most clearly. But ecstasy is suddenly interrupted as the motifs in their original guises bring the movement to a stormy conclusion.

The second movement, an Adagio in D-flat major, is built around a sweetly tender, pensive melody whose derivation from the concerto’s opening motif is unmistakable. This melody gradually builds to a rapturous climax, before receding.

The finale, Allegro vigoroso, opens in B minor, with a theme whose descending four-note pattern with dotted-rhythm identifies its source in the second portion of the first theme group of the first movement. After extensive elaboration of this theme, a scherzoso section highlights swirling figurations in the piano. A “new” theme in D-flat major suddenly appears, with a slightly Mediterranean flavor, although it is based on an inversion of that second part of the first theme of the first movement. A reprise of the B-minor opening section of the movement follows, and on its heels a fugato based on that descending four-note motif, followed by merging of that motif with the scherzoso material. The “Mediterranean” melody then comes to the fore, Allegro Marziale, in D major, bringing the concerto to a grandly triumphant conclusion.

Giannini composed a total of seven symphonies: The first two date from the 1930s, and were not numbered; five numbered symphonies were then composed between 1950 and 1964.

The Symphony No. 4, composed 25 years after the Piano Concerto, is the creation of a far more mature and sophisticated composer. Concise and tightly integrated, it is truly a “neo-romantic” symphony: a highly cohesive work in which heartfelt emotional expression is balanced by solid structural values, including touches of modernism, such as basing both melodic and harmonic material on the interval of a fourth, and even some toying with twelve-tone ideas. The work was composed in 1959, and dedicated to Jean Morel, who conducted the first performance with the Juilliard Orchestra in May of the following year. There is no record of the work’s having been performed again, until the appearance of this recording.

The first movement, Allegro con passione, opens with themes—three in this case—of widely contrasting character: the first, restless and tonally vague; the second, tender and warm, introduced by the oboe; and a closing theme, passionate and triumphant. However, a closer examination reveals that all the thematic material is derived from the opening theme, a series of ascending fourths and descending fifths (disguised by octave shifts) and including all twelve tones. From the very beginning, the familiar conventions of sonata allegro form take place on the surface of a densely concentrated developmental fabric of contrapuntal interrelationships involving the interval of the fourth. 

The second movement, Sostenuto e calmo, is the emotional core of the symphony, with an opening theme that displays considerable chromatic range, though it too is based on a sequence of perfect fourths, initially divided between the clarinet and the horn. A central section, based on an augmented fourth, blossoms into a gorgeously impassioned melody, heard against a background texture composed of the symphony’s opening motif. A quiet return of the opening material brings the movement to an end.

The final movement, Allegro, begins in the manner of a scherzo in Giannini’s skittish buffa mode, dominated by intervals of the fourth and fifth and permeated by references to the symphony’s chief thematic ideas. After much development of this material, a slow epilogue recalls the melodic material from the second movement, building to a grand apotheosis, before a brief coda recalls the scherzo material and brings the work to a terse conclusion.

In his Fourth Symphony, Giannini achieved the dual accomplishment of a cohesive, tightly-shaped developmental structure and an emotionally gratifying work in the symphonic subgenre of mid-twentieth-century American neo-romanticism. As such, it stands alongside the contemporaneous symphonic works of such composers as Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, and Samuel Barber.