BAKSA Sonata for Flute and Guitar.. Sonata da Camera. Journeys.. Sonata da Giardino.. Celestials

BAKSA Sonata for Flute and Guitar.Sonata da Camera. Journeys.Sonata da Giardino.Celestials – Annette Heim (fl); Bret Heim (gtr); Christine Bock (va) – MSR CLASSICS (63:32)

Now in his early 70s, New York City-native Robert Baksa has been following his own muse for many years. For much of that time, as a staunch, unapologetic tonalist, he was strongly at odds with prevailing fashion. When I first discovered his music, about 30 years ago, there were no recordings of his work, and few performances. Said to be quite bitter about being thus marginalized, he nevertheless continued to compose prolifically, and has by now amassed a body of work numbering more than 500 pieces. He has also lived to see musical fashions change to the point where the fruits of his creativity—once dismissed out of hand—are now performed and recorded with some regularity, finding a responsive niche of enthusiasts among those favoring such ultra-conservative composers as Stefania de Kenessey, Eric Ewazen, and others.

I can’t say that I am familiar with a large proportion of Baksa’s work, although the music on this recent release—composed between 1994 and 2005—is cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking, as the previous pieces I’ve heard. Always skillfully and tastefully constructed, impeccably tailored to the instruments at hand, unobtrusive and never jarring, Baksa’s music serves a most useful function: pleasant background music to accompany such mundane activities as dinner, social conversation, or reading—i.e., the sort of function that might otherwise be filled by routine Baroque pieces, or instrumental arrangements of pop songs, or new-age “ear candy.” I say this without intending to be disparaging; indeed, Baksa’s music fulfills this function at a higher artistic level than such other alternatives. Its overall character might be likened to the music of Ned Rorem at its most accessible—and it would certainly fall into the “French” half of Rorem’s familiar aesthetic dichotomy. It might be described as neo-classical, but a variety that owes nothing to Stravinsky, but rather is largely diatonic and consonant, although generous use of seventh-chords dates its provenance from the past hundred years. But leading tones and dominants arrive at tonics, and suspensions and appoggiaturas resolve as expected. One might compare it to the music of, say, Robert Muczynski, who has also focused on tonal, accessible chamber music; but the difference is that Muczynski’s work exhibits a dark moodiness, and a sense of expressive complexity that gives it much greater emotional depth, while demanding more attention from the listener. For me the major limitation of Baksa’s music is the narrowness of its expressive range. It rarely deviates from an overall sense of “pleasantness, ” with little variety from piece to piece, which contributes to its appropriateness as background music, as well as its tediousness if auditioned too attentively. It also lacks melodic distinction. While this is not a pre-requisite for great music, it is the saving grace of much music that has little else going for it.

Since the music on this CD is all so similar, I will not discuss the pieces individually. I will say, however, that the Heim Duo, augmented in one piece by violist Christine Bock, all perform beautifully.

HOIBY The Tempest (2 CDs). A Pocket of Time (21 Songs and a Duet). Songs of Lee Hoiby

HOIBY The Tempest • Robert Balonek (Prospero); Molly Davey (Ariel), Catherine Webber (Miranda), Joshua Benevento (Caliban), Anthony Caputo (Ferdinand) et al. soloists; Hugh Murphy, cond; Purchase Opera and SO • ALBANY TROY-1106/1107 (2 CDs: 147:01)

HOIBY A Pocket of Time (21 Songs and a Duet) • Julia Faulkner (sop); Andrew Garland (bar); Lee Hoiby (pn) • A Pocket of Time. Pierrot. In the Wand of the Wind. Lady of the Harbor. The Lamb. Where the Music Comes From. To an Isle in the Water. Winter Hubris. Jabberwocky. Lied der Liebe. Nuits. I Was There (Five Whitman Poems). Autumn. Evening. The Darkling Thrush. Last Letter Home. Goodby, Goodby World. The Nightingale and the Lark. NAXOS 8.559375 (75:12)

HOIBY Songs of Lee Hoiby • Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer (sop); María Pérez-Goodman (pn) •
Winter Song. The Doe. To an Isle in the Water. An Immorality. In the Wand of the Wind. Summer Song. She Tells Her Love. Where the Music Comes From. The Message. Autumn. Evening. Twenty-Eight Young Men. Lady of the Harbor. always it’s Spring. What if … Jabberwocky. The Lamb. The Shepherd. The Serpent. ALBANY TROY-1102 (50:01)

With the exception of Robert Ward (still active at 92, last I heard), Lee Hoiby (now 83) is probably America’s oldest traditional neo-romantic, still composing. Although he has made valuable contributions to most musical genres, his songs, choral anthems, and operas represent his most distinguished efforts. Hoiby’s musical language places his best efforts in the stylistic vicinity of such composers as Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem, while his lesser efforts call to mind the music of Gian Carlo Menotti. But this is not to suggest that Hoiby doesn’t have a voice of his own; indeed, he does, although it is perhaps not such a strikingly individual one. Less pretentious than Rorem’s, Hoiby’s music is even more resolutely tonal and diatonic than that of his three confreres, and more consonant harmonically, as well, although fluid modulations, chromatic and modal ambiguities, and well-placed dissonances keep things active and interesting.

The Tempest is Hoiby’s most recently completed opera (Romeo and Juliet is not yet finished, as far as I know), and it has already enjoyed several productions. Premiered by the Des Moines Metro Opera, it was subsequently mounted by the opera companies of Kansas City and Dallas. Whether there have been more I don’t know, but the one documented on this recording took place in 2008 at Purchase College in Purchase, New York. I had the pleasure of attending that production, from which I exited in a state of near ecstasy. The reasons for this are apparent when one listens to this recent release in Albany’s continuing—and increasingly momentous—series of recordings of American operas. Although it was a production of the Purchase College Opera Department, many of the individuals involved here have worked together extensively—some on this opera, in particular. The adaptation of Shakespeare’s rather complex play into a coherent, workable libretto was undertaken by Mark Shulgasser, Hoiby’s longtime collaborator as well as his life partner. The artistic director of this production was Jacque Trussel, who had played the role of Caliban in the Des Moines premiere, as well as in the subsequent production in Dallas. Conductor Hugh Murphy was Trussel’s vocal coach for both the Des Moines and Dallas productions. 

The Tempest has always been something of an enigma among Shakespeare’s plays. Autobiographical elements have often been attributed to what was his final drama. The play has at times been interpreted as a meditation on the playwright’s own body of work and its value; the character of Prospero has been viewed by some as a representation of Shakespeare himself. Shulgasser has adopted this interpretation, setting the play as a dream conjured by the sleeping playwright’s own unconscious mind. This gives the play the quality of a fantasy, supported by Hoiby’s buoyant, shimmering music, which is largely through-composed in arioso style, with minimal use of recitative. The orchestration is richly luxuriant, contributing to the pervasively dreamlike, magical quality of the work. The result maintains a mood of affectionate detachment, which effectively captures and combines its various elements into a consistently engaging and appealing whole. 

Overall, the cast of this production was splendid. While, not surprisingly, some of the smaller roles might have been stronger, the leading characters—Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand—were handled beautifully, while the orchestra projected the airy textures to great effect. It was not surprising to learn that the production won first prize in the National Opera Association’s annual competition in 2008.

Hoiby has composed approximately a hundred songs, and it is for these that he is probably best known. No doubt contributing to their success has been their adoption into the repertoires of some leading singers, especially Leontyne Price, who sang them frequently, and for whom he composed the Songs for Leontyne around 1980. The two recital discs discussed here represent, to the best of my knowledge, the second and third recordings devoted exclusively to Hoiby’s songs. The first was released by CRI during the mid 1990s, and was entitled “Continual Conversation with a Silent Man,” featuring baritone Peter Stewart, with the composer at the piano. From the standpoint of vocal performance, that was probably the best of the three, although with CRI now defunct, this recording has entered the limbo of marginal availability where most of the products of that company can (or cannot) be found.

The songs on these two recent releases roughly span the entire second half of the 20th century—and even reach into the 21st. It is easy to discuss these songs collectively, but difficult to comment on them in detail, as their felicities are many—too many and too specific to itemize here—while there is relatively little with which to find fault. This is music, as I have written with respect to Barber, that is “beautiful,” as that term is understood by the average listener. Many of the songs—“Where the Music Comes From” (with a text by the composer), for example, or “The Lamb” (Blake), or “Lady of the Harbor” (Lazarus [from the Statue of Liberty])—are simple and direct, without the precious pretensions associated with “art songs” or “Lieder.” In other words, they are apt settings of melody to poetry, and though Hoiby’s writing for piano is exceedingly fluent and fluid, some of the accompaniments could be effectively transcribed for another accompanying instrument, such as guitar; and would be just as effective if sung without “operatic projection.” In fact, some are rather overbearing when given the latter treatment. When Hoiby cites Joni Mitchell among his chief influences, he is not being glibly perverse. 

Other songs, such as “Winter Hubris,” “Lied der Liebe,” “Autumn,” “Evening,” “Darkling Thrush,” “Goodbye, Goodbye World,” and “She Tells Her Love,” are somewhat more oblique and sophisticated, but never cold, sterile, or remote. Between the two recital discs, eight of the songs appear on both. My only reservation concerning the programs—and it is one I have made before with regard to CD collections featuring many unfamiliar songs—is that attempting to absorb a dozen or two songs by a single composer, one after the other, creates a generalized impression that tends to obscure the specific, unique merits of individual selections. Concentrating on a small group can intensify one’s focus and shed a more revealing light on the collection as a whole. 
Hoiby’s songs display a remarkably consistent sense of good taste; though many of his texts deal with intense, vulnerable emotions, rarely, if ever, does he cross the line into kitsch. In addition, his workmanship, sensitivity to language, and wide range of expression are on a par with Barber’s, placing them among the most sensitive and rewarding of American art songs.

Both discs offer adequate presentations of these lovely songs, while neither provides vocal artistry at the very highest level. My highest recommendation goes to the Peter Stewart recital on CRI, if it can be found. Otherwise, although texts are not included and must be accessed from the company’s website, I have a slight preference for the Naxos release: sharing the program between two voices—a soprano and a baritone—offers a variety that is most welcome, although both singers—Julia Faulkner and Andrew Garland—have a tendency to become frayed during moments of duress. Also, this disc includes “Last Letter Home,” the moving setting of a heartbreaking letter to his family from a U.S. Army sergeant stationed in Iraq, to be read by them in the event of his death, which occurred in 2003. Furthermore, the authoritative accompaniments provided by the composer—still a superb pianist—give a bit of an edge to that release, although Albany’s pianist, María Pérez-Goodman, need offer no apology. The Albany disc, on the other hand, provides the texts for all but two of the 19 songs on the program. But Mexican soprano Ursula Kleinecke-Boyer’s voice takes on an unpleasant stridency at moments of the slightest intensity, while the timing of this disc is a good 25 minutes shorter than the Naxos.

Lee Hoiby’s songs are part of the vocal repertoires of most singers who include music of the 20th century on their programs. Listeners with a taste for neo-romantic lyricism are strongly urged to sample this music if they are not already familiar with it, and Naxos’s budget price keeps the risk at a minimal level. Those who already appreciate Hoiby’s music may well want to own all three of these releases.

Picks of the Year: 2009

This year, with only a bit of stretching, I was able to find four CDs that met my criteria of “neglected masterpieces,” rendered in brilliant performances. John Corigliano is not a particular favorite of mine, but he is unquestionably a highly gifted composer. Although much of his music depends on gimmickry of one form or another, A Dylan Thomas Trilogy (reviewed in 32:5) is one major work that appears to reflect some of his deepest and most introspective creative thinking. Its composition occupied Corigliano on and off for nearly forty years, from a setting of Fern Hill written when he was 23, with additional segments added periodically during the years that followed, until he finally arrived at a satisfactory completion during the late 1990s, when he was about 60. Corigliano has always felt a strong kinship with the Welsh poet, and so the trilogy represents something of a spiritual/poetic autobiography. Not only are its individual sections quite moving in their own rights, but the multiple perspectives resulting from their origins at different times in the composer’s life add a fascinating additional dimension. 

Ordinarily I would refrain from including the Giannini CD (reviewed in 32:6) on my Want List because a) I wrote the program notes, and b) I do not consider one of the works to be quite at the level of “masterpiece.” However, I decided to make an exception in this case. For one thing, although the Piano Concerto is an ambitious work of more than 40 minutes duration, and although it is a notable curiosity, having enjoyed a triumphant premiere at the hands of Rosalyn Tureck in 1937, with no record of any subsequent performances, and although it is performed here with fervent commitment, brilliant virtuosity, and exquisite sensitivity by the extraordinary Rumanian-American pianist Gabriela Imreh, the work—like much of Giannini’s music from the 1930s—is quite conventional in its adoption of a middle-European late-romantic musical language, and over-laden with excessive repetition. So why am I making this exception? Because most of the reviews that have appeared since its release have been far more generous in their assessments of the concerto than I, while dispensing with the symphony in a few words indicating that it’s good too. But Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, a fruit of the composer’s maturity, by which time he had established an identifiable creative voice of his own, is worth far more than such perfunctory acknowledgment. It is one of the great neo-romantic symphonies of the 1950s—the decade during which (contrary to the usual textbook overview) the American symphony reached its fullest and most generous fruition—worthy of standing alongside the major works of Barber, Hanson, and Creston. Not only does the work boast a gorgeously luxuriant slow movement, but it is also a masterpiece of symphonic construction, in which each theme is derived from the main theme of the first movement—which is, in turn, derived completely from the interval of the fourth (perhaps in recognition of its being a “fourth” symphony)—while embracing all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. In short, it is one more example demonstrating that music with immediate accessibility need not be simplistic or otherwise flimsy in its construction.

Lee Hoiby is one of the few traditional American neo-romantics still actively composing, and the preceding year has witnessed a number of important new recordings within the genres in which he has produced his most distinguished work: opera and song. His adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (reviewed in this issue) has been produced several times since its premiere in 1986. Its April, 2008, performance at Purchase College in New York State, which I had the pleasure of attending, was released this year on the Albany label. This was a marvelous presentation, beautifully performed and brilliantly staged; I can attest to the fact that the production has been magnificently captured on this recording. I would also go so far as to assert that Hoiby’s adaptation is one of the great Shakespearian operas. Gripping right from its opening moments, this is a work that should not be overlooked by anyone with an interest in American opera. 

Hoiby has also composed about a hundred song settings, which have been championed by many of our leading singers, most notably Leontyne Price. Two CDs devoted to them have appeared during the past few months (and are reviewed in this issue). Both releases are fine samplings of Hoiby’s contribution to the American art song literature, although neither is wholly without some minor vocal shortcomings. I have a slight preference for the Naxos disc, simply because the presence of two singers—soprano Julia Faulkner and baritone Andrew Garland—rather than one offers a bit more variety for the ear, while the composer’s own renditions of the piano accompaniments lend a self-evident authority. The 22 songs themselves display an exquisite hypersensitivity reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s fine contributions to the medium; the best of them reveal the sort of beauty that upon first hearing seems to echo some faint, distant memory. Although the recording is superb, honorable mention must be extended to the other recent release, which features soprano Ursula Keinecke-Boyer (Albany TROY1102) in a program of 19 songs, eight of which are also found on the Naxos disc.

CORIGLIANO A Dylan Thomas Trilogy • Slatkin/Allen,Jackson,Tessier/Nashville Ch & SO • NAXOS 8.559394

GIANNINI Symphony No. 4. Piano Concerto • Spalding/Imreh/Bournemouth SO • NAXOS 8.559352

HOIBY A Pocket of Time (22 songs) • Falkner,Garland/Hoiby • NAXOS 8.559375

HOIBY The Tempest • Murphy/Balonek,Davey,Webber,Benevento,Caputo et al./Purchase SO • ALBANY TROY 1106/07 (2 CDs)

TOUCH: The Toccata Project: Works by PERSICHETTI. MENOTTI . HOIBY. DIEMER. HARRIS. ANTHEIL. ROREM. I. FINE. SOWERBY. L. LIEBERMANN. LEES. M. L. LEHMAN. MUCZYNSKI. R. LEWENTHAL. RIEGGER. BASTIEN.

TOUCH: The Toccata Project

PERSICHETTI Three Toccatinas. MENOTTI Ricercare and Toccata. HOIBY Toccata. DIEMER Serenade/Toccata. HARRIS Toccata. ANTHEIL Toccatas Nos. 1 and 2. ROREM Toccata. I. FINE Little Toccata. SOWERBY Toccata. L. LIEBERMANN Toccata. LEES Toccata. M. L. LEHMAN Toccatina. MUCZYNSKI Toccata. R. LEWENTHAL Toccata alla Scarlatti. RIEGGER Toccata. BASTIEN Toccata. Philip Amalong (pn) •ALBANY TROY1142 (57:00)

An hour of post-1900 toccatas for piano: Actually, this new release is but the first volume of what pianist Philip Amalong describes as “hundreds of exciting touch pieces that deserve to be played and heard.” An intriguing idea? Perhaps. With some of the pieces I am already familiar, and of some I am very fond, and some have never been recorded before; but all are given excellent readings by Mr. Amalong. However, as I listened to the program, I found myself thinking: The whole is less than the sum of its parts. Now why should that be? After all, varied anthologies of tangos and of waltzes come to mind as comparable collections; these have been popular and successful. I think the answer is that the toccata—described by Amalong as “percussive and motoric, splashy and fleeting…. all momentum and spinning motion, like a locomotive, rarely stopping until reaching its destination”—is somewhat more limited as a genre than the waltz—or even than the tango. All the toccatas offered here fit the pianist’s description pretty well, so you have a wide range of composers—from celebrated modernists like Wallingford Riegger and George Antheil to pianist Raymond Lewenthal and piano pedagogue James Bastien—hammering away at their “percussive and motoric” thing. And you know what? They all sound an awful lot alike. With that given, I then listened for distinguishing features: What sets them apart? Which stand out and make the strongest impressions?

So rather than a dull description of each one, I will offer some observations that occurred to me while listening—partly because the program notes were written by Mark Louis Lehman, who also composed one of the pieces. Lehman, composer and novelist, is also a music critic, who covers essentially the same “beat” for the American Record Guide that I do for Fanfare. His writing about music is so lucid and perceptive that there is little I can say about this program that he hasn’t already said—and more acutely than I could. 

Most of these pieces would serve best as recital encores. Most are in the 2-3 minute range, so they wouldn’t really hold their own on a recital program, unless they were part of a group of short pieces—and not all toccatas, please! There are a couple of exceptions to this generalization: Vincent Persichetti’s Three Toccatinas are part of a single opus number that lasts about six minutes. Much of Persichetti’s keyboard music—the fast movements, in any case—is toccata-like, with simple-textured running figures divided between the hands. This little group was written in 1979 for a piano competition, and they display the composer’s utter mastery of writing for the keyboard. Each is a moto perpetuo built largely of diatonic scale passages and triadic arpeggios, which makes them a little easier to play than they sound. They add up to a substantive recital group. Other more meaty selections are Lee Hoiby’s Toccata, Op. 1, dating from 1949, when he was 23. At five minutes, this exciting piece makes a statement of enough weight—with real development, and a progressive design—that it could hold its own on a recital program. Similarly, Emma Lou Diemer’s 8-minute Serenade/Toccata has the expressive variety and developmental scope—not to mention appealing materials—that provide autonomy and substance. For me this was perhaps the biggest discovery on the disc. Probably the best known piece on the program is Gian Carlo Menotti’s Ricercare and Toccata, based on a theme from The Old Maid and the Thief. This too can hold its own on a program (and often does), although the Ricercare is a lot more interesting than the Toccata.

Several of the pieces call Prokofiev to mind: most notably, the Liebermann (true of much of his music), the Bastien (all perfect fifths in the left hand), and the Lehman (which, built around subtle and witty rhythmic tricks, is no less polished or professional than the offerings composed by better-known figures). 

Despite the brevity of the pieces, some—such as those by Roy Harris (which manages to include some pensive and rhapsodic moments) and Ned Rorem (another based on a delightful interplay of irregular rhythmic patterns)—successfully convey their composers’ personal fingerprints.

Irving Fine’s tiny morsel is brilliant as far as it goes. Benjamin Lees’s entry captures his characteristically gruff, demonic drive, but is spoiled by a blatant V-I ending. Raymond Lewenthal’s Toccata alla Scarlatti is exactly what its title suggests: an affectionate 20th-century knock-off of the Baroque master.

As you can see, virtually each piece is quite enjoyable and successful in its own right. The only ones that failed to meet the standard set by the others were those by George Antheil and Leo Sowerby.

In summary, a useful resource for pianists looking for interesting encores; for others, some pleasant listening experiences, but not to be taken all in one dose.

“THE GREAT AMERICAN SYMPHONY: Music, the Depression, and War” By Nicholas Tawa

BOOK REVIEW

THE GREAT AMERICAN SYMPHONY: Music, the Depression, and War. By Nicholas Tawa. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009. 237pp. $24.95.

Nicholas Tawa is a veteran musicologist—one of the founders of the Society for American Music (formerly known as the Sonneck Society) and the author of countless books on various aspects of American music. He has focused on art music as well as more vernacular styles, has written about all periods, and is especially interested in examining the social and political context in which the music under discussion has arisen, and its relationship to that context.

At its conceptual core, Tawa’s latest book focuses on the period roughly from 1935 to 1950, when a combination of factors—the failure of the experimental music of the 1920s to win popular support, the Great Depression and the consequent shock to America’s self-esteem, and, later, the challenge to mobilize the country to defeat tyranny overseas—resulted in a consolidated effort by composers to create a symphonic repertoire of the highest quality that would embody and extol the shared values of America in a language that the general public could and would appreciate; in a sense, to “speak for” the American public, while providing a “bulwark against barbarism.” As additional factors that contributed to this brief period, Tawa cites the advocacy by major conductors of the living composers they favored; FDR’s “Federal Music Project,” which led composers to feel needed and appreciated by the society in which they lived; and the resident orchestras formed by the major radio networks that broadcast much of this new American music. After elaborating these factors, Tawa then discusses the symphonic works that attempted—often successfully—to achieve the goal of “speaking for” the American public, and even contributed to the incipient development of a national musical language. He identifies each composer according to a particular descriptive rubric (e.g. Hanson and “the Spiritual Symphony,” Harris and “the All-American Symphony,” Schuman and “the Muscular Symphony,” Mennin and “the Dynamic Symphony,” etc.). For example, he considers Barber’s Symphony No. 1 (1936) to be the first work to embody these ideals successfully, while viewing Hanson’s Third (1938) as a statement on behalf of courage and perseverance during hard times, leaving listeners with a sense of “lofty concepts and exalted thought.” He notes the immense if brief popularity of Harris’s Third (1939), which many believed at the time to be “the great American symphony.”

After concluding his discussion of the important symphonies of the 1930s, he goes on similarly to discuss the “war symphonies,” noting that while some composers became creatively paralyzed by the war, others felt it was their civic duty to continue to compose, producing works that promoted the spirit of democracy, without obvious literalism or jingoism. He cites American symphonies by Antheil, Diamond, Piston, and Barber (No. 2) as sources of national pride and courage during those years. A discussion of the symphonies of the immediate post-war years follows—works that reaffirmed American values, while inspiring trust in the future. But this was also the beginning of the “Cold War,” and with it the “red scare” of the McCarthy period. During the Depression and the war years, many of the composers who had shaped the American symphony into a source of national cohesion, did so from a sense of solidarity with “the common man.” Many of them felt a kindred affiliation with the Soviet Union, which had been one of the Allies during World War II, believing (erroneously and somewhat naively) that their sympathies were shared and supported by the Soviet government. But now the Soviet Union was our enemy, and those who had expressed sympathy for communist ideals in the past, were regarded as traitors. Even the composer of A Lincoln Portrait, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo was blacklisted. Tawa attributes the end of this Golden Age of the American symphony to the politically-based schism within American society, along with the post-World War II suspicion that feelings of nationalism were precursors of fascism. Roger Sessions, vehemently opposed to populism, nationalism, and fascism, pointed the way toward a new “internationalism.” In this he was joined by the many composers who immigrated to this country in the wake of the war, and who knew and cared little about an “American symphonic school,” supporting the notion of an “international style.” Tawa quotes Paul Turok, who pointed out, “European artists are for internationalism, so long as they come out on top.” 

This central argument is filled out by additional relevant information about each composer, as well as a more cursory examination of what happened to American symphonic music after 1950, leading roughly up to the present, when Tawa sees a renewed interest in the symphony afoot. Although he does discuss the continuing symphonic vein in American music after 1950, Tawa might have stressed the irony that although the American public was most intensely drawn to the search for “the great American symphony” during the 1930s and 40s, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s when most of the greatest American symphonies were actually composed. In the course of pursuing his argument Tawa discusses about twenty composers, most of whom one might expect to find, although I was somewhat surprised by the importance given to the symphonies of John Alden Carpenter and Douglas Moore, and somewhat disappointed by the absence of any mention of Gardner Read’s four symphonies or Vittorio Giannini’s seven.

The Great American Symphony is a significant contribution to the history of American art music; while most of the basic factual information has appeared elsewhere before, Tawa brings to it the insight of his own personal interpretation, while the circumstances he recounts led to an egregious outcome that is still very much with us, i.e. the virtual obliteration of a vast repertoire from the awareness of the younger members of today’s musical public—a repertoire that at one time galvanized the enthusiasm of a whole generation of music lovers. My own experience has confirmed that young musicians today are largely unaware of the symphonic music composed in America between, say, 1920 and 1970, aside from a few favorites by Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. This is of particular importance to those of us concerned with the fate of classical music in American culture because much of the “listener-friendly” music composed during the past 25 years has been written from a position of utter ignorance of this earlier repertoire, resulting in much “reinventing of the wheel,” and often not doing as good a job of it. It is also especially important because the business of classical music in this country has been undergoing a steady process of “dumbing down,” and, as a result, what is peddled through the media as “classical music” has become increasingly boring, hence failing to attract intelligent younger listeners who seek the excitement of discovery, rather than the tedious re-hashing of a finite, pre-digested, overly familiar roster of standards whose chief function is to provide reassurance of class and status. (I realize that in writing for Fanfare, I am “preaching to the choir,” because this publication is geared to those with a taste for discovery.)

Tawa has a relaxed, conversational writing style, which is pleasant to read, and he does not hide the fact that he is expressing his own observations and perceptions, derived from a lifetime of listening and study. So there is no pretense of pure “objectivity,” nor the tedium of timid, defensive academic writing, while his descriptions of each composer’s music succeed in capturing each one’s distinctiveness, providing some guidance to the reader who wishes to explore the music that Tawa is advocating.

SCHUMAN New England Triptych. American Hymn. George Washington Bridge. Circus Overture (trans. D. Owen). Prelude for a Great Occasion

SCHUMAN New England Triptych. American Hymn. George Washington Bridge. Circus Overture (trans. D. Owen). Prelude for a Great Occasion • Jack Stamp, cond; Keystone Wind Ens. • KLAVIER K-11155 (76:55) & Jack Stamp interviews William Schuman (March 5, 1990)

The music of William Schuman, who was generally considered among the handful of greatest American composers during the middle years of the 20th century, has received little attention during the past two decades or so. I have been surprised to discover how little of his music, aside from the New England Triptych and his orchestration of Ives’s Variations on “America,” is familiar to younger listeners today. This is most unfortunate, because Schuman had a strongly distinctive creative voice, and composed some of the finest music written in America during the 1940s and 50s.

Though the period of Schuman’s ascendancy roughly corresponds to the “Golden Age of American Band Music,” he himself wrote relatively little for the medium. Therefore, this recording, a worthy effort in many ways, is also a bit of a stretch, and leaves one with some unanswered questions. Since the CD is extended by several transcriptions, and an interview that lasts almost half an hour, the first and most obvious question involves the omission of Schuman’s first original work for band: Newsreel, in Five Shots, five brash and witty sketches composed in 1941. The fact is that Stamp and Schuman discuss this piece during the interview, and Stamp and the Keystone Wind Ensemble did record it in 1997 for a Citadel release (CTD 88132). Would it have been so difficult to include that recording on this compilation, which could then be said to include “all” of Schuman’s music for wind ensemble? 

While we’re at it, the second question involves New England Triptych, originally an orchestral work, and Schuman’s most popular and often-performed work by far. The eponymous three pieces are entitled “Be Glad Then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and “Chester.” Concurrently with composing the Triptych, Schuman wrote an original work for band, entitled Chester Overture. Though this piece is similar to the “Chester” movement from the Triptych, it is quite a bit longer and more elaborate. In 1958, Schuman arranged the second movement, “When Jesus Wept,” for concert band. Then, in 1975 he made a new arrangement of “Be Glad Then, America,” which again deviated significantly from the orchestral version. (I should mention that on the interview Schuman’s recollection of this chronology differs somewhat from what I have just recounted, which I based on K. Gary Adams’s Schuman “Bio-Bibliography.”) The version of Triptych heard here begins with a transcription of the first movement done by David Martynuik, which “more closely follows the orchestral score,” according to the liner notes, followed by Schuman’s transcription of the second movement, followed by the extended Chester Overture. The obvious question is, if Schuman’s own expansion of the third movement was to be used, why not his arrangement of the first movement?

Schuman composed his Circus Overture in 1944, for an ill-fated musical revue produced by Billy Rose, called The Seven Lively Arts. Originally written for orchestra, the piece is not as frivolous as its title might suggest. Although it does have a “clown-like” section, most of it is quite acerbic and parts are rather intricate. Schuman had not yet arrived at his own personal voice, but the piece is certainly interesting enough to merit attention. The overture was transcribed for band by Don Owen in 1972, and that is the version heard here.

Schuman’s second original work for band is the short piece entitled George Washington Bridge, composed in 1950. Despite its brevity it really packs a wallop. By then the composer had arrived at his own authentic voice, and it was still fresh and vital. He created a sound that evokes for many people both the optimism and the brashness of America during the post-World War II period, while its hard-edged polychords and restless rhythmic irregularities suggest the brusqueness and tension of New York City. For Schuman, the George Washington Bridge was a symbol of all this, and one of which he was especially fond. The piece is in ABCBA form (like a bridge, get it?), and treats the bridge almost as a modern sculpture, viewed from a variety of angles. 

And, speaking of modern sculpture, Prelude for a Great Occasion (not “Fanfare,” as it is inaccurately listed on the front and back of the CD package) was commissioned for the opening of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution. Composed in 1974 for an ensemble of brass and percussion, it falls chronologically between Symphonies Nos. 9 and 10, and reflects the composer’s awareness of some of the newer musical trends of the time. But like many of his later works, the piece gives the impression of a sort of synthetic pseudo-profundity, while its harmonic language is considerably more dissonant than in his earlier works. Nevertheless, Schuman had a hard time weaning himself away from ending every piece with a major triad. These are all qualities that alienated many listeners from his music during his later years. 

American Hymn: Variations on an Original Melody was based on a song Schuman composed in 1956 to a text by Langston Hughes, called “The Lord Has a Child.” His touching setting of the poem is available as a solo song, as well as a choral piece. The song must have held special meaning for Schuman, as he used it for several series of variations that appeared at subsequent points during his career. In fact, his very last piece was yet another treatment of this song. The 10-minute work for band was composed in 1981. Schuman’s original setting is most beautiful, and well suited for variations, which pursue the basically triadic (though not obviously tonal) setting through increasingly unconventional harmonizations, until its character is quite thoroughly transformed. This is an original work for band that ought to be better known.

Conductor Jack Stamp’s interview with Schuman is especially interesting because it was taped when Schuman was 80, had essentially finished composing, and had only two more years to live. With this in mind, the vitality and lucidity displayed are remarkable and the interview is valuable from a historical perspective, although the sound quality definitely proclaims the use of inexpensive home equipment. Nevertheless, despite its interest, I would have gladly traded off eight minutes of it in order to have Newsreel on the CD. 

The Keystone Wind Ensemble is a group of players associated with Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Jack Stamp is on the faculty. He has made a real contribution through the many fine recordings he has made of the classics of American wind band literature. The ensemble is really impeccable, with superb intonation, balance, and technical precision, even in the trickiest spots. All pieces on this recording are represented by first-rate performances. Sound quality is good, although there is some “spot-lighting” of instruments that is a little unnatural. 

MORAN There Appeared an Angel. Cortege. Elegy for a Young King. Mantra. Obrigado. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs. KBOCO. Processional.

MORAN There Appeared an Angel. Cortege. Elegy for a Young King. Mantra. Obrigado. Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs. KBOCO. Processional • Alexander Hermann, cond; Chrismos Vocal Ens; Grassauer Wind Ens; Robert Ridgell (org); Latvian Radio Ch; Dan Moore, cond; Iowa Perc • INNOVA 714 (66:46)

Now in his early 70s, Robert Moran has been on the compositional scene for a long time, and has passed through most of the “isms” that have comprised the contemporary music landscape of the past 50 years. Born in Denver, he studied 12-tone composition in Vienna, worked with Berio and Milhaud at Mills College, ran a new music ensemble in San Francisco, where he created a work that involved the participation of much of the city, including 100,000 performers, two radio stations, a TV station, dancers in the streets, et al.—the first of several such large-scale “happenings.” During the 1970s he returned to Europe, serving as composer in residence for the city of West Berlin, where many new works were commissioned and performed. Returning to the United States, he served as composer in residence at Northwestern University, and worked with both John Cage and Philip Glass. He lived in New York City for several years, before moving to Philadelphia during the mid 1980s. There he co-composed with Philip Glass what may be his best-known creative product: an opera, The Juniper Tree, which has enjoyed a number of productions. Since then he has composed many operas, and made a number of visits to Asia, where he studied the indigenous music of these cultures, all of which influenced his subsequent creative work. His compositions have been choreographed and performed all over the world, and many have been recorded. The foregoing recounts only the highpoints of his varied and active career.

The eight works on this compact disc all date from the years 1995 through 2007. It is difficult to characterize them or categorize them collectively, except to state that they would probably be most accurately termed “post-minimalist.” As I hear them, they fall into three subdivisions, except for Processional, a remarkably ordinary piece composed for the wedding of organist Robert Ridgell and his wife. The first three pieces in the headnote above might be compared with the music of Pärt and Tavener. They are slow in tempo, with a commensurately slow harmonic rhythm, and a consonant harmonic language, aside from a few appoggiaturas and suspensions. They sound as if they were recorded in large churches, with long reverberation times. There Appeared an Angel (2006) is scored for mixed chorus, brass, and organ; Cortege (2005) features brass dectet. Elegy for a Young King was composed in 1999 for organ. Perhaps my favorite on the disc, this is an aleatoric piece written in homage of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Wagner’s fanatical patron). My only complaint about this selection is that the program notes do not make clear just what degrees of freedom are left to the performer, versus what is specified in the score. All three of these pieces evoke a peaceful sense of rapture.

Occupying a category of one is the 9-minute Mantra, the earliest piece on the program—perhaps a brief example of Moran’s large-scale “happenings.” Here again the program notes are inadequate. They tell us that this work “is composed for three choruses, at great distances from each other, no text. This live recording comes from the 1997 Latvian Radio Chorus concert, conducted by Otto Hotarek, Fritz Neumeyer, Tomas Brantner.” That’s it. So we know that three conductors are involved, presumably conducting three separate choral groups. But where they are situated relative to each other, and how the entirety was coordinated is left to conjecture. The audible result is somewhat chaotic, with very slow harmonic rhythm (a necessity, one would presume, in order to actualize such a concept—regardless of exactly what that concept might be). 

The third category consists of three pieces for percussion. These are all pitch and rhythm-oriented, displaying the influence of African and Asian drumming techniques. The shortest is Obrigado, dating from 1995, and features mallet instruments as well as piano. The music is modal and energetic, with intriguing rhythmic irregularities. The longest of the three is Stirling: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs (2007). This piece mixes the sound of rain with some 50 percussion instruments. Moran calls it “a musical landscape in rain,” the rain being “an integral sound-event from start to finish.” Well, it doesn’t exactly unfold like a symphony, but it is effectively atmospheric as a sound ambiance. This recording was taken from the world premiere in Iowa. KBOCO was named for a well known Brazilian graffiti artist, and was explicitly written for choreographer Armando Duarte. The exotic musical influences here seem to be African via Brazil. 

In summary, an intriguing survey of recent work by a veteran of many “new music” scenes. Recommended to those who follow and enjoy the branches of post-minimalism.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS: Works by IVES, PERSICHETTI, HARRIS, BACON, GOULD, McKAY, TUROK, and COPLAND.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Nashville SO; Nashville S Ch; Barry Scott (nar); Sharon Mabry (mez); Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (vn); Anthony LaMarchina (vc); Roger Wiesmeyer (pn)

IVES Lincoln, the Great Commoner. PERSICHETTI A Lincoln AddressHARRISAbraham Lincoln Walks at MidnightBACON Ford’s Theatre. GOULD Lincoln Legend. McKAY To a Liberator. TUROK Variations on an American Song. COPLAND A Lincoln Portrait • NAXOS 8.559373-74 (2CDs: 112:37)

According to the program notes, the eight works on this two-CD set were selected from some 90 compositions written in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. Presumably these were the ones that offered the most musical interest, but I remain curious about the others—partly because I found most of these eight to be somewhat disappointing. Each attempts to balance patriotic concerns with musical ones, with varying degrees of success.

The longest piece of music is Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre, a 30-minute suite of twelve short pieces originally conceived as incidental music to a play by Paul Horgan, called, Death, Mr. President. Evidently the play was not a success. Each of the pieces is suggested by an incident that took place during the week preceding Lincoln’s assassination. Ernst Bacon (1898-1970) was not only a composer, but also a conductor, a painter, and a collector of folksongs. Other compositions of his have left me with the impression that his work warrants more attention than it receives these days. However, this suite, composed during the 1940s, does not make a convincing case for that contention. One movement, entitled “The River Queen,” has some lovely moments; and the music is pleasant enough on the whole, but it offers little of compelling interest. 

This is the problem with several of the selections: pleasant enough, but not really compelling as music. George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) was the Eastman School’s first composition graduate (in 1923, before Howard Hanson’s arrival there), and spent 40 years on the faculty of the University of Washington. To a Liberator was composed in 1940, and uses Lincoln as a symbol of democracy during the period of aggressive fascism in Europe. His piece purports to be an expression of his personal feelings while contemplating Lincoln. It is pleasant, euphonious music, but leaves little lasting impression. Similarly, Variations on an American Song by composer-critic Paul Turok (b. 1929), focuses on a simple ditty, “Lincoln and Liberty,” based originally on an Irish tune. His variations, which utilize only the notes that appear in the original song, are very artfully elaborated, but do not compel interest.

I am one of those who feels that the importance of Charles Ives has been greatly overstated by those commentators who assert that he successfully fills the role of “America’s first truly original composer.” Yes, that would make for a nice, orderly account of American musical history—except that after many decades of listening I remain unconvinced of the outstanding merit of Ives’s music. Lincoln, the Great Commoner, touted by Henry Cowell as “one of the most unusual and exciting works in choral literature,” is to my ears just another congested potpourri of American song fragments.

A little more interesting than the Bacon, McKay, and Turok is Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend. Gould (1913-1996) was a very active figure in American musical life from the late 1930s up through the 1950s, when his name was a household word, although his reputation was based largely on his work in the area of commercial/popular music and “light classics.” But he also wrote symphonies and other more ambitious works, which were performed in some of the most auspicious venues. For example, the 1942 premiere of Lincoln Legend was conducted by Toscanini. Gould displayed an extraordinary technical sophistication that was not matched by expressive content of comparable depth. An unabashed musical nationalist, he admitted freely that virtually all his music, regardless of its aspirations as “serious” work, drew upon vernacular musical material. In his more ambitious efforts he would typically subject this material to complex developmental procedures that often seemed disproportionately overwrought, relative to the composition’s actual aesthetic, emotional, and psychological weight. Lincoln Legend is a 17-minute “symphonic poem” in several sections of contrasting moods and dynamics. Through it are interwoven various American songs, most notably “The Old Grey Mare” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As clever as its workmanship may be, the ultimate impact is vacuous. In a sense Gould was a slick, less pretentious variant of Ives, although this comparison will probably infuriate proponents of both composers. Maybe it’s a weakness on my part, but hearing “The Old Grey Mare” treated symphonically does not get my pulse racing.

Roy Harris’s reputation has plummeted dramatically since the days when he was touted as one of America’s “greats”—a fall from grace quite justified by the overall quality of his work. As is well known, Harris attempted to fabricate and exploit a personal connection to Lincoln, claiming to have been born in a log cabin on February 12, in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. However, his 1953 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, scored for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, manages to avoid many of his most annoying mannerisms, and is actually one of the more interesting pieces on this program, with some arresting moments. But it is no masterpiece, lacking any sense of dramatic contour; it just seems to keep going until it stops, which is, of course, the problem with his symphonic works. This weakness is not overcome by mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, who, despite a lovely voice and excellent intonation, delivers the music in a monotonous fashion, which only accentuates the monotony of the music.

The story behind Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address is, I’m afraid, more interesting than the piece itself, resulting in a front page story in the New York Times. For those readers not old enough to remember, here is the story in a nutshell: In late 1971, in preparation for the activities surrounding Richard Nixon’s second inauguration as president, Persichetti had been selected by the inaugural committee to write a work for the occasion, to be performed at the Kennedy Center by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was to be a work with spoken text, and Persichetti was asked to include excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Persichetti agreed and set to work, although he was given little time to produce the composition. However, what with the controversial war in Vietnam still raging, along with intense anti-war protests, the committee began to have second thoughts about Lincoln’s address, which included comments about “the scourge of war,” which, they felt, might embarrass Nixon under the current circumstances. So they began to request deletions from the text. At first Persichetti—a gentle, conciliatory fellow—went along with these requests, at which point he had only three weeks to complete the work. Working quickly, he finished the piece by the deadline. But now more deletions were requested. At this point Persichetti refused. So the inaugural committee took the piece off the program. This was front-page news: The work’s non-performance drew more attention to the composer than any performance of his music ever had. And, of course, the piece was promptly played by orchestras all over the country. However, given the time pressure under which he was working, what Persichetti had done was to take portions of his Symphony No. 7, “Liturgical,” and insert the Lincoln excerpts at appropriate points. Music being highly susceptible to the power of suggestion, the result fit the text just fine. But the music—here as in its original symphonic context—is rather cold and impersonal; it is not Persichetti at his best. However, the performance offered here is extremely flattering to the work. Barry Scott offers a fine reading of Lincoln’s words; and Leonard Slatkin, one of today’s most sympathetic and effective advocates for the “American symphonic school,” leads a sensitive performance that makes one long for him to take on the Symphony No. 7 itself. He might be just the conductor to bring this work to life.

And this brings us to the one well-known work on the program: Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait. Longtime Fanfare readers may be aware that my reactions often go against the grain of received opinion. However, there is no getting around the fact that Copland’s work simply dwarfs everything else offered on these two CDs. Many people have an aversion to works with narrators, and I count myself among them. But there are exceptions, and A Lincoln Portrait is one of them. By now I have heard this work at least a hundred times, and it still moves me deeply—the text, the music, the whole thing. Like the Gould work, this piece too weaves American folk tunes into the symphonic fabric. But it works because Copland does not twist them out of their natural settings; the context in which he places them is in keeping with their characters. Again Barry Scott provides an excellent rendition of the text, and Slatkin leads one of the most well-shaped performances of the work I have ever heard. He and the Nashville Symphony are excellent throughout these recordings, but this is most noticeable to me in the two works I know best. I am not privy to the machinations behind the scenes concerning Slatkin, the Nashville Symphony, and Naxos, but while the other record companies ignore the American symphonic repertoire, Naxos is bringing this music much-deserved attention. Like Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Slatkin and Nashville are a winning combination.