WILLIAM SCHUMAN: American Festival Overture

Program Notes

The American Festival Overture is one of William Schuman’s earliest works to achieve success and his first to be recorded. It was composed in 1939 at the encouragement of Serge Koussevitzky, who promised to perform it with the Boston Symphony. The title refers to a festival of American music that Koussevitzky had planned for the 1939-40 concert season. He led the orchestra in the premiere of the overture in Boston, in October of 1939. The piece is based entirely on a simple motif that Schuman identified as a familiar boys’ street call. Sung to the syllables “wee-awk-eee,” the motif consists of three notes, the first falling a minor-third, and the third a return to the original note. This motif, along with a sequence of perfect fourths, thoroughly permeates the overture. Schuman later stated, “The American Festival Overture is obviously a piece that could only have been composed by someone in his/her twenties or maybe thirties, but not an older person. This overture is a musical pep talk, brash and all those things.” Except for a brief passage of reflection, the work is vigorously rousing and emphatically exuberant. Yet despite its extroverted character, it is saturated with a profusion of brilliant developmental activity. Although much of the melodic content is simple and straightforward, there is a great deal of harmony built on the interval of the fourth, which imparts a bristling, modern surface. Shortly after the premiere, a 23-year-old Leonard Bernstein noted “an energetic drive, a vigor of propulsion which seizes the listener by the hair, whirls him through space, and sets him down at will.”

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

ROSNER: Piano Concerto No. 2; Gematria; Six Pastoral Dances; From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow

ROSNER: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Peter Vinograde, piano); Gematria; Six Pastoral Dances; From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow (Peter Riegert, speaker)London Philharmonic; David Amos, cond.  TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC-0368

Liner Notes

During his fifty-year compositional career, the American composer Arnold Rosner produced a body of a work that combined diverse influences into a powerful, distinctly personal musical voice. His catalog contains compositions in nearly every genre, including three operas, eight symphonies, numerous works for orchestra and band, several large-scale choral works, and many chamber, solo, and vocal pieces.

Rosner’s musical language was founded upon the harmony and rhythmic devices of pre-Baroque modal polyphony. To this he added a 20th-century freedom of modality and triadicism, and combined this harmonic language with the orchestration, drama, and scope of 19th century romanticism. What makes Rosner’s music worthy of serious consideration, rather than being merely a homogenization of earlier styles, is the way he shaped his unusual language to embrace an enormous expressive range—far broader than one might imagine possible—from serene beauty to violent rage, with many points in between. And despite its fusion of seemingly incongruous elements, most of his music is readily accessible even to untutored listeners. This remarkable expressive range is well illustrated by the four works presented here.

Born in New York City in 1945, Rosner took piano lessons as a boy, and soon developed a voracious interest in classical music. Certain sounds in particular appealed to him—juxtapositions of major and minor triads, as well as modal melodies—and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family—fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music composition—encouraged him to pursue more practical endeavors. So he attended the Bronx High School of Science, whence he graduated at the age of 15, and then New York University with a major in mathematics. But all the while he was composing—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, etc.—not that anyone else was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors. His composer-heroes at the time were Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, and their influence is evident in much of his creative work.

Graduating from NYU before he turned 20, Rosner then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. But, no longer able to resist the inner drive to pursue musical composition as his primary activity, he entered the University of Buffalo the following September, with a major in music composition. This was 1966, when the serial approach dominated university music departments, and young composers were often coerced into adopting it, either directly or indirectly. Rosner was adamantly opposed to serialism and refused to embrace it. He often recounted how the Buffalo faculty dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. Later, in describing his educational experience there, he wrote that he “learned almost nothing” from these pedants. While his peers may have capitulated to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, in response, his department repeatedly rejected the large orchestral work he had submitted as his dissertation. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of work he considered legitimately meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation—the first ever—on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York.

Rosner devoted the rest of his life to writing the music that represented his personal aesthetic ideals, supporting himself through academic positions at colleges in and around the New York City area. His most enduring position was as Professor of Music at Kingsborough College (of the City University of New York), which he held for thirty years, until his death. During the course of his compositional career, his musical language gradually expanded from its idiosyncratic and intuitive beginnings, broadening and deepening its expressive range. Arnold Rosner died in Brooklyn, NY, in 2013, on his 68th birthday.

Rosner composed his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 30, in 1965, shortly after graduating from NYU, and before receiving professional instruction in composition. As such it is an excellent representation of the roots of his musical language; it is also quite unlike any other piano concerto in the literature. Among its unusual features are its use of a scherzo as an opening movement, its lack of focus on virtuoso showmanship, and its avoidance of the sense of opposition between soloist and orchestra that characterizes the standard concerto. Instead it is dominated by melody—melody that resembles no other music, yet is readily accessible, irresistibly memorable, and instantly identifiable for those familiar with his music. 

The first movement, Scherzo: Allegro, is oriented in the key of G, with a strongly mixolydian flavor, and conveys a sense of joyful exuberance. The harmonic language is almost completely consonant, with interest generated by a free use of chromatically-related triads. Although the movement begins softly, its volume level reaches considerable peaks. This opening section is followed by a Trio: Allegretto. Relatively subdued at first, this section is based on a modal melody that hovers around G minor, and reveals some intervallic reminiscence of the scherzo melody. The tempo presses forward as a variant of the melody leads to a huge climax. A hushed transition then leads to a re-statement of the scherzo.

The second movement, Largo, begins very slowly and softly with another melody, again largely consonant, but in constantly-shifting modes. This melody is developed contrapuntally, and some striking major-minor dissonances are heard as it proceeds. Its serene, almost religious, character is transformed as the movement builds toward a gigantic climax with violent tone-clusters in the piano. As the climax recedes, the movement concludes as it began, in quiet serenity.

The third movement, Presto, returns to the lively, high-spirited tone of the opening movement. A loose rondo design, it is based on a syncopated modal melody that hovers around a tonal center of E. A secondary melody of similar character follows, leading back to a variant of the initial theme in triplet figuration. The solo piano introduces a second section, with a ponderous theme in triple meter, strongly related to the main theme of the first movement. Once this theme reaches a climax, a transition leads to a modified return of the first section, which then evolves into a variant of delicately ethereal character, featuring a continuous pattern of arpeggios in the piano’s high register. A fragment of the theme highlights its major-minor features in thundering octaves and triads. This builds to what feels like the work’s final peroration, as the delicate variant heard earlier is now stated with monumental grandeur. The movement’s main theme returns briefly in a form similar to its initial statement before leading to a coda based on yet another variant of the theme, which builds once again to a grandiloquent conclusion.

When the opportunity for a performance of one of his earlier works appeared, Rosner would typically review it to eliminate impracticalities and other symptoms of his inexperience. For this reason, before this concerto was recorded, composer-organist Carson Cooman edited it to adjust details of orchestration and piano figuration. 

Rosner composed a number of works that suggest the spirit of music from the Elizabethan period, such as his Five Meditations, Op. 36, and A Gentle Musicke, Op. 44. These have become among his most popular compositions. Six Pastoral Dances, Op. 40, scored for woodwind quartet plus strings, mines a similar vein, while incorporating a few distinctly modern touches. The opening “Intrada” sets the Elizabethan tone. The “Waltz” that follows is built upon a slightly mischievous melody heard first in the clarinet. In the middle a distinctly Rosnerian use of chromatically related triads is heard. The stately “Pavana” is richly polyphonic, with much use of suspensions and appoggiaturas that resolve in a manner reminiscent of music from the 17th century. The movement concludes with some piquant chromatic dissonances. The “Gigue,” is built around continuous triplet patterns, and is probably the movement with the most modern flavor, featuring perky dissonances and unorthodox parallelisms. However, the central section brings forth a more strongly Elizabethan touch. The final cadence is quite uncharacteristic for the composer, ending quizzically on a sub-dominant triad in second inversion. The warmly polyphonic “Sarabande” returns to the spirit of a 17th-century motet, leading directly into the finale, “Galliard and Reprise.” This lively movement begins with the composer’s characteristic treatment of triadic consonance, leading directly into a triumphant but abbreviated restatement of the opening “Intrada.” Six Pastoral Dances was composed in 1968, and was first performed the following year by the Bronx Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Spierman, to whom it is dedicated.

Conductor David Amos discovered Rosner’s music during the early 1980s, and soon became one of his most vigorous champions. Conducting the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Amos led the first recording of Rosner’s orchestral music. Between 1986 and 1993 he commissioned four works from the composer, each of which he premiered with his own Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego. The first of these was From the Diary of Adam Czerniakow, Op. 82. As will be evident to the listener, this work represents considerable maturation of Rosner’s musical language. He provided the following note, included at the front of the score:

Adam Czerniakow was the chairman of the Judenrat, or Jewish local government in the Warsaw ghetto from 1939 (the beginning of the German occupation and administration of the ghetto) until 1942 when he took his own life during the time of mass deportation of the population to death camps in the east. In this capacity, Czerniakow kept a secret diary which recounts considerable detail about the ghetto and its history, and also reveals the growing awareness and torment in Czerniakow himself as the Nazis moved deviously, carefully, and inexorably towards including the Jews of Poland in the “final solution.”

The unique artistic opportunity conveyed by the Diaries is its combination of two otherwise irreconcilable perspectives—the viewpoint of a mass of victims, which portrays the magnitude of the events, and that of a single tragic individual, which better portrays the human pathos of those events. Czerniakow was, after all, both a very tortured victim in his own right, and in a very real sense, a conduit—sometimes in spite of himself—between the oppressors and the thousands of Jewish victims in occupied Poland.

The work … is scored for full orchestra and one narrator, reading Czerniakow’s words. These diary entries are spoken only; there is no singing in the entire piece. The music is in one continuous movement, befitting something of an extended stream of consciousness, and the actual style migrates from symphonic, to coloristic, to cantorial, according to the spirit of the historical events.

The English translation of Czerniakow’s material was made by Raul Hilberg and Stanislaw Staron, in collaboration with Josef Kermisz of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The composer has applied for and received permission from all of these for the use of the material…. [The text has been further edited for concision by Walter Simmons.]

The first performance of this work took place in 2010. The score bears a dedication to Lee and David Amos.

The second of the Amos commissions is Gematria, Op. 93. During the early 1980s Rosner began exploring an approach he called stile estatico. Partly influenced by the “minimalism” that had become a popular style among living composers, but which Rosner felt was not sufficiently developed by any of its most prominent practitioners, stile estatico entails the simultaneous use of multiple ostinati. But these repeated ostinato patterns each follows a rhythmic cycle of its own, and are thus of different durations; hence the patterns overlap each other, as each starts and stops at different points. While these ostinati are unfolding, a more distinctive element may appear in the foreground. Gematria, composed in 1991, is probably the work in which Rosner employed the stile estatico most fully and with the greatest complexity. Of course the greatest challenge in composing a piece of this kind is to achieve meaningful overall coherence as each ostinato pattern repeats according to its own individual rhythmic cycle. In a note that appears in the score, Rosner writes:

Although found elsewhere, Gematria is most fully developed as an esoteric aspect of Judaism, particularly of Kabbalah mysticism. Numbers are systematically substituted for letters, resulting in complex hidden ideas, cross-references and double-meanings in otherwise apparently straightforward texts. This work does not apply a similarly schematic approach to music, but attempts a fitting mood and richness by means of complicated cross-rhythmic overlays of colors and harmonies. This work was commissioned by David Amos and the Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego.

The premiere of Gematria took place in 1992. The work is dedicated to the members of the Tifereth Israel Orchestra of San Diego.

WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Composer Profile

Program Notes

During the 1960s William Schuman was one of the most prominent figures in America’s classical music world—“probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music” and “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. He was also one of America’s most highly regarded composers throughout the middle third of the century. The story of his rapid ascent to a position of such eminence was legendary during his lifetime: Born in New York City in 1910, he was an “all-American boy” who spent his childhood consumed with baseball. Later he formed a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with his school chum Frank Loesser (subsequently a celebrated Broadway lyricist). After high school Schuman had enrolled in a commercial business course. Classical music meant little to him until, at the age of twenty, he attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini. The concert excited and inspired him, awakening an interest in a new direction he might pursue: the path of a serious composer. So he abandoned his focus on popular tunes, and turned his attention to more advanced musical study. His future wife, whom he met at this time, quickly realized his great potential, and strongly encouraged him in this direction.

Schuman made rapid progress toward his ambitious goal. In 1939, only nine years after embarking on his new career path, his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Six years later he was appointed president of the famed Juilliard School, where he promptly revamped the entire faculty and curriculum; in 1962 he became the first president of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all performing arts centers to follow. At the same time he continued to compose, receiving commissions, awards, and performances by the country’s foremost musical ensembles and arts institutions. After he retired from his Lincoln Center position, he continued to compose until his death in 1992.

Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Schuman’s music is its strongly “American” character, achieved without recourse to jazz, folk, or popular melodies or even to their general styles. This quality is deeply embedded within the tone and spirit of his musical personality, which may be described as bold and brash, declamatory, self-confidently assertive, tense, aggressive, nervously edgy, and, at times, contemplative, lofty, and even oratorical. His body of work comprises ten symphonies, two operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which were performed and recorded by the world’s leading artists and ensembles.        

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

BARBER: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Program Notes

Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto was one of the greatest popular successes of his later years. It was commissioned by his publisher G. Schirmer, in celebration of their hundredth anniversary, with a premiere to take place during the opening week of New York City’s imposing new cultural mecca, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in September 1962. Barber selected John Browning as his soloist and, as he often did, worked closely with the pianist during the process of composition.

Barber’s Piano Concerto is remarkable for its absorption of some of the sound and feeling of the then-fashionable “serial” style within an unabashedly neo-romantic composition. (This differs from such Barber works as the Sonata for Piano and the Nocturne, whose employment of twelve-tone material is utterly irrelevant to the serial style.) Without actually employing twelve-tone rows, Barber devised highly chromatic, nearly atonal thematic material, emphasizing wide-interval leaps, jagged, disjointed gestures, and irregular rhythmic groupings, and subsumed them within a conventionally structured virtuoso concerto, balancing such material with passages of lyrical passion and ferocious cadenzas, all of which culminate in dramatic climaxes.

The first movement is a tempestuous, but formally straightforward sonata allegro. The piano begins with a statement of angular, chromatic thematic material in the manner of a solo recitative. The orchestra then introduces a passionate, wide-ranging, almost atonal theme. After some development, the oboe presents a gorgeous, if more conventional, secondary theme, infused with typically Barberian poignancy. The development of all these ideas is unusually elaborate and complex for Barber, before a hair-raising cadenza and a full recapitulation lead the movement toward a decisive conclusion.

The second movement is an expansion of a nostalgic, thoroughly tonal Canzone for flute and piano that Barber had written in 1959. The expansion fully retains the expressive essence of its source, adding nothing significant beyond further ornamented repetitions of the pentatonic melody in different keys, clothed in varying textures and instrumentation. A bridge figure based on descending fourths separates the melodic repetitions.

The third movement is a propulsive five-part rondo in 5/8 meter, in the manner of a frenetic toccata. The main thematic idea is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Prokofiev. The movement is enormously difficult to play, but creates a brilliantly exciting effect. As was often the case with Barber, writing the finale had become a stumbling block for the composer, and was only completed some two weeks before the premiere! The concerto made a dazzling impact at its first performance, with the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

Barber’s Piano Concerto won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize and the 1964 Music Critics’ Circle Award. John Browning recorded the work and performed it some fifty times between 1962 and 1964, stating that it was one of the most difficult concertos he had ever played. By 1969 it had enjoyed 150 performances. The work may be the most frequently performed American concerto for any instrument composed since 1950.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016

GIANNINI: The Medead and songs by other composers

GIANNINI: The Medead ● Irene Jordan (sop); Henry Sopkin, cond; Atlanta SO (World  Premiere: 10/60); Paul Paray, cond; Detroit SO (1/4/62); songs by other composers ● JORDAN YSL T-343 (mono, analog); 2 CDs: 118:01 (Available from www.norpete.com)

I am grateful to Joel Flegler for permitting me, as critic-emeritus, to emerge from my retirement lair in order to submit this review of a release of singular importance. The Medead, by Vittorio Giannini, is one of the greatest works of the 20th-century never (until now) documented on a recording available to the public. It is remarkable that the piece has had to wait more than half a century for this to happen, and even now, it is a first release of live recordings dating from the 1960s, rather than a freshly recorded performance by one of today’s leading sopranos and with up-to-date sonic felicities. But now that the work is available in this incarnation, perhaps other performers will be inspired to provide fresh new renditions. The Medead is a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra that tells the story of the ruthless Medea from her own perspective, through a text written by the composer; in a sense it is a hybrid of a symphony and a dramatic monologue. I might describe the style as derived from the language of Wagner and Strauss (in his Salome and Elektra vein), but with an Italianate passion and emotional immediacy, disciplined by a 20th-century concentration of focus and formal economy. Its emotional intensity is maintained almost without interruption for some 35 minutes. But as great a work as I consider The Medead to be, it is not for everybody. If the notion of a hyper-intense, post-Wagnerian composition for soprano and orchestra makes you want to head for the hills, that is probably a good idea. On the other hand, if my description makes you wonder whether you have been missing out on a real masterpiece, and you are able to enjoy a work such as, say, Samuel Barber’s Andromache’s Farewell, I would suggest that you waste no time in getting hold of this recording.

Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) was born in Philadelphia into a highly musical family: His father and two of his sisters were professional singers of considerable repute. He himself enjoyed a modest reputation during the 1930s and 40s as a composer of highly romantic operas—many in a buffa vein—as well as concert songs (his “Tell Me, O Blue, Blue Sky” was performed by Eileen Farrell, Mario Lanza, Leonard Warren, and many others, and still appears frequently on recital programs today). He also wrote a number of utilitarian instrumental works, many of them lending a warmly romantic touch to Baroque forms. Such compositions, among them his Concerto Grosso, Prelude and Fugue for Strings, and Variations on a Cantus Firmus for piano solo, contributed to his reputation as a staunchly conservative traditionalist who created a body of benignly academic works of no great import. His most successful opera was a delightful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Giannini’s craftsmanship was reputed to be meticulous, and he taught dozens of budding composers while serving on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, the Curtis Institute, and, ultimately, as founding director of the North Carolina School of the Arts. During the late 1950s and early 60s he shrewdly fed the voracious appetite for original works for wind band, promoted by William D. Revelli in Michigan and Frederick Fennell in Rochester. With the intense irony endemic to the classical music world, these band works are the chief source of Giannini’s reputation today, and one of these, his Symphony No. 3, is among the cornerstones of the symphonic wind band repertoire. But what has remained much less well known is that during the early 1960s the composer, diagnosed with terminal heart disease and devastated by the failure of his second marriage, began to explore more serious—often Classical—subjects, treating them with a darker, harsher harmonic language and an astringent, less comforting lyricism than he had employed before, as well as tighter, more complex formal structures. Among these late works are most of the composer’s masterpieces, including his Symphony No. 5, Psalm 130 for double bass and orchestra, the dramatic monologues The Medead and Antigone, the opera Edipus, and the late piece for band Variations and Fugue. Some of these works have yet to be played even once; others are performed only occasionally. But among those who are conversant with Giannini’s body of work, The Medead is usually mentioned as his greatest accomplishment.

The Medead was one of the fruits of a commissioning project launched in 1958 by the Ford Foundation, under the aegis of W. McNeil Lowry. What was unusual about this project was that, in order to avoid adding to the dustpile of anonymous, justly maligned “foundation style” works, distinguished performing artists were invited to select composers of their own choice to write works for them, which they would then perform with a number of major American orchestras that had agreed to participate. Among the other works that resulted from this project were the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Paul Creston (chosen by Michael Rabin), Song of Orpheus by William Schuman (chosen by Leonard Rose), the Piano Concerto of Elliot Carter (chosen by Jacob Lateiner) and the Piano Sonata of Peter Mennin (chosen by Claudette Sorel). Soprano Irene Jordan, then about forty and at the height of her rather unusual career, chose Giannini.

What qualities lead me to value The Medead so highly? One is its consistent and unerring accuracy of emotional tone, relative to the text; another is the concentration of focus I noted above, with no musically or dramatically irrelevant digressions; especially significant is its formal structure, based on the initial presentation of two or three motifs whose development weaves a texture that is as musically lucid as it is dramatically coherent; equally important is the fact that while there are inevitable passages of non-melodic declamation, the dramatic highpoints draw the various musical elements into soaring, searing melodic apotheoses that direct and satisfy the listener’s attention; and, finally, the work embodies a whole tradition of bel canto operatic representation, exemplified most saliently by a “pastorale” section in the third movement, and the solemn ground bass that undergirds the shattering finale.

While the initial appearance of The Medead—in two different performances—is for me the main point of interest in this recording, the primary concern of the purveyors of the disc—which contains virtually no documentation other than the dates of performance—is soprano Irene Jordan. There is, quite strangely, very little information available about her in convenient sources. As far as I’ve been able to determine, she is still alive at this time, though in her late 90s. It is worth quoting from two reviews that appeared in Fanfare 23:3, commenting on what seems to be the precursor of this release. James Miller wrote, “What becomes of singers who seem to possess the goods but whose careers never seem to ‘take-off’? The name Irene Jordan is probably one unfamiliar even to most vocal buffs. She sang in the American premiere of Peter Grimes,… had a brief career as a Met comprimario, then, discovering that her mezzo-soprano voice was evolving into that of a dramatic soprano, she left the Met for further study and life as a dramatic coloratura. Although she ended up having a varied, interesting career, she got back to the Met for only one single performance, as the Queen of the Night. In his comprehensive history, The Metropolitan Opera, Irving Kolodin mentions ‘the breadth and weight of [her] dramatic sound,’… but says she was ‘erratic in pitch and insecure in skips.’…. Listening to this CD of live performances spanning 17 years, beginning in 1953, one listens in vain for that erratic pitch and insecurity, and hears, instead, a mezzo-soprano-colored voice knocking off high notes and ornamentation with confidence…. In addition to her technical finesse, she shapes the music sensitively. I was around during the 50s and 60s and, while it really was a comparatively rich period for voices, I remember nothing resembling hers until Joan Sutherland showed up.… Why someone who could sing like this pretty much escaped the limelight, I can’t say.” John W. Lambert added, “Jordan’s approaches to standard-repertoire items demonstrate that she was, in her day, far superior to a lot of people who now masquerade as vocalists. Today, a voice like this would make news even in papers that rarely cover the arts. One can only wonder.”

What is most striking about the soprano we hear in The Medead is her power and intensity, unblemished by ugly moments of loss of control or of imprecise pitch—and these are live recordings! One realizes that Giannini and Jordan fully understood the expectations each held of the other. This became abundantly clear to me after I had heard the attempts of several other sopranos to present this piece. The Atlanta premiere is of interest largely in demonstrating Jordan’s comprehensive mastery of the work from the start, while the orchestra—a far less imposing ensemble than it is today—scrambled to keep up under Sopkin’s tentative direction. But the 1962 performance, with the Detroit Symphony—also a far less supple and dexterous ensemble than it is today—enjoyed the leadership of Paul Paray, one of several French conductors whose distinguished artistry and musicality were slow to be recognized. Paray grasps precisely the tempo, the pacing, and powerful dramatic arc of The Medead, while Jordan is as acute in negotiating the work’s demands as she was in Atlanta, if not more so. But under Paray’s direction Giannini’s monodrama emerges as an indisputable masterpiece.

The second CD offers a series of songs recorded during several recitals much later on. Their main attraction lies in displaying the remarkable durability of Jordan’s voice, not to mention her musicianship. Of the eight items, the last four were taken from a 2004 recital, when she was 85! While they do require certain allowances from the listener, and in some of the eight—the Schubert in particular—her concern seemed directed more toward accuracy than toward expression of the text, these are not easy ditties. The Ravel, for example, is fairly demanding. Jordan’s renditions, even at this late age, are more remarkable for the virtues they offer than for those they lack.

In short, this is a release of interest to both vocal specialists and to those interested in uncovering the great American masterpieces of the 1950s and 60s that were buried during the stylistic skirmishes of that fractious period.

HOVHANNES: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain”

Program Notes

“Mysterious Mountain” is probably Alan Hovhaness’ most popular and often-performed orchestral work. It was commissioned by Leopold Stokowski, for his first concert as music director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1955, a performance that was televised nationwide. (Stokowski had begun to champion the music of Hovhaness during the 1940s, and continued to do so for the rest of his life.) This work by the erstwhile obscure composer achieved further widespread exposure through an RCA Victor recording released in 1958, featuring a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Fritz Reiner. This recording—the first of many—has remained available in one medium or another almost without interruption for more than 50 years. All these factors have contributed to its popularity, but not to be discounted is the character of the work itself: euphonious, serene, and contemplative throughout most of its 20-minute duration.

The Symphony No. 2 was originally entitled, simply, “Mysterious Mountain.” But around 1970, in an effort to provide some organization to his enormous and disparate body of work, Hovhaness added a number of his major orchestral works to his roster of symphonies, which eventually reached No. 67 (although their chronology remains inconsistent, to say the least). It was at this time that “Mysterious Mountain” became the subtitle of Symphony No. 2. One of the reasons for the confused chronology of Hovhaness’ works is the fact that he often re-purposed material from earlier works—modified or not—into later compositions. For example, the animated fugato in the second movement of the work at hand originally appeared in more primitive form in his String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1936.

Hovhaness intended his music to evoke spiritual states that transcended the concerns of mundane life. He accomplished this through an ever-evolving musical style that embraced the modal polyphony associated with the Renaissance, rich passages of hymnlike chorales, and religious incantations and dancelike styles of his ancestral Armenia. As time went on, he was to absorb elements of the musical styles of India, Japan, and Korea into his language. “Mysterious Mountain” is unusual among Hovhaness’ works in that Eastern musical references are largely absent from it. Mountains were a source of both awe and inspiration for Hovhaness: They seemed to suggest to him the immensity of the universe, and this impression was suggested in the titles of many of his works. Growing up in New England, he had ready access to mountain ranges, which he loved to explore; and he spent the last decades of his life among the mountains of Washington State.

The Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain,” comprises three movements. The first, Andante con moto, features rich, triadic, hymnlike chorales, with non-harmonic decorations played by the celesta. The overall effect is, indeed, celestial. The second movement, Double fugue: Moderato maestoso; allegro vivo, opens with a modal fugal exposition that suggests a Renaissance motet. This is followed by the exposition of an agitated subject introduced by the strings (taken, as noted above, from an early string quartet). Finally the two fugatos are combined contrapuntally in a majestic peroration. The third movement, Andante espressivo, begins quietly with a mysterious ostinato that builds gradually to a climax and then recedes. This is followed by a fervently spiritual hymn in the strings, and then, by a woodwind chorale. An ethereal passage, produced by subdivided solo strings, leads to a serene conclusion.

(Interested listeners are referred to the excellent Web site www.Hovhaness.com.)
Walter Simmons


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic with a particular focus on tonal American composers of the 20th century. While in his teens he maintained an ongoing correspondence with Alan Hovhaness. Simmons is the author of two books in Roman and Littlefield’s series Twentieth-Century Traditionalists, of which he is the supervising editor. Hundreds of his writings can be found on his Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.

© Walter Simmons 
BBC Proms Concert 2016