NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC: An American Celebration, Vol . 1
(December 7, 1999) For a third year running, the New York Philharmonic has released archival broadcast performances, this time of music by American composers on 10 CDs in two boxed, slipcased volumes with copiously annotated program books for each. Since each CD runs more than 70 minutes, and time is increasingly at a premium as the holidaze approacheth, let's review one volume at a time, which the magic of computerization can combine with Vol. 2 when I've listened to and written about it.
Everything, let me add, is being listened to with the single exception of Copland's 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man, which leads off Vol. 1, in a 1997 performance conducted by Kurt Masur. I found this piece empty and pompous within a year of its premiere, long before it became as Emblematic as the eagle, or the Statue of Liberty---and just the right length (3'07") for post-'Nam attention spans, plus TV-commercial ubiquity.
On Disc 1, following this shortest of eight (count-'em-eight) salutes to Copland, we find George Whitefield Chadwick's Melpomene Overture of 1891, hardly a worthy acknowledgment of that eminent composer in his day. It begins by plagiarizing Tristan und Isolde, ably if not admirably, then retreats to the safety of Schumann's Manfred mode. It received one of Leonard Bernstein's generic performances in 1958, at the beginning of his 11-year tenure on the NYP podium.
Two weeks earlier he conducted three movements from Edward MacDowell's "Indian" Suite, likewise written in 1891 by America's answer to Grieg---his last work for orchestra although he lived another 17 years. It benefits from Bernstein's decision to drop two movements, the rest of which he conducted most affectionately.
Charles Tomlinson Griffes (even shorter-lived than MacDowell, only 36 years) was instrumental in shifting European influences on North American music from Germany to France; his Debussy-influenced The White Peacock derives from a January1946 concert guest-conducted by Howard Hanson.
Next up, Ernest Schelling's A Victory Ball (a.k.a. Fantasy for Orchestra) was inspired in 1922 by Alfred Noyes' impassioned anti-war poem. It is 14 mainly hectic minutes of music by a composer-conductor who knew too much music by others, especially Ravel's brand-new La valse. An October 1945 performance reflects Artur Rodzinski's storied expertise as an orchestra rebuilder, at the half-way point in his abbreviated tenure as music director of the NYP (1943-47).
Disc 1 closes out with Masur's Teutonic take on Three Places in New England at the end of May 1994---the only work in this overview by Charles Ives, who was far and away the wooliest of America's prewar-1 composers. It is a painstaking performance, but distanced from the Yankee spirit in recordings by Leonard Slatkin, a young but precocious Michael Tilson Thomas in his Boston/DGG period, or Christoph von Dohnányi, in third place currently. (Indulge me in a sidebar: Michael Gielen, like Masur German-born, in the same month of the same year, began a six-year Cincinnati tenure in 1980 with a transfixing performance of Three Places. I always thought he'd have been ideal for Cleveland, conditioned by 24 years of George Szell, while Dohnányi seemed more suitable temperamentally for Cincinnati.)
Disc 2 opens with Copland's 1925 Music for the Theater, hinting at the populist to come but still cheekily anti-Establishmentarian, before the jazz age succumbed to the Great Depression. It is one of three superb Copland performances in Vol. 1, with the orchestra on its best behavior in 1985 for Erich Leinsdorf, who fit the work's mood and manner like a glove.
The contrast between Leinsdorf's cool Copland and a hyperventilating performance of Edgard Var╦se's Int╚grales (composed a year after Music for the Theater) is instructive. With Bernstein conducting in October 1966, it reveals both the work's adaptability to a variety of interpretive options, and the orchestra's rowdiness by then---too many years of the commander encouraging his troops to call him "Lenny." The distance separating Bernstein's Manhattan-flavored view and the innate Gallicism of his successor, Pierre Boulez, who made Var╦se one of the NYP's centerpieces, is transatlantic yet not disqualifying.
The third item, conducted by John Barbirolli in a boxy recording from 1936, sounds lushly fustian. Memories of My Childhood ("Life in a Russian Village") was composed in 1923 by Alsatian-born Charles Martin Loeffler, whose relocations included Ukraine before immigrating stateside at the age of 20. Boston was principally home for the rest of his long life (1861-1935). His music was kindly nurtured there, but did not withstand the test of time. Whether "Russian," Belgian or Bostonian, his Memories were turgid.
Swiss-born Ernest Bloch, yet another immigrant, composed a durable and spiky Concerto Grosso No. 1 for strings with piano obbligato in 1924-25, at the end of his tenure as founding-director of the Cleveland Institute. This 1948 performance, ebulliently conducted by Charles Munch (later to be named Serge Koussevitzky's successor in Boston), featured the NYP's excellent in-house pianist, Walter Hendl, a Curtis pupil of Fritz Reiner, who was appointed conductor of the Dallas Symphony the next year.
Disc 2 ends with Gershwin's no longer natty An American in Paris (in fact already threadbare) yet attractive to Rodzinski and his crew in a Madison Square Garden performance on October 1, 1944. Not only did they impart a boulevardier's swagger, up-front sound on this CD is astonishing for that venue and year. But then sound quality throughout this set is outstanding---a model for all other orchestras to emulate---despite the variables encountered and overcome by Seth Winner and his team.
Disc 3 is a mixed bag that begins with Hanson's intellectually disadvantaged, musically starved "Romantic" Symphony of 1930, from the same Hanson concert in 1946 that included The White Peacock on Disc 1. Playing took its cue from the music, meaning there are preferred recordings in Schwann/Opus by Slatkin and Gerard Schwarz (or Charles Gerhardt, if you don't mind his retouching), in addition to three by the composer himself with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra.
In contrast, excerpts from Acts III and IV of Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, with word-play by Gertrude Stein, brought out the best in Bernstein. Soloists McHenry Boatwright and Bette Allen, as Comm╦re and Comp╦re, sang wonderfully, while Bernstein supplied an ennobling sonority without distorting Thomson's deft scoring---an opulence missing in other documentations we have of this unique and ingratiating Dada-opera. Sadly, LB never led more than these 14 minutes of the complete score.
More Copland ensues, El Salón M╚xico begun in 1933---a vivaciously played performance led by Guido Cantelli in 1955, who was surely destined to succeed Dimitri Mitropoulos as the NYP's music director (or co-director with Bernstein) until his untimely death a year later in an air crash near Paris. Yet this exhilarating performance just misses sounding idiomatically Mexican. Bernstein recorded it at least twice, and Copland too, of course, in the podium-coda of his career, but no one has quite made it swing as Koussevitzky did in 1938, with the Boston Symphony at its peak, expertly remastered on both Pearl and Biddulph CDs.
The best of Kurt Masur follows in Carl Ruggles' Sun Treader (1926-31), a Bunyanesque work with roots in Brahms but a voice emphatically of the 20th century. Ruggles composed slowly and painstakingly; if his output was miniscule, his vision was large and his aim dead-center. This is precisely the kind of music Masur does best, with muscle and trajectory; it shared a program with Ives' Three Places (on Disc 1) but cornered the conductor's sympathies.
Disc 3 ends with more Copland-- Prairie Journal , originally composed in 1937 as Music for Radio but oddly neglected, even after its belated publication in 1968. Conducted by the orchestra's pre-Masur music director, this is one of Zubin Mehta's best efforts: no loose ends, no spilt poster-paint, no grandstanding. The 12-minute piece is pure Copland, on the threshold of his ordination as North America's Wide-Open-Spaces Composer. (Virgil Thomson, who taught him how to do it, and really was a native of our heartland despite his Gallic veneer, never quite forgave Brooklyn-born, New York-bred Copland's preeminence, despite their collegial bond as American music's staunchest champions between World Wars and following No. 2.)
Disc 4 starts with music by Roy Harris, whom Copland displaced, although Roy never stopped wrapping himself and his music in the flag. Before his death in 1979 he had composed 15 or so symphonies, three of which (Nos. 3, 5 and 7) inhabit the perimeter of the repertoire. The best known and arguably the best written, albeit flawed, is the single-movement Third, which Bernstein recorded twice with the NYP, but conducted with greater urgency in 1957---a performance preserved here. LB couldn't -- nobody ever could -- make it move inevitably toward a destination; Harris always spun his wheels. But the procession of gestures in this Third Symphony are handsome counterfeits of forward motion.
Next is Samuel Barber's Essay No. 1, composed in 1937 for Toscanini, who introduced it with the NBC Symphony a year later. This version is lickety-split, a 1950 performance led by George Szell that misrepresents the work despite his taut control of the players. Not a success.
The rest is "lite" music, but with a couple of surprises. In 1949, Stokowski conducted a glittery and sinister suite that Bernard Herrmann made in 1942 from his film score for The Devil and Daniel Webster. This performance was filet-mignon Philharmonicking of music I didn't know and found engrossing. Not so a brief postcard piece by William Grant Still, one of two Afro-American composers represented in this collection. Called Old California, it was written in 1941 for the 160th anniversary of Los Angeles' founding, and played by the NYP in 1944 under Pierre Monteux, conductor at the time of the San Francisco Symphony.
There's not much meat on the bones of Hanson's 1945 Serenade for Solo Flute, Harp and Strings, which Stokowski conducted in 1949, although any performance as suave as this one (with John Wummer and Theodore Cella as soloists) makes it sound consequential---almost.
Disc 4 ends with a performance I almost skipped---of Copland's Lincoln Portrait, which usually sounds like an echo of Harris' self-serving and bogus patriotism. Even when Adlai Stevenson and Claude Rains spoke the composer's contrived text, I disliked it almost as much as his damned Common Man Fanfare. But the performance of June 3, 1976, in the Royal Albert Hall at London, was transcendental. Bernstein didn't just conduct, he panned for gold and found it, with narration by William Warfield as natural, unstagey, and impeccably enunciated as any, ever. I found myself moved to listen again, with the same sense of awakening a second time, especially in the opening section, which is uniquely eloquent music-making.
As Copland's music opened Disc 1 and ended Disc 4, his Appalachian Spring Suite opens Disc 5, reworked from the 1943-44 Martha Graham ballet score for 13 instruments. The original danced version was introduced in May of 1945; Artur Rodzinski led the suite in October, a performance almost as lovely as Bernstein's of Lincoln Portrait. The music was new and fresh, unblemished by conductorial thumbprints. What Koussevitzky made lush-sounding in his premiere recording with the Boston Symphony, Rodzinski made as clear as a mountain stream. His NYPlayers rose to the occasion---not a Boston sound, but "Appalachian" rather than New Yorkey.
A performance of similar caliber and conductorial insight follows: of Paul Creston's Second (and best) Symphony of 1944, in two movements. Pierre Monteux conducted, and the music's underlying dance character awoke sympathies going back to the Ballets Russes, beginning in 1911. Creston had his own vocabulary, though, at a time when Hindemith was being copied right and left, plus a distinctively assertive style without being pushy or brassy, such as we'll encounter in a moment. But let us first savor the unpretentious charm and clear purpose of Henry Cowell's 1944 Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 2, sympathetically led by Paul Paray 12 years later.
Disc 5 (and Vol. 1) ends with the single-movement Sixth Symphony William Schuman wrote in 1948, which Bernstein conducted 10 years later. Harris was his teacher and almost succeeded in removing the wheels from Schuman's vehicles as he did with his own. Until this work disavows Teacher and Teaching, it sounds like an unconscious parody of Harris, acerbic to boot. But Schuman, who wrote an enduring Third Symphony several years earlier, and an Eighth that out-Coplanded the latter's Third, fumbled other portions of Sixth Symphony (and Seventh, too). It ends up, however, by walloping the listener without bruising or leaving regrets, with Bernstein masterfully conducting his senior colleague's music.
And so Vol. 1 ends---rousingly, in the euphoric, diatonic-dissonant, expressively extroverted style that followed victory in World War Two, before ravaged Europe went fractiously berserk, and sent viruses across the Atlantic with cataclysmic consequences for almost 30 years.
More will follow when more has been ingested and digested.
NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC: An American
Celebration, Volume 2
NEW YORK PHILHARMONIC: An American Celebration, Volume 2
Disc 1 (79:58) ELLINGTON-MARSALIS:
A Tone Parallel to Harlem (Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra/Marsalis;
Masur) 1999; BERNSTEIN: Serenade for Violin (Dicterow, Slatkin) 1991;
SCHULLER: Dramatic Overture (Mitropoulos) 1957; MENNIN:
Concertato Moby Dick ( Bernstein) 1963; COPLAND: Orchestral
Variations (Bernstein) 1958.
Vol. 2, Disc 1 begins not with music by Aaron Copland -- surprise! -- but by Edward "Duke" Ellington, A Tone Parallel to Harlem, composed in 1950 on commission from Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, to quote copious program notes. It was premiered the next year in the "Old" Metropolitan Opera House, recorded by the Duke himself on December 7, 1951, and reported to be one of his favorite works. But wait, Harlem here is an "arrangement" by Wynton Marsalis for Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra, performed with the NYP on April 8 and 10, 1999, during centenary celebrations of Ellington's birth. Why an "arrangement," one furthermore that sounds like a lo-cal, stateside imitation of Rolf Liebermann's mid-'50s Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra? Question not the intrusion of agendas, revisionism and merchandising in latterday Art (high, medium and low) as another century crassly, too often wantonly, redefines parameters that were operative until the Vietnam War. It could break your heart.
Meanwhile, what of Harlem, co-conducted one gathers by Marsalis and Kurt Masur? I'll risk the admission that I never cared for the music when it was new, nor for Ellington's other large-scale works including Black, Brown and Beige or the additional Harlem pieces with artful titles. I liked instead his unpretentious, bluesy, cool, short pieces -- but even more than those, the root music by predecessors and contemporaries. I'd rather hear a Bessie Smith cut, surface scratch and all, or a New Orleans Dixieland Band any time, given my druthers: this confessed so you can take what I've written about A Tone Parallel to Harlem and shred it, if you disagree.
Yet I'd rather hear Harlem again than Copland's emptily pretentious Orchestral Variations, his 1957 reworking of the austere 1930 Piano Variations, in a sledgehammer performance under Leonard Bernstein on December 6, 1958, at the end of Disc 1. The Louisville Orchestra commissioned and introduced it nine months earlier, but by 1957 the Copland well was running dry -- one that had served up Americana with a glitzy, French-tutored finish for two decades, practicing first with El Salón M╚xico, followed by Billy the Kid, Rodeo and other evocations of 19th-century stateside sites as foreign to Brooklyn-born Copland as Ethiopia or Iceland. I never liked Piano Variations (Lenny B's storied party-emptying piece during his student days), not even William Kapell's definitive version, and care less for Orchestral Variations. Since confession seems to be the order of these paragraphs, I never got all the way through it, and in sheer exasperation turned to Disc 2.
But first, the in-between items on Disc 1: a fine, near-definitive 1990 performance of Bernstein's eloquent Serenade for Violin, String Orchestra, Harp and Percussion (After Plato's "Symposium") by Glenn Dicterow, the NYP's continuing concertmaster, who played the music with Bernstein several times over several years. Here his conductor is Leonard Slatkin, to the manner born but without Lenny-B's excesses. Next there's Gunther Schuller's 1951 Dramatic Overture in a 1957 performance under Dimitri Mitropoulos' missionary direction -- a useful piece d'occasion that quits the ear within a few minutes of its last flourish. After Schuller we get more perfervid Bernstein on the podium -- a 1963 performance of Peter Mennin's 1952 Concertato (Moby Dick). This remains a durable example of diatonic, dissonant, American-style Neo-Classicism influenced by Hindemith but less cluttered, less academic. If you'd like to hear it more securely played, without Bernstein's intrusion of himself as a composer, Delos couples Moby Dick with the Third and Seventh Symphonies, done justice by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony.
OK, Disc 2 -- almost my favorite of the 10 in this collection, except that it concludes with Ned Rorem's piecemeal Third Symphony. This last has attractive moments but, like all of Rorem's orchestral works known to me, is a conflation that ultimately reveals a miniaturist's shortness of breadth as well as breath. Not by accident is Rorem most renowned for his art songs, along with naughty tell-all diaries and several collections of short writings on musical subjects a la Virgil Thomson, the inimitable.
The disc begins with a conductor-less performance of Bernstein's Candide Overture (orchestrated in part by Hershey Kay), played on December 7, 1992, as part of a tribute to the NYP's music director for 11 years, and thereafter a frequent and hortatory laureate guest. Morton Gould's glittering, sinuous, intoxicating 1953 Dance Variations follows -- a work dismayingly neglected by current two-piano teams although it would seem a natural for the Labeque sisters. Here we have a Sunday repeat of the world-premiere performance by the team that commissioned it, Arthur Whittemore and Jack Lowe, Mitropoulos conducting. The boys made an RCA recording at the end of that same year with Leopold Stokowski and the San Francisco Symphony, in mono only but superb mono, certainly worth CD remastering and reissue, since the NYP's vivacious performance is never likely to appear separately.
Next comes a vivid, vintage-1956 Mitropoulos reading of Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, which Samuel Barber derived from his score for Martha Graham's ballet Cave of the Heart (originally Serpent Heart). Munch recorded it for RCA with the Boston Symphony, but this one is far subtler, in the same breath more persuasively dramatic. Still on a roll, Disc 2 gives us David Diamond's The World of Paul Klee, written in 1957 for the Portland (Oregon) Junior Symphony, here in a 1960 performance under Seymour Lipkin's direction. A contemporaneous take on Klee by Gunther Schuller got more attention at the time, but Diamond's music is altogether more fanciful, deserving of repertory status. Finally there is Rorem's come-down, but not too disqualifyingly.
Disc 3, which begins and ends with vocal works, contains more Copland -- the meticulous but earthbound Nonet for Strings, finished in 1960 for three each of violins, violas and celli, then expanded by the composer for 48 strings, the version heard here in a 1964 broadcast performance under William Steinberg's direction. Elliott Carter's intricate, brilliant, but intellectually exhausting Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the NYP for its 125th anniversary (introduced by Bernstein), follows Copland in a fastidious 1975 performance under Pierre Boulez, who succeeded Lenny-B on the NYP podium. I keep thinking what a shame it was -- still is -- that Carter since the 1940s hasn't written a tune.
After this comes George Crumb's Star Child, commissioned in 1975 by the Ford Foundation for Irene Gubrud, the NYP and Boulez -- a work that requires four conductors, a solo trombone, "antiphonal children's voices," and the aforesaid soprano soloist. If you already know Crumb's music you'll feel at home in Star Child, sung in Latin "freely adapted from Medieval sources of the 13th century" --much ado about whatever each listener decides. Crumb, though, has failed to impact the standard repertoire despite a brilliant debut; the premiere of Echoes of Time and the River at the University of Chicago, with Irwin Hoffman conducting the Chicago Symphony, remains a vivid memory, as much for the music as for the sight of players perambulating self-consciously while they played. Disc 3, to backtrack, begins with a dollop of yesteryear chic: Introduction and Goodbyes, Lukas Foss' brief solo scena with chorus. Gian-Carlo Menotti's "libretto" consists entirely of guests' names -- a whimsey that cannot support the timespan of even nine-minutes, although this 1960 performance preserves the engaging art of baritone John Reardon, a celebrity victim of AIDS early on. Bernstein conducted.
Disc 4 in Volume 2 starts off with another "familiar" composer, Alan Hovhaness, in a piece called To Vishnu that is indistinguishable from several hundred other of his works; Andre Kostelanetz, who commissioned it, conducted this performance in 1967. Eight years later, Boulez was the conductor of a seriously more substantial work commissioned by NYP: Lamia, by the late Jacob Druckman, composed for soprano Jan de Gaetani. It is a longish piece (as in "sounds long") about sorceresses and witches on a variety of texts -- a coup de theatre that has not survived Ms. Gaetani's untimely decease, as Crumb's Star Child has not survived. The next-to-last piece on Disc 4 is Joan Tower's most durable work to date, Sequoia, which took 16 months to compose (1979-1981) -- roughly one month for every minute. It is a serious piece in an astringent but accessible idiom, perhaps more praised than the substance quite warrants in this era of E.R.A. This performance from September 1982 was conducted by Zubin Mehta, who succeeded Boulez on the podium in Avery Fisher Hall. It is typically sturdy, like the redwoods Ms. Tower celebrates in her first music "originally conceived for orchestra," without enlivening it beyond the notes on the page. Which brings us to Steve Reich's "orchestral version" of Tehillim (or Psalms), composed in 1981 for a consortium of commissioners in Germany and Houston, Texas. Mehta conducted an elaborate assembly just nine days before the performance of Sequoia. I didn't get very far into it, though; not for the first time, Reich's brand of minimalism encouraged me to stop listening and move on to Disc 5. You may feel differently.
The final installment in Volume 2 begins with Kurt Masur leading John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine -- laus Deo for the shortness. Two concertos follow with a symphony in between -- No. 3 by Ellen Taafe Zwillich -- which is first-class in every way, deserving of permanency, and leaves Joan Tower eating dust. In three connected movements, assertively tonal but not vanilla Neo-Romanticism, it says everything that needs saying in 21-minutes. While admiring this 1993 performance, guest-conducted by Jahja Ling of the Cleveland and the Florida Gulf Coast Orchestras, I'd like to hear another -- others in fact -- to find what else the score may impart.
Ms. Zwillich's music is preceded by Christopher Rouse's Trombone Concerto, commissioned by the NYP for its sesquicentennial anniversary, introduced at the end of December 1992 and the beginning of 1993. Joseph Alessi is soloist and Leonard Slatkin conductor in this memorial piece for Leonard Bernstein -- a stygian business I found monochromatic in the extreme and rhythmically turgid soon on. Rouse is one of our major composers, but this does not represent not the man on his mettle despite the Pulitzer Prize it subsequently won.
The other comparably major composer of Rouse's generation is William Bolcom. His Clarinet Concerto for soloist Stanley Drucker during the same celebratory season was played just a year before Rouse's piece, this one also guest-conducted by Leonard Slatkin. It is familiarly jaunty, with forays into pop idioms, indeed populism, without detaining the listener more than 19 minutes. Try hearing it alone, though, without the lead-in of Ellen Zwillich's powerful Third Symphony.
Disc 5, and this entire tribute to American music, ends with a joint performance by the NYP and NBC Symphony in Madison Square Garden, conducted by Arturo Toscanini at a benefit for the Red Cross on May 25, 1944. The music is John Philip Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever. As a bandmaster's son, Toscanini knew the tradition that Sousa transcended, for one of his own unique creation. The performance here sounds ever so slightly plebian. Someone was needed to whisper "Garibaldi" or "Viva V.E.R.D.I" just before the storied Maestro gave his downbeat. "Sousa" on the score wasn't enough.
R.D. (March 2000)