ROREM: Eleven Studies for Eleven Players (1959). Piano Concerto in Six Movements (1969).
Jerome Lowenthal, pianist; Louisville Orch/Jorge Mester (concerto)/Robert Whitney (Studies), cond.

DELLO JOIO: Homage to Haydn (1969). The Triumph of Saint Joan Symphony (1951).
Louisville Orch/Leonard Slatkin & Robert Whitney, cond.

The combined age of these two living composers on another pair of discs from the Louisville First Editions collection is 177; both reside in the New York City area. Dello Joio, elder of the two (b. 1913, halfway between Samuel Barber and David Diamond), lives on Long Island and as of 1999 was still composing, although his website list of published compositions cuts off after Ballabili for orchestra in 1983 and Love Songs at Parting for mixed chorus and piano in 1984. Rorem at 80 (b. 1923), meanwhile, continues to compose and polish his Grand Old Man posture: not for nothing was he was Virgil Thomson’s copyist in exchange for lessons. Even more than Thomson he was and continues to be a “short writer,” most celebrated for his songs, which share a French bias and a Parisian inculcation (separated, however, by World War II).

Both works on Rorem’s disc, composed a decade apart, exemplify his musical character which has carried over into 17 published books, either of diaries (which were a scandal when new) or essays. He is a traditionally tonal lyricist with intelligence, taste, and an almost parochial sense of formal structure, although as a “jazz” composer in the Prelude of Eleven Studies for Eleven Players he seems uneasily breezy. However, his solo trumpet riffs add up to a theme that has several variations (including a poignant “In Memory of my feelings” after a Frank O’Hara poem, at 5' 07" the longest of these Studies) with an “Epilog.” Composed in 1959, Rorem himself led the premiere the next year, while Robert Whitney made this first, two-track stereo recording in 1965, before his retirement. The playing is less than Big-10 caliber but it is idiomatic and note-perfect. The Piano Concerto of 1969 in six movements (a favorite subdivision for Rorem it would seem) is a spikier work, again based “on the same material, the kernel played by the soloist during the first two measures of the entire work.” It has subtitles which Rorem says “suggest either a kind of action or a kind of sound.... Beyond what may be evoked by these names I am reticent to add much.” Jerome Lowenthal plays in his big, expressively facile style, and Jorge Mester is in charge of an orchestra that keeps pace in two-track stereo from 1973.

Dello Joio’s two works include The Triumph of St. Joan Symphony (1951, the first version recorded here on December 5 of that year; revised in 1956 as Meditations on Ecclesiastes for strings, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1957). Its three movements – derived from his opera of 1950 – remind one, in the woodwind writing especially, that Dello Joio studied with Paul Hindemith at Tanglewood and Yale in 1941, although his first teacher at The Juilliard School had been Bernard Wagenaar. It is nonetheless characteristic of a lyric composer whose style derived from ecclesiastical orientation as a child and a teen, who refused to follow the “Futurists” after World War Two (thereby earning the scornful epithet “Jello Doio” from old Stravinsky in one of his five books coauthored by Robert Craft, after I.S. had taken the vows of Anton Webernism). The symphony’s three movements are subtitled “The Maid,” “The Warrior” and “The Saint.” They may not be conventionally memorable but are distinctive. (Dello Joio wrote three more operas: the single-act The Ruby in 1955, The Trial at Rouen in 1956, and Blood Moon in 1960.) Koch International released a New Zealand Symphony performance in 1993 conducted by James Sedares, along with the memorable Variations, Chaconne and Finale and Barber’s Adagio for Strings; with luck it can be found in cut-out bins or online because it does altogether surpass Whitney’s Louisville performance in intensity and sonority.

Homage to Haydn was written in 1969 out of “intense admiration for Haydn – his seeming simplicity...good humor...and endless imagination.” If you are expecting a work along the lines of Harold Shapero’s Symphony for Classical Orchestra (a po’faced sendup of Beethoven’s Seventh, in particular), stick with Shapero; Dello Joio’s work shares a spirit rather than a syntax, and charms throughout – so much so one is surprised that Leonard Slatkin (who conducted this 1974 First Edition in two-track stereo) has not included it in his National Symphony programs at the Kennedy Center – or any other Dello Joio that I’ve noticed. He had the Louisville Symphony playing at the top of its form for that period, and stereo is a bonus.

Two demurrers, however: Program notes are skimpy, as they were originally, although each disc has an introduction by David M Kaslow, while the limited playing time of each at full price does not encourage casual investment. These are not, after all, miraculous JVC remasterings of RCA Red Seal “Living Stereo” recordings from the middle ‘50s through the early ‘60s. Studio Santa Fe’s remasterings are distinguished, but hardly more so than those by Mark Obert-Thorn, Ward Marsten, Pierre Paquin, and a burgeoning host of transcribers who luckily love “classical” music as much as thee, me, and let us trust millions of others still.

R.D. (March 2004)