SOWERBY: Symphony No. 2. Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue. All on a Summer's Day. Concert Overture.
Chicago Sinfonietta and Czech National Symphony Orchestras/Paul Freeman, cond.
Cedille CDR 90000 039 (F) (DDD) TT: 61:50

I asked not to write about this CD from Chicago because (1), what music of Leo Sowerby I heard there over a period of 25 years left not a bad but no taste whatsoever, and (2), we met just once but not pleasantly. During the late 1920s and '30s especially, he was Chicago's leading composer-in-residence. John Alden Carpenter had run off with Ellen Borden. Eric Oldberg in Evanston wrote even blander music than Sowerby, whose bailiwick was the organ loft of St. James Cathedral, that bon ton bastion of Episcopaleanism on the Near North Side. Alexandre Tcherepnin had been imported by DePaul University in the mistaken belief that he was his father Nikolai. I've no idea when Ralph Shapey arrived at the University of Chicago with a portfolio of pieces that sounded like Carl Ruggles' discards, and expanded incrementally. This left young Easley Blackwood as the white hope of Hyde Park—but, after coming on strong with a brace of symphonies premiered by Charles Munch in Boston and George Szell in Cleveland, respectively, he added an excellent (but not popular) piano concerto before settling into teaching and occasional keyboard recitals.

The coming of Shulamit Ran (with Barenboim as I recall, by which time I was safely gone) cheered feminists far and wide, but seemed only to compound the cacophony that Shapey unleashed in the U of C's Mandel Hall. There was Alan Stout, who followed Oldberg at Northwestern—a good composer but not quite a distinctive one. And of course Rudolph Ganz, the Swiss piano virtuoso to whom Ravel dedicated Scarbo, and whom Florenz Ziegfeld brought to Chicago before leaving to produce Follies galore on Broadway. Rudy, as everyone called him, was chiefly a pedagog with a small albeit droll oeuvre—a piano concerto, for example, whose last movement subject was a transliteration of the numbers that year on his license plate.

Sowerby emigrated from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was born May 1, 1895, though you won't find that, or anything else biographical, in 10 pages of fulsome annotation by a disciple as fervid as Saints Matthew, Luke and John collectively. Maybe, though, if you like the notes you'll enjoy the music. I found it as boring as the memory of its occasional programming (without remembering how one single note of it sounded, then or now after listening to, then relistening to this misbegotten disc). Paul Freeman, who's spent a lifetime trying to be acclaimed the new Dean Dixon, conducts everything spinelessly, at times as if sight-reading. And neither orchestra is a winner. Not the Chicago Sinfonietta, which is based in a suburb west of the city; and certainly not the Czech National Symphony, founded in 1991, never to be mistaken for the storied Czech Philharmonic.

Sowerby's music is basically Germanic in an academic way, and scored clumsily for brass as one would expect of a lifelong organist neither Bruckner nor Stokowski. It's like cooked breakfast cereal without enough sugar or milk to trick the palate. As for the diminutive Sowerby in a profile photo at age 34 (conversing with Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony at the time, his only longtime champion before Freeman's appearance) he looked eerily like Kenneth Starr.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)