AMERICAN MUSIC FOR AN ALL AMERICAN HOLIDAY
By Lawrence Budmen
Just in time for the 4th of July, a recent series of CD releases celebrates the music of quintessentially American composers. The enterprising budget label Naxos has struck artistic gold with its "American Classics" series. A new group of recordings features the work of three of our nation's greatest composers - Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, and Samuel Barber.
The Brooklyn born Copland (1900-1990) may have been a musical Norman Rockwell. His music evokes the Great Plains, sweeping corn fields, holidays, and the Constitution. The "Symphony No.3," written in 1946, is one of Copland's most ambitious works. All of this composer's stylistic techniques (inspired melodies, brilliant, often flashy orchestration, and references to folk songs and hymns) are utilized in a large scale symphonic structure. Copland uses his wartime "Fanfare for the Common Man" as the principal thematic material of the final movement. This score is moving and powerful - Copland at his very best. Music lovers who have missed James Judd's brilliant music making with the Florida Philharmonic can enjoy his splendid work on this new recording. Judd leads a stirring, eloquent performance with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (of which he is music director). The string and wind playing is sweet toned and beautiful and the brass and percussion playing really has sonic impact. This outstanding performance is fully equal to the famous recordings by Copland and Leonard Bernstein and is superior to Eiji Oue's recent fine sounding account. As a bonus, the CD also contains a surprisingly subtle and idiomatic rendition of the Suite from Copland's 1938 ballet score "Billy the Kid."
George Gershwin (1898-1937) was the musical voice of the "Jazz Age." His 1928 symphonic poem "An American in Paris" is filled with quirky, jazz inspired syncopations and inventive orchestral effects (the result of Gershwin's studies with Ravel and Stravinsky). Judd and the New Zealand players deliver a lively performance, but the real gems on this disc are two scores with orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. Bennett (1894-1981) was one of the great Broadway arrangers. From the 1920's through the early 1960's Bennett did orchestrations for such masters of the American musical as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Loewe. He worked on several Gershwin shows and understood this composer's uniquely personal idiom. His "Gershwin in Hollywood" is a medley from Gershwin's final three film scores - "Shall We Dance," "Damsel in Distress," and "Goldwyn Follies." Bennett makes Gershwin's great tunes sound like they were meant to be played by a symphony orchestra. In 1943 he arranged a "Symphonic Picture" of music from Gershwin classic 1935 opera "Porgy and Bess." This great arrangement features a delightful banjo solo. Judd and his musicians play these great pastiches with brio.
In contrast to Copland and Gershwin, Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was a musical romantic. Flowing lyrical melodies and lush orchestrations characterize his works. Yet for all his deeply felt lyricism, his music could never be mistaken for the work of Brahms. In its own unique way, Barber's music is definitely American. His beautiful "Violin Concerto," Opus 14 (1941) is one of his greatest works. By turns haunting and virtuosic, this score demands great violin playing. On the new Naxos release, James Buswell provides that and more. This brilliant American violinist recently performed a soaring Bruch "Scottish Fantasy" at the Sarasota Music Festival and will appear in Miami next season with the New World Symphony. His performance of Barber's masterpiece captures the searing, bittersweet quality of the music. Buswell's bright, singing tone fits this score perfectly. He gives a dazzling reading of the Presto in moto perpetuoso finale, tossing off the double stops with verve. He is given gorgeous support by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Marin Alsop (who has guest conducted the New World Symphony on several occasions). The lush playing of the string section is striking. This is a great performance, easily the equal of the classic recorded versions by Isaac Stern-Leonard Bernstein and Robert Gerle-Robert Zeller. Ms. Alsop also leads her Scottish forces in lovely performances of Barber's charming 1951 ballet score "Souvenirs" and his early, intense "Serenade for Strings" (1928). An outstanding disc!
The enterprising Chicago based label Cedille has dedicated its releases to unusual and interesting repertoire with a particular emphasis on American music. A new disc features the original version of Barber's "Souvenirs" for piano four hands. It is played with lightness and verve by Georgia and Louise Mangos, who competed in the first Murray Dranoff Competition in Miami in 1987. They have since become fixtures of the Chicago music scene. The disc also offers two works by the Philadelphia composer Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). Both scores reflect that composer's graceful, elegant, lyrical style. (Persichetti wrote numerous works for conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.) Most striking is a "Concerto for Two Solo Pianos" (1942) by David Diamond (b. 1915). This is a powerful, imposing score that demands super technique from its performers. The Mangos sisters give a dazzling performance of this tour de force. Diamond is one of America's most prolific and unjustly neglected composers.
William Grant Still (1895-1978) was the first African American composer to have a work performed by a major symphony orchestra. His "Symphony No.1," "Afro-American" of 1930 was given its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the great Leopold Stokowski. This work is featured on Cedille's new "African Heritage Symphonic Series. Still's symphony is a bona fide American masterpiece. It combines elements of the blues with American Indian influences and a 19th century symphonic vocabulary. His imaginative orchestration includes such instruments as marimba and banjo which add spice to the symphonic texture. Still knew Gershwin and W.C Handy, the "Father of the Blues," and admired their music. This brilliantly gifted composer also wrote many orchestral and solo works, operas, ballets and Hollywood film scores. It is wonderful to have a new, lively idiomatic performance of Still's landmark symphony. Paul Freeman, a conductor who has championed this repertoire, leads the expert Chicago Sinfonietta.
America has many musical voices. These new recordings celebrate our nation's musical diversity. The American composers featured on these discs provide fireworks aplenty. What better way to celebrate the 4th of July!