NEW RECORDINGS CELEBRATE MUSICAL AMERICANA
By Lawrence Budmen
Just in time for the 4th of July, a cornucopia of new cd releases celebrates the nation's multicultural musical influences. Composers of diverse backgrounds and musical styles are an important component of this sampling of the classical side of the American mosaic.
The enterprising Albany Music label (www.Albanyrecords.com) offers "The American Cello," a disc featuring two works commissioned by New Heritage Music, a publicly supported non-profit organization that encourages the creation of scores inspired by the people, ideas, and events of American history. The "Concerto for Cello and Orchestra" by Iranian born Behzad Ranjbaran (1955- ) is based on the writings of Thomas Jefferson. A wonderful combination of Middle Eastern and American musical influences, the concerto is an appealing virtuoso vehicle. Cellist Paul Tobias gives a razzle dazzle performance of this bravura score with high energy, colorful orchestral support from the Virginia Symphony under JoAnn Falletta. "Eleanor's Gift," a cello concerto by the Chinese born composer Chen Yi (1953- ) is a tribute to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the document's most eloquent advocates. A compact score, this concerto fuses traditional Chinese music with rigorous Central European formalism (evoking Arnold Schoenberg, Hans Pfitzner, and Karl Amadeus Hartmann). Tobias gives a fierce, gripping rendition of this technically demanding score. He also excels in the "Concerto for Cello and Orchestra," Opus 22 (1945) by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). This score features one of Barber's haunting, raptly intense slow movements (in the manner of the composer's "Adagio for Strings" and the central movements of his piano and violin concertos). The dynamic conducting of Ms. Falletta, one of the nation's leading American conductors and a contemporary music specialist, brings blazing commitment to every bar of these complex scores. An important contribution to the American music discography!
The music of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) is quintessentially American. A sizzling performance of the composer's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" highlights "Symphony at the Opera" on the Arabesque label (www.Arabesquerecords.com). The Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles captures the jazzy Latin rhythms as if he were a native New Yorker. (Runnicles is the front runner to succeed Leonard Slatkin as principal conductor of London's venerable BBC Symphony Orchestra.) The crisp, bright playing of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and very live acoustic of Davies Symphony Hall contribute to a brilliant recording. It is entirely appropriate that the Bernstein work is coupled with the Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes" by the great British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Bernstein conducted the American premiere of Britten's operatic masterpiece in 1946 at Tanglewood. Runnicles leads a supple, colorful account of the interludes. Bernstein's "Symphony No.1" - "Jeremiah" (1944) takes pride of place on a new Naxos American Classics release (www.Naxos.com). This deeply reverential, moving score is a strong musical testament to the composer's Judaic roots. James Judd conducts the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a powerful, spacious performance that rivals the composer's classic 1947 version with the St. Louis Symphony and mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman. Here mezzo-soprano Helen Medlyn sings a gripping, richly evocative version of the concluding Lamentation. The lush playing of the New Zealand orchestra is stunning! The cd also features Bernstein's last major orchestral work "Concerto for Orchestra" - "Jubilee Games" (1986-89). In the spirit of a musical Olympics this score is a witty, virtuosic orchestral showpiece. It concludes with a haunting Benediction. Nathan Gunn, an outstanding American baritone with a deeply resonant voice, gives a moving performance of the composer's final affirmation of faith.
Two new discs from the Boca Raton based Klavier label (www.Klavier-records.com) feature intriguing repertoire. A "Piano Trio" was Bernstein's first compositional essay in 1937. Not published until after the composer's death, the score is a vigorous Russian- Jewish fusion in the manner of Prokofiev. It receives a brilliant performance by the Trio Amade (Violinist Felicia Moye, formerly of the Miami String Quartet; Cellist Emilio Colon; and Pianist Heather Coltman). The album is appropriately entitled "Obsecion" since it features "The Four Seasons" by Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). These sultry, pulsating vignettes receive elegant, idiomatic interpretations (in brilliant arrangements by Jose Bragato and Emilio Colon). "Vitebsk," a sinewy theme and variations by Aaron Copland (1900-1990) completes a brilliant recording. The superb sound on this release owes much to the acoustical ambience of Miami's FIU Wertheim Performing Arts Center Concert Hall, where it was recorded in 2001 under producer Clark McAllister. The lyrical, appealing music of Norman Dello Joio (1913- ) receives a rare recorded outing in a new Klavier release. Dello Joio was a student of Paul Hindemith. He shares that composer's penchant for brilliant instrumental writing. (His engaging "New World Dances" received its premiere in Miami in 1982 by the Minnesota Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.) His "Variations on a Mediaeval Tune" is utterly delightful. Splashy instrumental textures make his "City Profiles" a real showpiece. "Fantasies on a Theme by Haydn" shows the austere classical side of Dello Joio. Brilliant performances by the Pittsburgh based Keystone Wind Ensemble under Jack Stamp serve the music well. A lovely recording of music by a neglected American composer!
The surging symphonic vistas of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) receive spectacular treatment on a new Telarc recording (www.Telarc.com). The dark melodies and somber instrumental color of Hovhaness's music stamp this composer as an American Sibelius. (When this writer once made that comparison to Hovhaness, he did not disagree.) "The Mysterious Mountain" and "Mount Saint Helens" Symphonies are large scale orchestral monuments on a grand scale. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gives fervent, subtly controlled performances of these grandly spacious works under the baton of the brilliant Gerard Schwarz, long a champion of Hovhaness's music. Superb music making!
From the 19th century symphonic palette of Hovhaness to the Broadway pulse of Bernstein to the multicultural synthesis of Ranjbaran, the American sound takes many musical roads. These new releases celebrate American diversity. A joyful noise for an all American holiday!