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CLASSICAL  February 2007

CLASSICAL February 2007

Subject:

Howard Hanson - Orchestral Works

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 5 Feb 2007 09:06:22 -0600

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text/plain

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	Howard Hanson

*  Organ Concerto (1926)
*  Nymphs and Satyr Ballet Suite (1979)
*  Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth (1951)
*  Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings (1945)
*  Summer Seascape No. 2 for Viola and Strings (1965)
*  Pastorale for Oboe, Harp, and Strings (1948-49)

Joseph Jackson (organ); Doris Hall-Gulati (clarinet); Holly Blake
(bassoon); Gabriela Imreh (piano); Andrew Bolotowsky (flute); Adriana
Linares (viola); Jonathan Blumenfeld (oboe); Jacqueline Pollauf (harp);
Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Spalding
Naxos 8.559251 Total time: 61:28

Summary for the Busy Executive: Solid stuff, mostly.

Howard Hanson's music has, I think, begun to flicker back to some sort
of life since the Eighties, after about a quarter-century of neglect.
At one time, Hanson, probably one of the most influential figures in
American music, headed the Eastman School, ran a major festival of
contemporary American music, and devised (with Sessions and Thompson)
the doctoral program in composition still largely in use.  Major
organizations commissioned him (including the New York Philharmonic and
the Met).  He trained generations of American composers.  Yet his music
-- masterfully written and often beautiful -- never caused the major
ripples among other composers as Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Thomson's
Filling Station, Copland's Piano Variations and Billy the Kid, or Harris's
Third Symphony.  It stood apart from that of other good American composers.
Walter Simmons included a chapter on Hanson in his book-length study of
American neo-Romantics, Voices in the Wilderness, and the title describes
Hanson with particular point.  Although one hears the influence of
Sibelius, Hanson sounds like nobody but himself, instantly recognizable
within a few measures, sometimes even within a few notes.  It's as if
Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, Debussy, and Hindemith -- the
Big Six of Modern Music -- don't exist.

For some, Hanson became a standard-bearer for a particular vision of
what music should be: accessible, expressing "feelings" ("...  nothing
more than" [slight pause] "feelings"), and above all tonal.  However,
we should remember that accessibility runs in two directions, as much a
matter of the audience and the effort it's willing to spend as of the
composer, and that almost all music expresses emotion.  Further damaging
this use of Hanson is the lack of the breakthrough piece.  Some effort
was made -- and perhaps Hanson himself felt this way -- to turn the
Symphony No. 2 into a kind of manifesto, but the score itself simply
won't support it.  It's pleasant enough, but by no means the best Hanson
offers.  Finally, the particular war Hanson's supporters still fight
ended at least a quarter-century ago, with no clear, or even possible
winner, much like the big Brahmin-Wagnerite fight of the Nineteenth
Century (which, among other things, tried to determine the true heir to
Beethoven).  At this point, nobody should really care.  Manifestos very
quickly lose their point, except as historical curiosities.  We are left
with particular works of art and the difficult task of understanding
and, in many cases, loving them.

Hanson, like Sibelius, straddles the line between Romanticism and
Modernism, in that he writes Romantic music that probably couldn't have
been written before 1912.  The harmonies piquantly mix chromaticism,
modality, and "made-up" scales.  Furthermore, the rhetoric tends to
change as Hanson proceeds: from fairly straightforward Romantic nationalist
symphonic procedures (in works like the first two symphonies, "Nordic"
and "Romantic") to constructivist methods in the late Sixth Symphony and
The Young Composer's Guide to the Six-Tone Scale.  Hanson had a solid
reputation as a symphonist up until the musical insurrections of the
Fifties, but I must confess I find his symphonies -- excepting the
wonderful Sixth -- the least interesting part of his output.  One also
finds pieces, like the tubby "Sea Symphony" (number seven?) or The Mystic
Trumpeter, in which he seems to fall back on routine.  Still, even bad
Hanson sounds like Hanson.  The routine is his own, at least.

The organ concerto counts as one of Hanson's early bests, written
shortly after the magnificent Lament for Beowulf.  The work began
with a version for organ and full orchestra.  Hanson realized almost
immediately, however, that just about the only place you find an organ
is in a church and that church space and budget are limited.  Ever
practical, Hanson pruned the accompaniment to strings and harp.  I haven't
heard the original, but the revision works beautifully.  In fact, it's
hard to see how the organ could cut through a full orchestra, if one
considers the sumptuousness of the writing.  The piece, like a lot of
Hanson, runs to one large movement, broken into four major sections --
slow-scherzo-slow-finale -- with the finale a recapitulation of opening
material and a brief coda based on the fast scherzo.  The concerto begins
with one of Hanson's musical fingerprints: rising modal scale fragments,
in this case caught between Phrygian (E to E' scale on the white keys
of the piano) and Dorian (D to D' on the white keys).  This leads to a
fast section over a pulsing ostinato -- again, another of the composer's
favorite devices.  In a way, it reminds me of Barber's Essay No. 1,
but Hanson has gotten there first by about a decade.  A mighty cadenza,
featuring some fancy pedal-work and based mainly on the fast material,
bridges to the recap.  One hears a considerable symphonic talent, a
composer with the gift of taking you across a vast span, who doesn't
resort to standard symphonic structures and who sticks to a limited
number of basic ideas (just two or three) to generate the music.  The
architecture, while interesting, is nevertheless a bit beside the point:
sweeping, dramatic expression.  Hanson aims at moving listeners, mainly
through a highly individual application of traditional means, rather
than impressing them.  The technique serves expression.

In Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth, Hanson recycles an idea
from his Concerto da Camera of thirty years before.  The earlier
work really sounds like a student wrote it.  It's thick in scoring and
moves clumsily.  Young Hanson makes the elementary mistake of confusing
the number of musical lines with power, a mistake he quickly got over.
The Fantasy Variations improves on the Concerto da Camera in just about
every way.  Again, the form is unusual in that it's not a set of distinct
variations.  Instead, the theme of youth gets taken on a scenic trip.
So it's a combination of both variations and fantasia, with the emphasis
on the latter.  Hanson takes that theme and two other very powerful ideas
(one fast, one really little more than a cadence and yet another upward
scalar run) and weaves one of his tightest works.  But, again, the
considerable compositional technique becomes de trop. The piece, above
all, moves, both from one high point to the next as well as the listener's
psyche.  From the opening bars, it strikes a deep note within you.  The
muddle of the Concerto da Camera becomes mature eloquence, with a sense
of elegy -- Wordsworth's "emotions recollected" (mostly) "in tranquility."

I always tie together the Serenade and the Pastorale, two brief yet
intense gems from the mid- to late Forties.  Hanson wrote the Serenade
as a courtship present to his future wife, Peggy.  A propos of nothing,
I always fantasized I would write an effective seduction piece, but I
suspect that Hanson's motives were purer than mine.  It begins in Oriental
languor with a pentatonic idea (playable entirely on the black keys of
the piano).  The opening not only ravishes the ear but is a virtuoso
display of counterpoint, so beautiful that it took me decades to realize
exactly how astonishing it is.  The composer also plays with two more
themes.  One sings; the other dances.  The song first appears as a kind
of pendant to the Orientalia and gradually assumes more importance --
and more ardor -- as the Serenade proceeds.  The dance animates and
shuttles the work along.  It's surprising how often this dichotomy appears
in Hanson's music.  Indeed, it's part of every work discussed so far.
All these themes combine with one another in various permutations and
characters.  I also want to emphasize how much Hanson gets out of
essentially chamber forces.  Everything on the program requires something
far less than a symphony orchestra -- usually just solo instrument and
strings, with or without harp -- and yet you don't feel short-changed
or "pared down." The Serenade strongly reminds me of Griffes's Poem for
Flute and Orchestra, a score Hanson loved to conduct, and it ends, I
think, with a subtle audacity on a very simple, very real dissonance
between the solo flute and the strings.  This imparts a sense of uncertainty
to the entire work.  We don't end on a simplistic Cloud Nine.

The Pastorale, dedicated to the composer's Peggy (by then his wife),
features the solo oboe, the instrumental icon for pastoral.  The musical
materials are more complex than in the Serenade and the mood darker,
mainly a kind of Oriental funk.  It reminds me of the Song of Songs:
"Stay me with flagons ... for I am sick of love." I wouldn't read too
much biography into this.  The harp functions differently here than in
the Serenade.  In the earlier score, it works mostly rhythmically, giving
the music a nudge.  Here, it almost always increases the lushness of the
accompaniment.  We get almost to the end for the mood to briefly change
to something more animated.  Apparently, the shepherd has roused himself.
Still, the energy flares and flickers.  The dark mood returns momentarily,
but the piece manages to end serenely.

The Summer Seascape takes on some of the musical complexity of the
Pastorale.  It has the feel of a more "constructed" piece as well.
That is, its structural manipulations come more to the fore than in much
of Hanson.  In many ways, it foreshadows the Sixth Symphony, the symphony
least typical of the composer's set.  Much of it elaborates a three-note
group -- C-G-A (not G-G-A, as printed in the liner notes).  However, of
the rhetoric is much the same as what we've seen so far: slow, in this
case dreaming, opening, agitated middle, and return to slow again.  I
admit it's not as tuneful as the Serenade or any of the other pieces on
the program, but it more than repays attention.  Furthermore, Hanson
doesn't forsake his primary aim, simply because he has shifted his normal
emphasis.  Now, although he wants you to look under the hood, he also
wants you to feel what he felt, looking at the sea around his Maine
summer home.  As the title suggests, it's less a tone poem than a picture,
something to be taken in altogether rather than an unfolding of events.

I've left the late ballet, Nymphs and Satyr, for last, since I feel it
came from Hanson's second drawer.  Hanson conceived it as a ballet, but
Hanson's music doesn't strike me as something that dancers would want
to move to.  Despite the dancing passages throughout his work, the power
of his music derives from song, rather than -- in the case of Stravinsky,
for example from dance.  Furthermore, the "plot" supplied by the composer
is pretty bland, essentially the same as Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon
of a Faun.  The difference between the two damns the Hanson, unfortunately.
Debussy involves you, takes you over.  The Hanson, often quite pleasantly,
just goes by.  My favorite movement, the scherzo, sings a slightly loopy
Swiss-yodel tune, like the one in Walton's Facade.  Significantly, it
began not as a dance but as a song, one that Hanson made up to sing to
his dog Molly while he fed her biscuits.  Again, it doesn't give a dancer
much opportunity.

The CD duplicates some of the Albany CD TROY129: the organ concerto and
Nymphs and Satyr.  In both cases, I prefer the Albany performances --
better execution, more impact.  I disagree somewhat with other reviewers,
better disposed to the Naxos players.  I object mainly to the Philadelphia
Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra violins, which seem scratchy and slightly
sharp.  Their rhythm could improve as well.  No such reserve about almost
all the soloists.  I except flutist Andrew Bolotowsky in the Serenade,
who flats a surprising part of the time.  Still, Spalding manages to
keep things together, and this CD conveniently bundles like pieces, as
well as the Seascape, as far as I know unavailable anywhere else.  How
does Naxos do it?  The label has issued one of the most complete series
of recorded American music from the LP era on.  It hits all parts of the
spectrum -- masterpieces to throwaways, famous to obscure, mossback to
space alien.  And this is just one Naxos series of American music.  I
assume the label makes money.  Why don't others?

Steve Schwartz

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