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CLASSICAL  September 2007

CLASSICAL September 2007

Subject:

Glistering Gould

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 3 Sep 2007 08:09:58 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Morton Gould
Rare and Everywhere

*  Jekyll and Hyde Variations
*  Fall River Legend (complete)

Nashville Symphony/Kenneth Schermerhorn
Naxos 8.559242 Total time: 73:48

Summary for the Busy Executive: Pope and populist.

Morton Gould, a composing prodigy, was writing directly into full score
by his early teens.  He got his first professional job as a musician in
his mid-teens.  By his early twenties, he was composing and arranging
for radio networks.  He wrote Broadway shows, scored films, and, in the
Fifties, produced and arranged very successful hi-fi "concept" albums.
He became that rarest of birds, the professional composer who actually
made a living.

The radio especially demanded to be fed, and Gould produced shovels-full
of light music, all of it above the run of the mill, including classics
like the American Symphonettes, American Salute, and the Latin-American
Symphonette.  Consequently, the fact that Gould also wrote hard-core
concert works tends to get lost in the general image people have of him.
Popular sources drew him: jazz, spirituals, folk music, marches, tap
dancing (he wrote two concertos for tap dancer and orchestra), and so
on.  But, really, he could compose anything in just about any style,
as the two scores here amply demonstrate.

The Jekyll and Hyde Variations make a rare appearance.  They owe their
creation to Dmitri Mitropoulos, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic,
who commissioned the piece.  People said of Mitropoulos that he wasn't
happy unless he could do something for you.  What he did for Gould was
take him seriously and insist on a work away from Gould's perceived
populist, light-classics style.

The composer gave him this set of, creepily enough, thirteen variations,
written in dodecaphonic, serial - but not atonal - style. If someone
hadn't told you, you probably wouldn't have known.  Indeed, some of
the variations sound almost like modal hymns.  The basic theme is not
a closed melody, as in Brahms's Haydn Variations, but a "chain" of about
seven pieces - strong, memorable gestures, really - which the composer
often breaks up and rearranges, like differently colored beads on a
string. The theme is also not the tone row, but one built from successive
manipulations of the row.  Thus, we get music that works closer to the
ways traditional music has conditioned us to expect.

Despite the title, Gould doesn't try to reproduce Stevenson's narrative.
You could speculate why Gould chose the title at all.  The liner notes
argue that "Jekyll and Hyde" refers to the tonal-atonal split.  It's a
free country.  What's more important, I think, is that the composer gives
us not only variations of individual brilliance, but that he has linked
them all together to form a dramatic arc. The music becomes increasingly
tortured, until the climatic twelfth variation - a symphonic scream -
and then a contemplative thirteenth variation, functioning as an epilogue.
Incidentally, the variations never really caught on with audiences or
critics, so far out of Gould's perceived groove.  But they did serve
notice that Gould wouldn't be writing any more symphonettes.  His late
phase incorporated many of the post-war techniques, as well as the
enormous influence of Charles Ives, allied to his Stravinskian base.
Nevertheless, I consider the work one of his best: a marvelous score
that deserves resurrection.

Fall River Legend, a Forties ballet written for Agnes de Mille, has long
been recognized as one of Gould's finest works - indeed, from its premiere.
I believe this Naxos release counts as only the second truly complete
recording, with the narrator part included.  However, the narrator here,
James F.  Neal, a distinguished jurist, has a cowboy accent you could
cut with a chainsaw, and it jars when you consider the Massachusetts
locale of the story.

The work shows the strong influence of Billy the Kid Copland: lean
textures and scoring, clear orchestration, and an idiom based on, but
not quoting, folk and popular sources.  Gould, like Bernstein, was a
musical magpie, taking from many places, but somehow knowing the trick
of making his thefts his own.  Prokofiev's side-stepping harmonies show
up in the ballet's "Waltzes" section, Copland's Billy in the very opening,
and Stravinsky in the "Epilogue." All the themes originate with Gould,
a superior melodist, but even these echo traditional tunes, even if they
don't quote them.  For example, the "Hymnal Variations" seem a variation
set on an unstated hymn, which I strongly suspect (though can't prove)
is "How Firm a Foundation." The entire ballet, incredibly beautiful,
keeps your attention.  My favorite sequence occurs toward the end: "Church
Social," "Hymnal Variations," and "Cotillion," with "Church Social"
taking pride of place due to its soaring main theme.

Even if you don't know the story, the music follows a strong narrative
line, building and relaxing at just the right moments.  Gould's dramatic
instincts are sure.  The actual murders have no music at all, while the
"Death Dance" seems to take part behind a scrim of dreams.  The most
violent music is the "Mob Scene," as the village discovers the bodies,
destroys the house, and builds a gallows from the timber.  In contradiction
to the historical record, Lizzie is found guilty and lynched.  De Mille
was uncertain about an ending, and Gould told her it would be easier to
write gallows music than "acquittal" music.  That seemed to settle it.
But it does change the meaning of the popular story.  Lizzie comes off
as less a monster than a victim of slander and mob rule.  I've seen
productions of the ballet which keep Lizzie's fate undetermined.  She
steps not off the gallows, but into history.  Gould's music works fine
for that, too.

The late Kenneth Schermerhorn, long a stalwart on the Nashville
classical-music scene (they named a concert hall after him), as a young
man played trumpet with the Boston Symphony and studied conducting with
Leonard Bernstein.  He became music director of the Milwaukee Symphony,
American Ballet Theatre, Hong Kong Philharmonic, as well as the Nashville
Symphony.  He is very much in the Bernstein mold - that is, the young
Bernstein.  He emphasizes a vital, nervous energy, sometimes at the
expense of the whole work.  But when he cooks, he's wonderful.  The split
shows in the performances of Jekyll and Hyde, which occasionally loses
its way, and Fall River, which rocks.  All that ballet experience paid
off, I guess. He does at least as well as Gould himself (a pretty good
conductor) on RCA, and you get more music.  The ensemble is tight,
generally speaking, with the occasional texture that could be clearer,
but I nit-pick.  Fall River Legend rips and grips.  Who would have thought
that Nashville, the city built on "three chords and the truth," had such
a lively orchestra?

Steve Schwartz

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