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CLASSICAL  November 2007

CLASSICAL November 2007

Subject:

Pure Gould

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Thu, 29 Nov 2007 16:55:42 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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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 - idiom. 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 on the subject of Lizzie Borden
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 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 Borden 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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