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CLASSICAL  June 2008

CLASSICAL June 2008

Subject:

Hanson on Telarc

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 27 Jun 2008 15:15:42 -0700

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text/plain

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Howard Hanson
Orchestral Works

*  Fanfare for the Signal Corps
*  Suite from Merry Mount
*  Bold Island Suite
*  Symphony No. 2, op. 30, "Romantic"

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel
Telarc CD-80649 Total time: 66:12

Summary for the Busy Executive: Radically conventional.

At one point, Howard Hanson owned a significant chunk of turf for
American music.  Head of the Eastman School for over forty years, he
trained composers and performers and ran a large festival.  Many of the
composers featured in the Festival passed through Eastman in one capacity
or another, but many had only the slightest of ties to the place.  In
addition, Hanson, a pretty good conductor, recorded for Mercury many,
many modern American scores.  I've read from one of his producers that
he didn't always care for the music he recorded, but he did as he was
asked and always turned in at least a conscientious, professional job.

Like Leonard Bernstein, Hanson made a persuasive advocate for his
own music.  Indeed, my introduction to Hanson's work took place largely
through his recordings.  Despite commissions to the end, after Koussevitzky's
death, he never had much of a grip on the repertory of top American
orchestras and practically none at all in Europe.  When he died, I
wondered how long his music would last.

American Modernists, particularly the students of Boulanger, Sessions,
and Schoenberg, tended to dismiss Hanson's scores.  Many of them kept
their opinions among themselves, since they still wanted performances.
Of all the prominent American composers in the first part of the Twentieth
Century, Hanson deserved best the label Neo-Romantic.  His music extended
rather than overturned the late Nineteenth Century.  He built his music
with structural principles borrowed from Sibelius and Cesar Franck.  His
music sounded as if Stravinsky and Bartok had never lived.  One can at
least understand the coolness of Modernists to Hanson's work, even while
disagreeing with them.

His conservatism aside, Hanson never really copied anyone else.  His
music sounds nothing like Sibelius or Franck.  Indeed, you can almost
always tell a Hanson score after hearing a few measures.  He had a genuine
gift. His music, like Sibelius's for that matter, furthers Late Romanticism
while innovating and invigorating it and poses intriguing "what-ifs"
about the course of music in the Twentieth Century.  The difference is
that Sibelius had artistic progeny, while nobody as noteworthy came along
after Hanson.  His innovations, despite all his students, seemed to have
died with him.  As a result, Hanson seems not just individual, but
isolated, in a way that other neo-Romantics like Barber, Bax, and Flagello
do not.

Erich Kunzel, a wonderful musician, has taken up Hanson's cause with a
nice mix of obscure pieces and Hanson hits.  The Bold Island Suite
receives its first recording, and the Fanfare for the Signal Corps
(probably) its second.

In the Forties, the director of the Cincinnati Orchestra, composer and
conductor Eugene Goossens, commissioned several American writers for
fanfares in support of the war effort.  These included Hanson, Harris,
Cowell, Bernard Wagenaar, Piston, Gould, Deems Taylor, Virgil Thomson,
Creston, and Goossens himself, among others.  The series produced one
enduring classic: Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which Copland
later incorporated into his Third Symphony.  As far as I'm concerned,
however, most of these gems should be better known, Hanson's especially.
Jorge Mester collected the series and some other Modern classical fanfares
on a terrific CD titled Twenty Fanfares for the Common Man (Koch
3-7012-2-H1, not currently available).  Hanson's Fanfare for the Signal
Corps begins with a rhythmic canon for snare drums, perhaps symbolizing
thousands of Morse-code messages.  The brass rush in headlong and reach
an uplifting, satisfying conclusion in less than a minute. If the first
audience didn't rise from their seats and cheer, they were probably coma
victims.

The Merry Mount Suite comes from Hanson's only opera, Merry Mount,
based loosely on the Hawthorne story.  The opera had a big-deal premiere
at the Met in 1930 and maybe one other Met performance a year later.
There was so much ballyhoo surrounding the thing, that Dubose Heyward
worried that it might eclipse the premiere of Porgy and Bess.  He needn't
have worried.  After that, Merry Mount more or less sank.  Some student
productions or concert performances may have taken place in the Sixties
at Eastman.  At any rate, excerpts from the opera were released on a
Mercury LP, lo, those many years ago.  Hanson culled parts of the score
into this suite, which (again released on Mercury) at least kept the
music and the embers of interest alive.  The suite became one of his
best-known works, and deservedly so - full of great tunes.  It alternates
between lively dances and lush love music.  Recently, Naxos published
the entire opera, a CD which I plan to review in the next two years.
I must say that the suite doesn't prepare you for the scope and power
of the opera.  Indeed, the suite strikes me as a kind of Pops-y piece,
while the opera gives you Hanson at both his considerable best and his
most ambitious.

The Cleveland Orchestra commissioned the Bold Island Suite in 1961.  I
don't recall it in any subsequent season.  For me, it is a superb example
of Hanson's late style.  As he matured, he wrote more tightly, although
he never lost his essential lyricism.  Although not without melody, he
constructs his themes less as complete units and more from smaller ideas,
which he then plays with and recombines.  Bold Island was Hanson's summer
home in Maine.  Superficially, the suite is a picture postcard of the
island - birds, waves, sunlight, storms.  However, it also shows some
aspects of cyclical structure, with earlier themes showing up in later
movements.  There are three, all told: "Birds of the Sea," "Summer
Seascape," "God in Nature." However, the work also reflects Hanson's
theoretical concerns, particularly six-tone scales.  Hanson even wrote
a set of piano pieces (later orchestrated) called The Young Composer's
Guide to the Six-Tone Scale.  The first movement of Bold Island, for
example, uses the scale C-D-Eb-F#-G-A - essentially, a major chord
superimposed on an adjacent minor chord.  "Realistic" bird calls enter,
a la Beethoven's Sixth, and in time actually become woven into the fabric
of the musical argument.  "Summer Seascape" opens with an evocation of
sunlight on gently lapping water.  The clouds gradually darken and a
musical storm comes up - nothing close to a hurricane, just a summer
shower.  The feel for the innate power of the Atlantic, even when
relatively benign, comes through.  Like Britten, Hanson seems to have
the ocean in his bones.  Not bad for a boy from Wahoo, Nebraska.  The
last movement, "God in Nature," strikes me as redundantly titled.  The
whole suite so far has celebrated an awe-inspiring power in nature.
Here, however, Hanson makes things more explicit, using an original
hymn-tune and a motive to the rhythm of "Gloria in excelsis Deo." The
piece ends on a note of benediction, with the birds of the first movement
having nearly the last word.

Also from 1930, Hanson's Second Symphony, subtitled "Romantic," probably
counts as the most popular of his cycle of seven and likely due to the
lyrical second theme of the first movement.  I happen to prefer the
Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, the last my favorite and also the least
typical.  Various writers have tried to turn the Second into a manifesto
for the Eternal Values of Music, but, although a fine score, it's simply
not strong enough as music to set an artistic agenda, as Stravinsky's
Rite of Spring and Octet - or, in another direction, Sibelius's Fourth
and Fifth Symphonies - did.  Architecturally, the work is an odd duck.
Again, Hanson uses cyclical principles throughout all three movements.
In the first movement, we find two thematic groups.  The first consists
of subsidiary bits which combine and recombine in the development.  The
second comprises a complete song, which doesn't get developed at all.
It is its own unit, complete in itself.  The second movement, in song
form, is my favorite of the symphony, with the most affecting passages.
Bits of the first movement sneak in, mainly for tension and contrast,
and transform the song into something more complicated.  The third
movement strikes me as the weakest, where a lot of the music seems to
proceed on automatic and simply goes by.  Even many of the recalls of
earlier themes seem contrived.  By the third-way point, Hanson comes
up with a Sibelius-inspired set of paragraphs which lift the music out
of its doldrums and builds to a climax over a very large span indeed.
When the two principal themes from the first movement appear for the
last time, it feels like a genuine summing up.

Kunzel does well in everything, but I simply can't get Hanson's own
recordings out of my head - the spicy Eastman string sound, the beautiful
solos from the Eastman wind players, and, above all, Hanson's conviction
about his music.  If you have the Merry Mount Suite, the Fanfare, and
the Symphony already, no need to duplicate.  If you're extremely lucky
and have Charles Gerhardt's recording of the Second Symphony (to me, the
best out there, but of course no longer available), you don't need Kunzel.
However, Bold Island is definitely worth hearing, and the sound will
make you weep with pleasure.

Steve Schwartz

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