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CLASSICAL  December 2008

CLASSICAL December 2008

Subject:

Yankee Cello

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 1 Dec 2008 15:11:54 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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American Cello Concertos

*  Perry: Jamestown Concerto
*  Schuman: A Song of Orpheus
*  Thomson: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra

Yehuda Hanani (cello)
RTE National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland)/William Eddins.
Naxos 8.559344  Total time: 72:11

Summary for the Busy Executive: Two masterpieces and a painting of Elvis
on black velvet.

Three conservative modern American cello concerti -- a nice idea,
imperfectly carried out.  It all comes down to repertoire.

William Perry studied with Hindemith.  Although a great composer, Hindemith
had less luck as a teacher.  He trained a boatload of composers, few of
whom had anything special to say.  However, all received a first-class
technique, and many became professional craftsmen.  Mitch Leigh, for
example, wrote the off-Broadway musical Man of La Mancha -- not exactly
a world-beater, but competently done.  Perry, in addition to his concert
work, produces TV and writes movie soundtracks.  His Jamestown Concerto
sounds like it -- a Max Steiner score (although written decades after
Steiner's death) which tells a story of the early Jamestown Colony.  In
all, a nicely-orchestrated bore.  Professional musicians could play this
music in their sleep, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they
did.

The output of symphonist William Schuman, at one time considered in
the same breath as Aaron Copland, has fallen into a lamentable state of
neglect.  Although highly regarded and even successful, he seldom had a
"hit." Presently, I can think of only two works that achieved any sort
of popularity: his Third Symphony, a favorite of Bernstein's, and his
New England Triptych, based on the music of the Revolutionary War composer
William Billings.  Song of Orpheus, written for the prominent cellist
Leonard Rose, appeared in the early Sixties.  Columbia duly recorded
it and released it as an LP, with Rose as soloist, on the B side of the
premiere recording of the Barber Piano Concerto, with Browning and Szell.
That Barber performance, one of the best, has made it to CD; Rose's
Schuman never has.

Schuman based the piece on his early song to Shakespeare's "Orpheus with
his lute," a kind of vocal sarabande (available, believe it or not, on
three separate labels -- Vox, Albany, and Hyperion).  He fashioned not
so much a set of variations as a fantasia on the song.  The work, in one
movement, nevertheless falls into several large sections: the cello sings
the song almost all by itself; the orchestra, led by the oboe, repeats
the song with cello commentary; a cadenza for cello; a quick section;
another cadenza; the cello taking the lead against mainly pizzicato
accompaniment from the strings; a final section led by the english horn
singing the song, with cello commentary, to a soft close.  For the most
part, the song flits through the score in such a way that you catch only
short snatches of it.  The music is less about the song than about depth
of feeling.  For its form, it's a long piece, and yet the narrative is
so tight that you get carried along.  It confounds your usual expectations
of a concerto, since the soloist is really more "first among equals"
than a genuine star.  Yet the part invests the music with maturity,
complication, and I believe wisdom.  It's a marvelous score, although
it will probably never prove a popular one.

To me, Virgil Thomson stands alone among American composers between the
wars.  Unlike almost everyone else, he eschews a Romantic outlook in his
music.  He is the most French of Americans while remaining profoundly
American in spirit.  Best known for his Dada pieces -- Capital, Capitals
and Four Saints in Three Acts, for example -- he nevertheless plows a
much wider furrow than those works suggest.

The cello concerto of 1950 stands out among his "Americana" output, like
Filling Station, The River, and Symphony on a Hymn Tune.  Thomson follows
neither Copland nor Harris in his version of folk-based symphonic music,
again unlike almost everyone else mining that vein.  He was pretty much
the pioneer in that area.  Indeed, Copland credited Thomson with showing
him the general direction he would take in works like Billy the Kid.
Thomson began his concerto in 1945 and got the cellist Luigi Silva as
technical consultant.  Columbia recorded it not long after it appeared
with Werner Jannsen leading Silva as soloist.  The concerto sounds
bone-simple, like a lot of Thomson, and yet bristles with difficulties.
Double- and triple-stops are thrown in almost casually, while the soloist
is expected to maintain a singing line.  The concerto falls into three
movements: "Rider on the Plains," "Variations on a Southern Hymn," and
"Children's Games."

"Rider on the Plains" sounds less like cowboys than Oberon in the forest
-- an elfin atmosphere set off by muted trumpet.  It seems to flow so
spontaneously and naturally, you might not notice its sonata form.
Thomson writes an extremely witty, sophisticated sonata to support the
naivete of the themes.  The transitions from first subjects to second
and back are both surprising and seamless.  The second, slow movement
varies the shape-note hymn Tribulation, from William Walker's 1835
Southern Harmony.  The tune, melancholy and rather spare, shows the
inflections of modal Appalachian folk music.  From the first variation,
which harmonizes the tune in two different simultaneous keys, Thomson
takes it for a wild, phantasmagorical ride, without losing its essential
simplicity, and evokes the sadness and heroism of a way of life.  In the
rondo finale, Thomson indulges his wit and sense of fun.  The rondo theme
turns out to connect to American folk songs, "Jesus Loves Me," Beethoven's
piano sonata op. 10, no. 2, and heaven knows what else.  Each episodes
surprises and delights.  The cello part becomes increasingly difficult,
to the point where the last few bars sound almost unplayable, and still
the nature of the music remains frisky and light-hearted.

The performers do well without doing spectacularly well.  We've long
needed a modern recording of the Thomson, and this one improves over the
old Silva recording in every way: interpretation, playing, and sound.
I'm grateful that A Song of Orpheus has been restored to the catalogue
as well.  Incidentally, as prelude to the Schuman, the actress Jane
Alexander reads Shakespeare's poem (for reasons I can't fathom), which
takes less than a minute and earns her an album credit.  It's not a bad
reading, and it's short enough that it shouldn't annoy anyone.

Steve Schwartz

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