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CLASSICAL  November 2009

CLASSICAL November 2009

Subject:

When in Rome ...

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 6 Nov 2009 17:13:26 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (154 lines)

AMERICANS IN ROME
Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome.

*  Beaser: 4 Dickinson Songs
*  Barber: Songs
*  Thompson: Siciliano
*  Laderman: Songs from Michelangelo, No. 1
*  Bermel: Spider Love
*  Beeson: Prescription for Living
*  Naginski: Look down, fair Moon
*  Sowerby: The Forest of the Dead Trees
*  Rakowski: For Wittgenstein
*  Giannini: There were two swans
*  Lindroth: The Dolphins
*  Sessions: 2 Tableaux and Malince's Aria from Montezuma
*  Carter: Songs
*  Kernis: Mozart en Route
*  Moravec: Passacaglia
*  Levering: Tessarae
*  Lennon: Sirens
*  Steinert: Violin Sonata
*  Breswick: 3 Intermezzi
*  Hartke: Beyond Words
*  Foss: Fantasy Rondo
*  Ince: My Friend Mozart
*  Rochberg: Bagatelles #4, #5
*  Helfer: Nocturne
*  Diesenbruck: Sound Reasoning in the Tower of Babel
*  Wingate: Sombras
*  Layton: 3 Studies for Piano
*  Rush: Oh, Susanna
*  Wyner: Commedia
*  Lang: Vent
*  Imbrie: Dandelion Wine
*  Hyla: Pre-Amnesia; Mythic Birds of Saugerties
*  Lam: - (solo); = (duo)
*  Mobberley: Beams
*  Hanson: Pastorale for Oboe and Piano
*  Shapero: Six for Five Wind Quintet (#1, 2, 6)

Hila Plitmann (soprano); Susan Narucki (soprano);
Chris Pedro Trakas (baritone); Donald Berman (piano);
Curtis Macomber (violin); Fred Sherry (cello);
Tara Helen O'Connor (flute); Charles Neidich (clarinet);
Daniel Druckman (percussion); James Baker (percussion);
Jeffry Milarsky, conductor;  Tony Arnold (soprano);
Colorado College Festival Orchestra/Scott Yoo;
Ida Kavafian (violin); Steven Tenenbom (viola);
Peter Wiley (cello); Trio Solisti;
Jonathan Bagg (viola); Sunghae Anna Lim (violin);
Ole Akahoshi (cello); Opus One Piano Quartet;
Richard Stoltzman (clarinet); Yehudi Wyner (piano);
Patti Monson (flute); Collage Music Ensemble;
Tim Smith (alto sax, bass clarinet); John Leisenring (trombone);
Laura Ahlbeck (oboe); The Curiously Strong Wind Quintet.
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9271AD  TT: 284:16 (4 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: There's no place like Rome.

Founded in 1913 mainly by the robber barons, the American Academy in
Rome offers stipends to liberal scholars and to artists.  It seems to
have been founded on the model of the Academy of France in Rome, on the
grounds that Americans were artistic boors and needed help.  As far as
its support of great artists is concerned, it has surpassed its model
by far, especially in music.  Donald Berman, the artistic director of
this recording, has devoted the program to some of those who have passed
through.  The four-CD set breaks down as follows: vocal music; music for
strings and piano; music for piano solo; music for winds and piano.

Like most collections, you'll probably like some of the selections
better than others.  The well-known figures in general tend to do well,
but then so do some of the lesser-known ones.  On the other hand, the
first three winners of the Rome Prize (Hanson, Thompson, and Sowerby)
are not shown by their best work.  Also, there are lots of surprises.
For example, Elliott Carter, whom I, for one, don't normally think of
as a vocal composer, blows everybody else out of the water (including
Samuel Barber) with two magnificent settings: Whitman's Warble for Lilac
Time and Hart Crane's Voyage.  I'd known the latter only in its piano-vocal
accompaniment, but Carter orchestrated it in 1979 -- at the Academy,
as it turns out.  In the orchestrations, the songs gain immeasurably in
beauty and power, and they were already pretty wonderful to begin with.
Jack Beeson (with text by lyricist Sheldon Harnick) provides a moving
aria from his opera Dr.  Heidegger's Fountain of Youth, based on a
Hawthorne short story.  The Barber interests me because three of them
weren't published in his lifetime.  They're professional, but you can
see why he held them back.  "Sleep now," from his settings of Joyce's
Chamber Music and a favorite of baritones, has the stamp of something
special.  So does Derek Bermel's "Spider Love," which to me owes something
to William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs.  The poem, by Wendy S.  Walters,
wittily discourses on bad relationships, and Bermel matches her breezy,
vernacular touch.  Robert Beaser's Dickinson songs also surprised me in
that they actually held my interest, something I can't say for any other
work of his I've heard.  To some extent, they take something from Copland's
Dickinson songs, but have their own poetry.  Dickinson's typical
"hymn-meter" style can trap a composer in rhythmic monotony, but Beaser
doesn't fall into the trap.

Of the works for strings, with or without piano, I greatly enjoyed Aaron
Jay Kernis's brief but very funny Mozart en Route.  Kernis imagines what
it might be like were Mozart to travel the United States, with its rich
array of idioms and styles.  He takes ideas from a Mozart string trio
and has fun dressing them up in bluegrass, jazz, and other togs.
Furthermore, Kernis writes beautifully for string trio.  Paul Moravec,
a composer I find uneven, scores big here with his Passacaglia for piano
trio.  It may very well be a passacaglia on paper, but a listener hears
it more as a giant arch.  It reaches a very powerful climax indeed.
Stephen Hartke's piano trio Beyond Words takes off from Thomas Tallis's
Lamentations of Jeremiah, without actually going so far as to make a big
deal of those themes.  Tallis's themes suggest other ideas, Hartke's
own.  In its way, it stands up to the very different Vaughan Williams
Tallis Fantasia.

To tell the truth, the remaining works (with, of course, a few exceptions)
fell either into the irredeemably bland or the irredeemably just-too-precious.
Of the piano works, Lukas Foss's 1944 neoclassic masterpiece, Fantasy
Rondo, combines Stravinsky and an evocation of jazz that Leonard Bernstein
also exploited.  Foss was a piano virtuoso, and it shows in the bright
and beautiful sonorities he comes up with.  George Rochberg's Bagatelles
show a precise aural imagination and pack a lot into their roughly
two-and-a-half minutes.  Mark Wingate's Sombras ("shadows") use live
delay at pre-determined intervals to create something both intriguing
and expressive.  It's a cutting-edge mix of electronics, minimalism, and
something of Wingate's own -- taste, perhaps (although that implies a
negative), or a sense of mesure.  This is one of the few
acoustic-cum-electronics works I've heard where the composer hasn't
thrown in the kitchen sink, and it's all the better for it.  Howard
Hanson's Pastorale appears in its oboe-piano incarnation (the composer
orchestrated it) -- old-fashioned, perhaps, but with a gorgeous tune in
the middle section.  Harold Shapero's three excerpts from Six for Five
show good humor and gently tease older vernacular forms.  James Mobberley's
Beams!  -- for solo trombone and tape -- features the incredible playing
of John Leisenring, the dedicatee.  The piece itself has shape and drama.
How Leisenring coordinated with the tape, I have no idea, and, as opposed
to a laissez-faire sandbox in which the soloist can wallow, the work
depends on synchronicity between human and machine.  The tape sounds
themselves are handsome, not something I ordinarily say about such things.

The performances are uniformly excellent, in some cases with the composers
participating.  Not every Fellow or Resident of the Academy made it into
the front rank, but many of them did.  Furthermore, not all of them came
from one or two of the main musical currents.  We get Boulangeristes and
dodecaphonists, to be sure, but we also get conservatives, neo-Romantics,
avant-gardistes, Seventies' mavericks, and so on.  The American Academy
showed catholicity of taste.  It seems to concern itself only with the
encouragement of quality.  Art, after all, is a hit-or-miss game, even
with the best intentions.  Nevertheless, commitment counts.

Steve Schwartz

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