Last January, I promised to cover more releases of American music as a rebuke to the noxious thesis that our only culture is agriculture—or, even worse, pop culture. But who would know about these riches, and how? They have received very little exposure, and now get even less. Every weekday, National Public Radio used to broadcast a stunningly good program called Performance Today, which often featured premieres of American music. The gracious and highly literate host, Martin Goldsmith, would introduce a recital or concert somewhere in America, often in little towns you have never heard of, where the performers would play wonderful music very well, as if it were a normal part of American life. It was, and it still is. This is the hidden America, now more closely veiled because the program, with a new host, was cut back from daily to weekly.
I often thought that, to confuse our enemies and make new friends, the United States should have broadcast Performance Today around the world. It so defied the stereotype of overweight, godless Americans lost in malls, seeking their next purchase of an even-bigger-screen TV, that it might have given listeners pause. But why should we tell foreigners about this when we don’t even tell ourselves? The local Washington, D.C., public radio station, WETA, has almost completely abandoned classical music in favor of rebroadcasting the BBC on the dubious premise that it is more important for us to listen to British liberals than to our own. Aren’t our liberals more interesting?
Fortunately, enterprising CD labels enable listeners to create their own Performance Todays. I have been doing exactly that with a number of intriguing releases. I will start with the new two-CD (for the price of one) issue by Albany Records (Troy 771/72) of Vincent Persichetti’s Symphonies Nos. 3 (1946), 4 (1951), and 7 (1958). All three works were new to me and I found them an attractive, if not highly original, amalgam of Roy Harris, with whom Persichetti studied, and William Schuman, with an occasional dash of Aaron Copland and hints of (neoclassical) Igor Stravinsky. While these strong similarities may be the first thing to strike the listener, repeated listening reveals such a high level of imagination and craft that it is clear that Persichetti made this language his own and was not simply a Harris/Schuman clone. The Albany Symphony Orchestra, under David Allen Miller, presents these works with an infectious exuberance in a stunningly good recording. This is the kind of thing that the Albany label does best. If you want to learn more about Persichetti, read Walter Simmons’s brilliant essay in the March/April 2006 issue of Fanfare magazine.
As Persichetti’s music demonstrates, Roy Harris was a seminal figure in American music—and a popular one. In the 1930s, he was the most frequently performed American composer. I am praying that the rumor is true that the Naxos label will soon embark on the first complete traversal of his 16 symphonies. Meanwhile, it is great to have three substantial Harris chamber works available on a new Koch recording (KIC CD 7515), featuring the Third Angle New Music ensemble from Portland. All of Harris’s music seems hymn-like, impelled by yearning, mourning, and celebration. He found “suppliance towards those deepest spiritual yearnings within ourselves” to be typical of the American character, and that is what we hear expressed in the intense Quintet for Piano and Strings, the Violin Sonata, and String Quartet No. 3, a moving homage to Bach. As the Quartet and Quintet are otherwise unavailable, these fine performances are indispensable for Harris devotees or anyone wondering about the source of his influence.
Samuel Barber was another lodestar in American music. His influence is apparent in an achingly beautiful string quartet by Stephan Shewan that I only recently tripped across,
although it was released a decade ago by Albany Records (Troy 149). The CD is filled mostly with Shewan’s vigorous and finely wrought choral music, both sacred and profane, but the last item is the 26-minute String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Ad Hoc String Quartet. It is written as an overt tribute to Barber’s own and only String Quartet. As such, it is mostly gentle, intensely lyrical, and elegiac. The third and longest movement, Elegy, is a meditation on Barber’s famous Adagio, which it eloquently and movingly paraphrases. Shewan’s love for this music suffuses his own. It is an exquisite tribute. Shewan wrote this piece in 1992. One can only hope he has continued to work in the genre.
On first hearing, I have seldom been as taken by a work as I was by George Tsontakis’s String Quartet No. 4 (see “Music,” March 2004). It made a lasting impression; I still think that it is one of the finest and most sublime American works in the genre. Therefore, I greatly anticipated listening to two new releases of his chamber music on Koch, containing some half-dozen works for piano quartet (Piano Quartet Trilogy KIC-CD-7550) and other chamber combinations (Heartsounds KIC-CD-7579). I don’t have the space to cover these works individually, so I will make some general remarks that seem to characterize them.
I did not find most of these works comparable to the Fourth Quartet in being as coherently formed. Though much of this music is strikingly good and passionately inspired, it seems too often punctuated by clangorous eruptions that appear, at least to me, as disruptions. On the other hand, Tsontakis is able to construct compact themes of such startling simplicity and memorable quality that he can vary them, put them through a wringer, bounce them upside down, set them to a jazz riff, and still not lose the listener.
It is extremely satisfying to be taken so far afield and still know where home base is—even though the journey can be more than a bit rough. I especially like the way he uses classical and romantic musical idioms to set his themes into different contexts and lets those idioms reveal what they can about the themes in a particularly haunting way. For instance, in Heartsounds, a searing piece about “romance, disillusionment and hope,” the music seems about to fall apart over its own grief, with obsessive repetitions and, at times, a hallucinatory wildness, if not desperation. To convey this, Tsontakis uses the language of near hysteria from the world of hyper-romanticism. The recovery of balance employs more classical allusions.
Tsontakis’s music seems to be trying to remember something better than the clangor and pain. It gets angry when it does not succeed in fully recovering this memory, and then collapses back into tender melancholy. As the music approaches the beautiful, it often pulls back as if it can’t allow itself to do this—it’s too lovely and from a time long gone. It expresses an ambivalence, as if it cannot give itself completely. Is that because the search is not over for the thing to which one can give oneself completely?
This music reveals a composer who has been (or is still) on a journey. The deliberately unsettled character of the music conveys as much—that the search is painful and necessary, through dark woods and difficult paths. There are exquisitely touching moments of intimate intensity, a kind of Schubertian quality of suffering and painful illumination. Every once in a while, the music seems to lose its balance—or is loss of balance precisely what it means to express? There is a powerful emotional undertow in much of it. The anger is overt and clear. It is the close-to-still moments of deep pain that are more searing in their hushed intimacy. This is not easy listening, but a composer out of the ordinary is at work here. This is very searching music, and the search is inside.
I will close with something on the more exuberant side: Kenneth Fuchs’s An American Place (for Orchestra), written to express the “brash optimism of the American spirit.” This it does in a very appealing—in fact, exhilarating—musical outburst, which Fuchs builds to on John Adams—like chugging ostinatos and beautiful, soaring melodies. Fuchs is obviously trying to write in a popular style, and he succeeds without being cloying. Also on this Naxos release (8.559224) is Fuchs’s Eventide, a concerto for English horn, harp, percussion, and string orchestra. It is another immediately appealing work: enchanting, exquisitely fine, and gorgeously melodic. In Out of the Dark, Fuchs shows that he can write dissonant, thorny music to reflect upon Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings. However, by the third movement, Summer Banner, he returns to his gracious, mellifluous style. This is all beautifully played by the London Symphony Orchestra, under JoAnn Falletta.
These releases have “Found in America” written all over them. Don’t let them get lost. And stay tuned…