New American Classics

Last month, I was celebrating the Naxos American Classics release of Vittorio Giannini‘s Piano Concerto and his Symphony No. 4. When I pleaded that Naxos consider recording the other six symphonies, I had forgotten that Naxos has already released Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 (1958), so it has only five to go. The Third Symphony is for wind band, which is not my favorite vehicle for symphonic music. However, this is as good as it gets, and I recommend it to all who care for this genre. The Third is Giannini’s most frequently performed and recorded work. It is available on Naxos (8.570130), with University of Houston Wind Ensemble, under Tom Bennett, and is accompanied by several other wind works.
What I admire about the American Classics series is that it is not all classics. It is not only restorative (returning great but neglected works to us by past maters like Giannini), but exploratory. Naxos is not afraid to gamble on younger, relatively unknown American composers. Who, for instance, is 36-year-old Jonathan Leshnoff? I became intensely interested in the answer to this question after repeated auditions of his Violin Concerto, Distant Reflections, and String Quartet No. 1 on a new Naxos release (8.559398).
I was impressed by Leshnoff’s vivid imagination and sophisticated ear for sonorities and the soaring lyricism and passion of his music. These works have immediate appeal, but the attraction strengthens with further acquaintance because the music has an underlying introspective character of real depth. The Baltimore Sun suggested that, despite his originality, Leshnoff "seems to be channeling, say, Samuel Barber" in the Violin Concerto. I saw, or rather heard, the point, but more in respect to the Autumn movement of the String Quartet, which is reminiscent of Barber in his meltingly lovely Adagio; and perhaps in the mesmerizing Distant Reflections, a ten-minute piece for off-stage string quartet, on-stage violinist, pianist, and strings. But what struck me in the Violin Concerto was what sounded like the clear and laudable influence of the music of my late friend Stephen Albert, one of the champions of the return of tonality and melody in American music.
The impression was so strong that I decided to pursue it. By e-mail, I found Leshnoff at Towson University in Maryland, where he is an associate professor of music. He was delighted by my query, and a series of interesting exchanges ensued. He told me that
Albert’s influence is very present in my music. I met him when he came to guest lecture at Peabody when I was a freshman there (1992). Immediately, I was taken by his music. He died the next year. Since then, I have studied and analyzed many of his works and have tried to reconstruct his harmonic theories. I have annotated scores of Albert’s major works in my office and I can go on for hours about "things" I find him doing. If I were to describe my direct relation to Albert, it would be in the realm of his harmonic ideas. I think I am constructing a harmonic language that is distinct, but I credit Albert as my inspiration and launching point.
It is quite extraordinary that the impact of Albert’s music could be so profound on someone who did not have the opportunity to study with him. Leshnoff is "self-taught" in Albert.
I sent Leshnoff some things I had written about modern music and about Albert’s teacher, George Rochberg. I spoke of the seminal breakthrough these composers made in releasing the stranglehold of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony (also referred to in last month’s column) and of the courage that it took. Leshnoff responded,
Though Rochberg paved the way, it still gets lonely and every once in a while I need to be around "friends." Reading what you write, it seems that Rochberg, Albert, you and I are all of the same ilk — though it was the former who made it possible for me to be me without the pain they went through swimming upstream . . . .
I found that remark very touching and a wonderful tribute to what Rochberg and Albert, both heroes to me, made possible for others. (It was generous of him to include me, but I do not belong in that exalted company.)
Back to the Violin Concerto. What we hear in the Naxos CD is a 2007 revision of Leshnoff’s original 2005 work. Completely new is the fifth movement, Elegy, which is deeply affecting and exquisitely beautiful. So is the second movement, marked Slow. I remember David Diamond, another great American composer whom Leshnoff calls to mind, saying that "you must develop the long line in your music, try to write very long melodies. . . . There must be radiant melody and urgency of rhythmic impulse." Here is where Leshnoff excels. It is hard to think of a recent work that can compare to the length of his melodic lines in this concerto, or to their radiant beauty. He is also, like Albert, rhythmically and sonically alive. These long lines are set within glimmering orchestration. His use of the piano in its lower registers to function as a kind of musical undertow reminds me of Albert, as does his opening brass declamation in the first movement.
I confess I did not read the CD liner notes until after listening to the Concerto several times. I am glad that I did not. Part of Leshnoff’s inspiration for this work comes from a tragedy, the awareness of which it is best not to have in mind if you want to experience the music without the freight of any outside associations. That said, violinist Charles Wetherbee plays as if his life depended on it, ably supported by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, under conductor Markand Thakar.
The String Quartet No. 1 is a "four seasons" piece, very attractively and imaginatively done. I have already remarked upon the Barber-like beauty of the Autumn movement. This is a very engaging work, which receives a fine performance from the Carpe Diem String Quartet.
The very good news is that Naxos is bringing out two more CDs of Leshnoff’s music. He reports that "CD number 2 is ‘in the can’ and contains my 1st Symphony, Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra (with Roberto Diaz on viola) and ‘Rush’ and orchestral opener conducted by Michael Stern and the Iris Orchestra." I note that Leshnoff has also composed choral music, including Requiem for the Fallen, "a piece dedicated to civilian and military lives lost in recent wars." He is now busy finishing a flute concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra. I very much want to be there for its debut.
Leshnoff said to me, "I’m far from a Stephen Albert." From what I have heard, the distance is not so great. This young composer has already created a substantial body of work and, if past is prelude, has a great future in front of him. I have the feeling that Steve would be proud.
My absorption in the Leshnoff CD leaves me with space for only brief mention of some other recent American Classics releases. Naxos is continuing its exemplary Aaron Copland series, this time with Symphony No. 1, Short Symphony (No. 2), and Dance Symphony (8.559359). The influences of Stravinsky’s ballets and of Ravel’s music are the most salient features of these early Copland works. Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra catch all the fun syncopations and excitement in young Copland’s attempted assimilation of the Rite of Spring. Listen to the ripsnorter in the Molto allegro section of the second movement of the First Symphony. This is not great Copland, but it is great fun. I do not want to sound too dismissive, however: This needs to be included in any Copland collection.
For good reason, Naxos is sticking with composer Paul Moravec (b. 1957) in its latest release of his music, which includes Chamber Symphony, Autumn Song, and Cool Fire (8.559393). This is lively, fleet music done with a sense of fun and joy. The Chamber Symphony possesses a cheerful busyness that reminds me of Bohuslav Martinu. However, Moravec does not quite have Martinu’s talent for creating the sense of an impending musical collision amid the busyness. That does not keep me from enjoying this mercurial music, especially when it is as alertly performed as it is here by these chamber musicians.
Two chamber music CDs of John Corigliano’s music are offered by Naxos. One contains his String Quartet, an intriguing but occasionally abrasive work, along with the String Quartet No. 2 of his student, Jefferson Friedman. Also included is Snapshot: Circa 1909, a string quartet movement inspired by an old photo of Corigliano’s father playing the violin when he was eight years old, accompanied by his older brother on the guitar. I first listened to this nostalgic piece in the composer’s presence after he had explained its inspiration. It is very sweet and touching, as lovely an evocation of his cherished father as one could imagine. I would want this disc if only as keepsake of my having heard it when and with whom I first did.
The same kind of touching lyricism also appears in the Nocturne movement of the Quartet, though it is followed by more asperities in the Fugue. In the Postlude, there is an ostinato that very much sounds like a slowed down version of a European police car siren. The ostinato occasionally gets passed between instruments and, toward the end, the speed picks up to the point that I thought an arrest would be made, but finally everything slowly dies down and gently fades out. This is a mysterious piece, then, but worth the effort it sometimes requires.
As is evident from Snapshot, Corigliano can write a beautiful melody whenever he wants to. I doubt if he has written anything more beautiful than the long-lined theme to The Red Violin, the movie score for which he won an Academy Award in 1997. Corigliano has used themes from this score in a number of ways, including in a full Red Violin Concerto, written for Joshua Bell. In a new Naxos release (8.559306) of his Music for Violin and Piano, he employs the theme as the basis for The Red Violin: Chaconne, an extremely fine and very attractive set of variations. The theme is also the basis for The Red Violin Caprices for solo violin, which are both virtuosic and highly engaging. Corigliano’s early Sonata for Violin and Piano, a very sprightly piece, rounds out the CD, along with the Fantasia on an Ostinato for piano, which show that Corigliano can mix Minimalism and a passage from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony successfully. Violinist Ida Bieler and pianist Nina Tichman both shine in this ingratiating program.
In future columns, I will be reporting on more gems in the irreplaceable, indispensable Naxos American Classics series.
Meanwhile, if my recent concert and opera adventures are of interest, go here for my review of a great performance of Ravel’s String Quartet; here and here for my experiences with performances of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony, which I heard twice in one month; and here for my take on the opening night of the Washington Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes on March 21.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for E-mail him at [email protected].


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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