Music Redivivus

This month I will focus on contemporary music, by which I mean music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Music from this period has been my preoccupation: When discussions began about the possible content of my Morley Institute book, Surprised by Beauty (2002), it turned out that the majority of my columns from the prior ten years had been about this era. This was not the product of any design on my part but simply reflected my desire to understand what was going on around me.
What I had heard was lots of noise, and I was intrigued as to how it had gotten itself passed off as music. But I heard other things as well, and wondered how the composers of beauty had sustained themselves during a period of such confusion and downright hostility. That was the subject of my book, and it is now, thankfully, an old story; the younger generations of composers, who had had enough of the enforced sterility of mandatory dodecaphony, decisively rebelled against and repelled the forces of noise. They returned to tonality, melody, and gorgeous harmonies. Beginning in the last several decades of the 20th century, in fact, there has been a musical renaissance both in this country and in Europe. In a small way, I have done what I can to bring attention to it.

However, it is not enough. I attended a conference with a group of conservative leaders at the end of last year, at which our culture was referred to as moribund. (There is always a tendency among conservatives to blow out the candle so they can curse the darkness.) I said that, as far as American classical music is concerned, this is not true and, in fact, it is undergoing a renaissance — no thanks to anyone in the conservative intellectual movement. This renewal, I pointed out, is happening without our knowledge or assistance, and that the least we could do is to make ourselves culturally literate enough to acknowledge what is happening, to celebrate these artists, and to support them. One person later sent me an e-mail message saying that “the right is culturally brain dead.They may complain about pop culture, but that has become all they know.” Because of this, conservative conferences on culture tend to become wakes. The only differences expressed are on how quickly to pull down the curtain.
Stop complaining and start listening is my advice. It is not over yet, as more evidence of the renaissance continues to pour in. No sooner had I finished last month’s column, closing with the exciting Naxos release of Benjamin Lees’s String Quartets, than I encountered Dan Welcher’s String Quartets Nos. 1-3, also on a new Naxos CD (8.559384), beautifully performed by the Cassatt String Quartet. These superb works reinforce my conviction that chamber music is thriving in the United States. Ken Fuchs, Daniel Godfrey, Jonathan Leshnoff, Steven Gerber, Paul Moravec, George Tsontakis, and Jennifer Higdon are other composers who immediately spring to mind, along with Lees and Welcher.
Welcher’s Third Quartet, subtitled “Cassatt,” was written for the eponymous quartet and inspired by Mary Cassatt’s paintings. This music has a most welcome sense of playfulness, as in its references to Ravel and Falla in the first movement and in its treatment of the melody of the “Soldier’s Chorus” from Gounod’s Faust in the second. The meltingly lovely third movement, according to the composer, “is all about melody . . . . There is no angst, no choppy rhythms, just ever-unfolding melody and lush harmonies.” It quotes from Debussy and, like Cassatt’s paintings, is imbued with a French spirit. All three Welcher quartets are extremely well-crafted. The Second, “Harbor Music,” shares in the impressionistic perspective of the Third. The First is cut from a different cloth; it is more angular and acerbic but never, even in its angry moments, off-putting.
Steven Gerber’s new Naxos CD of chamber music (8.559618) — Piano Trio, Duo, Elegy, and Notturno — is a fascinating traversal of this composer’s stylistic journey, as it contains works spanning the period from 1968 to 2001. It serves as a miniature musical autobiography. I would first direct readers who are unfamiliar with Gerber’s music to his orchestral works, like the Symphony No. 1 on Chandos, the wonderful Clarinet Concerto on Arabesque, or the cello and violin concertos on Koch, because they are major works.
The Naxos CD contains shorter compositions and includes some real jewels, like the exquisite Three Pieces for Two Violins and the Gershwiniana for Three Violins. In fact, almost all of the nine pieces here are jewels. They are works from the inner world of the human spirit. As such, they are highly contemplative and concentrated, and sometimes spare, but no less achingly beautiful for that. It is no surprise when Gerber says that one of them had its origins as a study.
The early pieces, according to Gerber, show the influences of Bartók and Elliott Carter. He moved away from that chromatic style to what is now popularly called neo-Romanticism. Consistently, these works show that Gerber has never been afraid of writing a highly exposed melodic line; he has dared simplicity and achieved a kind of stillness. This makes it all the more intriguing and significant when he goes on to develop his material. This CD is an invaluable supplement for the Gerber fan and a highly attractive proposition for anyone attracted to the chamber instrument combinations Gerber employs. The performances are first rate.
In December, I went to the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony Orchestra and pianist Yuja Wang premier Jennifer Higdon’s new Piano Concerto. I gave it a mixed review — too busy, it seemed to me — but it certainly exhibited her trademark vivacity. As I mentioned when I reviewed her splendid Naxos CD of chamber music (Trio, Voices, and Impressions), Higdon’s music sounds like it is spilling out from a source of irrepressible energy. A new CD of her chamber music from Koch (KIC CD 7738), titled Summer Shimmers, confirms that impression, especially its opening piece, a piano sextet called Zaka. The energy is mixed with occasional wistfulness. It is the latter quality that Higdon captures in her Summer Showers, a piano sextet with winds and horn, which is one of those hazy, deliciously lazy evocations of summer, with a strong nostalgic pull. Autumn Reflections is in the same reflective mood. The flute was Higdon’s first instrument, and there are two solo flute pieces, Song and Rapid Fire, on this CD that demonstrate her love for it and the fact that her music does not need to be busy to make an impression. All of this music is immediately appealing, which comports with Higdon’s declaration, quoted from her Kennedy Center appearance, that “it is important that music communicates.”
I will briefly reach into an earlier period of America music to let you know about the new Naxos release of Roy Harris’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop (8.559609). This orchestra proved its chops in playing American music with the stunningly good performance of Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, reviewed last year. This time American conductor Alsop takes on Harris’s two wartime symphonies from 1942 and 1944, Nos. 5 and 6. Credited with writing the great American symphony, his Third, Harris (1898-1960) suffered from the reputation of being a one-work composer. It’s a scandal that all of his 13 symphonies have not been recorded long ago, though Naxos has stepped into the breach and is in the process of recording them.
The magnificent No. 6, Gettysburg, alone gives the lie to the one-work bum rap. This is a powerful, visionary work commemorating the fallen from the Civil War. It communicates Harris’s signature sense of longing and openness, achieving a kind of prairie majesty that is inimitably American. The Fifth is another stirring work, relayed by radio to American troops around the world during World War II, and it needs no apologies. The Naxos recording is very fine and detailed, revealing more of this music than the prior recordings on the Albany and Louisville labels. Alsop takes a bit more time in the Sixth than did Keith Clark in his very animated version, but what little she may sacrifice in vitality, she gains in clarity. It is wonderful to see Harris finally getting this kind of recognition.
Quincy Porter (1897-1966) hailed from the same era as Harris, and his music has also been neglected. He did not write in the same visionary strain as Harris, and his renown never compared to that of Aaron Copland or even Howard Hanson, two other American composers who stayed close to tonality and generally eschewed the radical currents of the time. Copland indulged in American folk music, and Hanson in a kind of Sibelian surging Romanticism. Porter did neither: His music was finely crafted, assertive in its own way, but also subdued. If the quality of interiority in his music kept it from achieving broad popularity, it nonetheless rewards the listener who pays attention.
Dorian Recordings has issued a very attractive CD of Porter’s Complete Viola Works, with violist Elisha Nelson and the Northwest Sinfonia, under John McLaughlin Williams (DSL-90911). The main work here is a beautiful Viola Concerto from 1948. Porter was himself a violist, and he gives the instrument in this work long-lined, highly lyrical melodies. Nelson knows how to sing them: The long cadenzas are never for show, as overt displays seemed to run against Porter’s nature; they are pensive and integral to the rich musical fabric. The rest of the CD comprises various chamber combinations with viola, and one lovely Suite for Viola Alone. This is satisfying music, finely performed.
The next time you hear American culture reviled, reach for these CDs.


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

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