American music is characterized by a sense of openness, expansive vistas, expectancy, and optimism, offset by a deep sense of longing, poignancy, and nostalgia. It is not shy of beauty and has rhythmic vivacity. What’s not to like? Think, for instance, of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roy Harris, and David Diamond.
Yet I would challenge you to name a single living American composer. If you can, it is probably John Adams, he of Nixon in China and Harmonielehre fame (all of it deserved). I don’t blame you. Even if you are a music lover — like many I know — you probably have not come all the way out of the bunker into which you retreated to survive the assault of noise that commenced in the 20th century.
But it’s okay: The war is over. You can come out now. The army of noise emptied its lungs screaming its loudest and then whimpered away — except for poor Pierre Boulez, who is still in there pitching pitchless music. One almost does not have the heart to tell him that it is not tonal music that has become irrelevant, but lui-même.
In any case, the Naxos label has been doing a great service to American contemporary music (which owes a huge note of thanks to German founder Klaus Heymann) with its American Classics series of CDs. It has issued excellent recordings of what are the acknowledged classics, such as the music of the four American composers mentioned above. Along those lines, it recently wrapped up its outstanding survey of the complete published symphonies of William Schuman (1910-1992) with the release of Symphony No. 8, accompanied by the ballet Night Journey (Naxos 8.559651). This is not my favorite Schuman (start with the great Symphony No. 3), but Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony give superb performances.
Also from the “classic” era of American music comes the Naxos release of String Quartets Nos. 1, 3, and 5 of Walter Piston (1894-1976). Piston did not bother much with surface appeal but sought a quality of interiority, which he achieved in these subtle quartets. The Harlem Quartet captures this inner life perfectly (Naxos 8.559630).
It is for allowing us to hear the “non-classic” American composers, however, that we should be particularly grateful to Naxos. Some of these are older folks like Paul Fetler (b. 1920), who were simply overlooked in the din caused by the army of noise. The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, under Arie Lipsky, gives Fetler the first recording dedicated solely to his music (Naxos 8.559606). From what I hear on this disc, it is way overdue. The CD begins with Three Poems by Walt Whitman. I abhor music with narration, which is what this is, but the quality of Fetler’s settings is so brilliant that I endured Thomas Blaske’s amateur readings. I was enraptured by the evocative nocturnal tone poem Fetler was developing in the first poem for nearly three minutes before the narration began. The impressionistic music is so beautiful that I wish Fetler had set these texts as songs instead.
The Capriccio that follows is a delightful piece full of, in Fetler’s words, “whimsy and playfulness.” It reminds me of Prokofiev in his lighter vein. The major work on this CD is the Violin Concerto No. 2, with violinist Aaron Berofsky. This full-throated, highly lyrical music, composed in 1980, is directly in the lineage of Barber’s great romantic Violin Concerto. This may be old-fashioned music, but it is so enchanting that it vindicates Fetler’s statement that “what was modern is modern no more. All the issues vanish, only expression remains.” The Ann Arbor performances were recorded live, with completely silent audiences who obviously were as taken with this music as you will be. Buy this CD so that Naxos gives us more of Fetler’s music.
One can hardly say that John Corigliano (b. 1938) has been overlooked. He is one of the most celebrated contemporary American composers. He had big hit with his film score to The Red Violin, later utilizing the music in a number of forms. Perhaps the most successful is the Red Violin Chaconne, which he turned into a full-blown Violin Concerto, “The Red Violin,” in 2003. It is a big-boned piece that, like the Fetler, harkens back to Barber. I particularly enjoyed Corigliano’s remark that the liberty of first writing this highly romantic music for film allowed him to bypass his “censor button.” He knows how to write a great melody, and he has one in the opening movement, which he calls “a passionate romantic essay.” This theme ties together the whole concerto, which was written, as Corigliano said, “‘in the great tradition’ kind of concerto” in memory of his violinist father, who was the concert master of the New York Philharmonic. The sizable concerto is accompanied, on Naxos (8.559671), by the fantastic time machine Phantasmagoria — Suite from “the Ghosts of Versailles” (2000), Corigliano’s hit opera written for the Met. Violinist Michael Ludwig is dazzling in the concerto, and JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra play with requisite passion and care throughout.
Conductor Falletta, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra, brings us the startlingly gracious music of Jack Gallagher (b. 1947). The works on this new American Classics CD (Naxos 8.559652) fit exactly the description of American music at the head of this article. Do you want optimistic exuberance? Go to the Diversions Overture that begins the program. Poignancy? The liltingly lovely Berceuse. Music does not get much lovelier than this. Vivacity? The Sinfonietta for strings, which demonstrates how Americans can continue the great British tradition of such string works (think Britten). The Pavane movement in this piece goes as directly to the heart as does the Berceuse. It begins like one of Vaughan Williams’s great string works. The Symphony in One Movement: Threnody pretty much has it all, including some stabbing chords at the end that could have come out of Bernard Herrmann’s great score for Psycho. I highly recommend this CD for the shell-shocked. You will think you have been cheated that you have not heard it before.
Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) writes delightfully manic music that engages the pop culture world with zest and rambunctiousness. He has written works based on Superman, trains, UFOs, Motown and, with this new Naxos CD, Sunset Strip and Route 66. His music is gymnastically energetic and highly syncopated. You can move to it. It is a lot of fun, but I would not advise listening to the whole thing unless you have had a full night’s sleep. I forgot to mention that humor is an element in American music, and you will find it in abundance here. Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have a romp playing this rollicking good stuff (Naxos 8.559613).
Bruce Wolosoff (b. 1955) is another unfamiliar name to me. He has written some 18 short string quartet pieces, called Songs without Words, that are in the chamber music spirit of Daugherty’s orchestral works. In other words, they are fun. He asked, “Is music with a happy aesthetic any less valid than dark, depressing, gnarly, and complicated ‘serious’ music?” His answer: “Imagine my new-found joy at the possibility of writing music that my friends might want to listen to for pleasure.” His friends, in this case, were the members of the Carpe Diem Quartet, who gave Wolosoff a list of their favorite songs — mostly from the world of pop — which he then wrote riffs on. I don’t recognize the original materials, as I only listen to classical music, but the results of Wolosoff’s variations are immensely enjoyable, unpretentious, and finely crafted, with a wonderfully broad range of expression. You can definitely dance to the funky hoedown in the fifth movement, Dancing on my Grave, and to much else here. Young Love is surely a slow dance. The Carpe Diem Quartet plays with zest on this New American Classics Naxos CD (8.559663).
When Naxos released its first Jonathan Leshnoff CD with his Violin Concerto and First String Quartet (8.559398), I was stuck by this young composer’s vivid imagination and sophisticated ear for sonorities, as well as the soaring lyricism and passion of his music. As I said then, “These works have immediate appeal, but the attraction strengthens with further acquaintance because the music has an underlying introspective character of real depth.”
Leshnoff’s works especially feature the yearning, nostalgia, and striving in American music, exquisitely expressed with gorgeous melodic lines. In his new CD (8.559670), he intertwines two such lines in the Double Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra. The viola and violin partner and play off of each other in this shimmering, radiant music. I have remarked before on the laudable influence of Steve Albert’s works on Leshnoff (which Leshnoff was delighted to discuss with me), and I detect it here, along with an almost Bernard Herrmann-like emotional undertow. It is the undertow effect that adds such poignancy to the upward striving of the soloists. Like his superb Violin Concerto, the Double Concerto should become a repertory item.
It is joined by Symphony No. 1, “Forgotten Chants and Refrains,” which enticingly explores the past using some quotes from a 17th-century Jewish composer, Salomon Rossi, excerpts from a Guillaume DuFay Mass, and Gregorian chant. As you might imagine from these sources, the symphony at times has a liturgical feel to it. It also has what sounds like a variation from the Requiem theme. In all, it is a reflective, though at times lively piece. The themes the trombones play may be from Gregorian chant, but they sound like something out of the exotic world of Alan Hovhaness. The IRIS Orchestra, under Michael Stern, is outstanding, as it was in Leshnoff’s first release. Soloists Charles Wetherbee (violin) and Roberto Díaz (viola) play sublimely.
What do all these American works have in common? They all have great melodies. They all want to communicate with you through their music. I know you have had a rough time — so have I, especially since I did not go into the bunker during the full-frontal assault. But I am out here to give the “all clear” signal. Open your ears and give these American Classics the chance they deserve.