Music: American Agri-Culture

On a recent trip to the Czech Republic, I took only CDs of American music with me. The idea was to catch up on numerous new releases, but I wonder if I was not self-consciously carrying the flag. I recall a summer in Taiwan at National Chengi University eons ago when the leader of our little group informed our Chinese hosts that “the only American culture is agriculture.” Now there was a cultural ambassador for you. At my hotel in Prague, the Aria, there was a music room manned by a concierge who also turned out to be the manager of one of the best Czech violinists. We had a wonderful visit, but I was disappointed at her ignorance of some of our best American composers. It is probably not even our agriculture that she is aware of, but of the omnipresent American pollutant called pop culture.

I was reminded of this bane by a nine-hour United flight that offered some 20 channels of music but only one dedicated to a “Classical Collection.” The rest was mind-numbing yowling over five-note melodies with chord changes every 60 seconds. In United-speak, “classical” meant Boston Pops performances of a John Williams fanfare, an orchestrated Woody Guthrie song, some Sousa, and America the Beautiful. This was followed by single-movement selections from a Mozart quintet, a Schubert trio, and some opera arias “from the most relaxing albums in the world.” We don’t want to sprain the brains of our dear little passengers with a complete work of anything. Would they think of passing out one chapter of a novel for our enjoyment? How about a fork with the middle teeth missing? Then why rip out one movement from the torso of a great work and shove it in front of us as an appetizer? The only answer can be attention deficit disorder—their presumption that we all suffer from it, and their own affliction with it.

Now that I have that off my chest, I will tell you about some wonderful American music and new recordings of it. If we had the intelligence to offer these works, what persuasive ambassadors they would make for American culture. There are so many superb new CDs that I can only briefly mention a few, with space to discuss only the main work on each release. The first batch includes some marvelous violin concertos.

Stephen Jaffe’s Violin Concerto (Bridge 9141) is a knockout. The sweetly lyrical opening line in the violin is assaulted by some orchestral outbursts that challenge it. By rising to the occasion, the violin engages the orchestra and gets it to sing and dance along. This is a highly imaginative, rhythmically alive, and finally ecstatic work. The Odense Symphony Orchestra, under William Purvis, gives an exciting performance that is immeasurably helped by the extraordinary artistry of the great American violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who has done so much during his career to advance new American music.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is a composer whom I have always tried to like. She has written a number of well-crafted symphonies and concertos that somehow do not remain in the mind, and I seldom revisit them. Not so for her new Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.559268). Like her other works, it inhabits the traditional world of tonality but seems imbued with a higher level of imagination and energy. I have listened to it a dozen times and will go back for more. Zwilich seamlessly integrates a line from Bach’s great Chaconne for solo violin into a kind of blues riff in the haunting second movement. This very appealing work is performed by violinist Pamela Frank and the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Michael Stern, in a stunning live recording.

Last month I mentioned Leonard Bernstein as a great conductor. He was not the great composer he had hoped to be. He never seemed to be able to move far enough out from under the shadow of his beloved Mahler when he was trying to make the Great Statement. However, he did write some wonderful works, particularly in the more popular vein, such as the brilliant musical Candide. The closest he came to composing a violin concerto was the Serenade for solo violin, strings, harp, and percussion. This is Bernstein at his most attractive. This delightful work is combined with Facsimile and the whimsical Divertimento for Orchestra on a new Naxos release (Naxos 8.559245), with fine performances by violinist Philippe Quint and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Mahn Alsop. By the way, if you like Bernstein’s more popular show music, you will be pleased by the first recording of his Peter Pan, released by Koch International Classics.

I knew nothing about the late Earl Kim’s violin concerto (Naxos 8.559226). Considering the time at which it was written, he was certainly a man who went his own way, mixing Mahler (listen to the introduction to part two) with an imitation of a gamelan orchestra, wood blocks, chimes, and at times an achingly lyrical violin line. The work seems episodic on first hearing, particularly because Kim likes to break up the melodic line into little staccato segments before putting it all together. It alternates between a kind of jerkiness and then long-lined, gorgeous melody. Hardly radical in its compositional techniques, this work nonetheless possesses a unique voice. It is intriguing and well-performed by violinist Cecylia Arzewski and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, under Scott Yoo.

In the symphonic realm, Naxos adds another significant release to its indispensable American Classics series with William Schuman’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9, along with two overtures (Naxos 8.559254). Schuman earned a place in posterity with his magnificent Third Symphony. Conductor Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony show that Schuman wrote a worthy successor in his Fourth. This work, like its predecessor, shows the considerable influence that Roy Harris, Schuman’s teacher, had on his style. In spirit, it is just as inimitably American as Harris’s works, with huge sweeps of strings opening out onto a seemingly endless prairie horizon. I love the yearning and reach of this music. As Schuman found his way out from under Harris’s influence, I think his work suffered. The Ninth is supposed to memorialize the Nazi atrocity at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, but I don’t think this work is equal to its subject. Get this CD for the Fourth.

Robert Kurka died young (1921-1957), but not before showing enormous promise with a galvanic Second Symphony that begins with massive jolts of energy that propel it on its way and leave a delicious sense of underlying menace, even during the symphony’s gentler moments. The language in this and the other superb works on this new Cedille CD (Cedille CDR 90000 077), featuring the Grant Park Orchestra, under Carlos Kalmar, obviously comes from Prokofiev. Prokofiev in Chicago is fine with me, particularly when Kurka uses his language with such complete skill and confidence. This CD is a revelation.

Naxos is also faithfully continuing its releases of the late George Rochberg’s symphonies, with the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christopher Lyndon-Gee. (See the tribute to Rochberg in the July 2005 issue of Crisis.) The Second Symphony (Naxos 8.559182) was the first such American work supposedly written according to the rules of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Rochberg was vastly amused when I told him that I didn’t think he obeyed those rules in this work because the themes were too identifiable and there was too much consonance to make it strictly serial. He confessed. Be forewarned, however; this is tough stuff—what Rochberg called “hard Romanticism.” But it is very gripping and shows that, if you cheat, even twelve-tone music can be powerfully expressive in its own angry kind of way.

If you want to hear what happened after Rochberg rejected twelve-tone music, listen to Naxos’s new release of his Fifth Symphony (Naxos 8.559115). This is still tough music, but it is tonal. It starts with hugely arresting orchestral thunderclaps over frantic ostinatos and staccato rhythms. The past, especially Mahler, does not appear as pastiche, but is fully integrated here. This is a harrowing, tumultuous, magnificent work. If you want to know why the avant-garde became apoplectic over Rochberg’s music, listen to the accompanying work, Transcendental Variations, a gorgeous string piece derived from the mesmerizingly beautiful Variation movement of Rochberg’s groundbreaking Third String Quartet.

Stay tuned for much more. Meanwhile, America: Are you listening?

  • Robert R. Reilly

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

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