American Romantics from the Manhattan School



Robert Sirota (1949- ) is an American composer.  A native New Yorker, his earliest compositional training began at the Juilliard School; he received his bachelor’s degree in piano and composition from the Oberlin Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Wood and Richard Hoffman. A Thomas J. Watson Fellowship allowed him to study and concertize in Paris, where his principal teacher was Nadia Boulanger. Returning to America, Sirota earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University, studying with Earl Kim and Leon Kirchner.

Before becoming Director of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in 1995, Sirota served as Chairman of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at New York University and Director of Boston University’s School of Music. From 2005-2012, he was the President of Manhattan School of Music, where he was also a member of the School’s composition faculty.

Robert Sirota (from website)

Prior to encountering this disc this reviewer had not encountered Sirota’s work and, frankly, didn’t expect American Romanticism to flow from the Manhattan School.  That’s not intended as a critique of the Manhattan School which seems to be more interested in the compositional direction of composers like Morton Feldman and faculty member Nils Vigeland is a huge Feldman supporter.

But no matter.  We have a disc of purportedly “romantic” music with an American theme.  The disc begins with Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 Op. 96.  It dates from 1893, the same year as his 9th Symphony.  It is debatable as to how “American” these works are.  Dvorak was enamored of negro spirituals and his melodies, while not directly quoting, do seem to capture some of the spirit of these musics.  

Not having heard the piece in some years I was grateful to find it still as interesting as ever.  It’s not up there with Beethoven’s or Brahms maybe but there is much to enjoy in this particular piece and it is given her a loving  performance.  This piece has earned a deserved place in the repertoire.

Next up is the main point of this album, Robert Sirota’s Second String Quartet subtitled, “American Romantic”.  It is an episodic piece which takes the listener to various places and, like the Dvorak, uses no direct quotes but manages to capture a certain spirit or Zeitgeist with each of its four movements.  His harmonic language seems to be that of some slightly extended tonality but unquestionably romantic.  His use of motives seem to trigger memories of familiar tunes.  Each movement is focused on a different physical place and time of day.

Sirota’s American Pilgrimage begins in the first movement, Morning: Waldo County, Maine with broad strokes using motives that suggest or are fragments of familiar tunes.  He moves in the second movement to Midday: Mother Emmanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the awful church shooting from a few years ago.  This pizzicato dominant movement continues the suggestive use of motives and has moments of searing sadness and pain.  His program is not explicit but this is protest music as well as music of sadness.

The third movement, Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico sort of takes the place of a scherzo.  Despite his basically tonal palette the composer makes strategic use of dissonances for color and effect.  This movement is actually more contemplative with a few moments of more kinetic writing.  He ends with the fourth movement Evening: Manhattan, the most extensive movement.  It opens with a whirlwind like theme and moves quickly (given that it is evening).  As with most classical quartets he uses fourth movement to do a bit of summing up, echoes of what has gone before mix with new material.

Finally we get to hear the string quartet version of probably the most famous piece of American Romanticism, the lovely (if overplayed) Adagio for strings from Samuel Barber’s sole string quartet.  It’s not clear why the entire quartet was not included but this piece does a nice job of putting a programmatic cap on this satisfying little chamber music program.

Sirota’s idiosyncratic use of melodic fragments and basically tonal idiom are intriguing enough that alert listeners are likely to seek out more of his music.  The Sirota is clearly the reason to buy this album but, as a program, the other pieces frame it well and this CD is a very satisfying experience.

Harold Meltzer New Chamber Music


meltzervar

Open G Records

I was delighted to receive this disc directly from the composer.  I had not been familiar with Harold Meltzer‘s (1966- ) work so this would be my introduction.  The disc contains two works, a Piano Quartet (2016) and a song cycle, Variations on a Summer Day (2012-2016).  Both are functional titles which tell the listener little about what to expect in terms of style.  I was even more delighted when he kindly sent me some PDF scores of these pieces.

The Piano Quartet might be described as post minimal I suppose but the salient characteristic of this piece is that it is exciting and quite listenable.  It is also quite a workout for the musicians.  In fact this piece seems to embody a variety of styles which give it a friendly romantic gloss at times.  This is a fine addition to the Piano Quartet repertoire.

The musicians that do such justice to this composition are: Boston Chamber Music Society: Harumi Rhodes, violin, Dimitri Murrath, viola, Ramen Ramakrishnan, violoncello, and Max Levinson, piano.  All are kept quite busy and seems to be enjoying themselves.  I can’t imagine this not playing well to the average chamber music audience.

The song cycle, “Variations on a Summer Day” sets poetry by Wallace Stevens and Meltzer’s compositional style seems to be a good fit for Stevens’ poetic style.  This work is stylistically very similar to the Piano Quartet with hints of minimalism within a larger somewhat romantic style.  It is scored for chamber orchestra with soprano solo.  Actually the orchestra is Ensemble Sequitur, a group founded in part by the composer and clearly dedicated to the performance of new music.  The members of this group include: Abigail Fischer, soprano, Jayce Ogren, conductor, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flutes, Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinets, Margaret Kampmeier, piano, Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violins, Daniel Panner, viola, Greg Hesselink, violoncello.

The poem is by the sometimes obtuse American poet Wallace Stevens.  Maybe “obtuse” is the wrong word but Stevens is not the easiest read.  What is interesting is how well this composer’s style fits this poetic utterance.  This is a lovely song cycle that puts this writer in the mind of Copland’s Dickinson Songs and Barber’s Hermit Songs and perhaps his Knoxville Summer of 1915.  There is an air of romantic nostalgia in this tonal and passionate setting.

Stevens’ poetry has been inspiring American composers for some years.  Works like Roger Reynolds’ “The Emperor of Ice CreamThe Emperor of Ice Cream“(1961-2) demonstrate an effective avant garde setting of another of his works.  It is fascinating to hear how different composers utilize the poet’s work.  The present cycle is a beautiful setting which presents a challenge to the musicians which is met quite successfully here.

 

 

Samuel Barber in Perspective, A New Documentary


It is surprising that this first ever documentary on American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) comes some 36 years after his passing.  This two time Pulitzer Prize winner whose now ubiquitous Adagio for strings was first championed by Arturo Toscanini was much lauded and performed during his lifetime.  His two grand operas (Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra) were performed at the Metropolitan Opera and his increasingly popular Violin Concerto was first recorded by Isaac Stern with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

Barber’s music is a personal favorite of this writer.  This mid-century neo-romantic master is gaining greater recognition through an increasing number of performances and recordings so this release would seem to be a timely one.  

Filmmaker H. Paul Moon will be screening an discussing the film ahead of its March 23rd release on disc.  The screening will be at the Jarvis Conservatory at 1711 Main Street in Napa, CA at 7 PM on Friday, February 10. It will be preceded by a performance of the justly famed Adagio for Strings in its original form for string quartet.

The trailer is available for viewing at the website noted above and the site contains further info about rental and purchase.

Filling Vital Gaps in the Recorded Repertoire: The Walden Chamber Players Do America


walden ch pl evolution

The only name that might not be familiar to fans of early to mid-twentieth century American music feature in this recording is that of Marion Bauer (1882-1955).  The rest of these composers are clearly established in both recordings and the performing repertoire.  One of the great things about this recording is that the collector runs practically no risk of duplication.  While the Rorem, Barber and Bowles have been recorded before I am not aware of any currently available recordings of the Thomson, Copland and Bauer pieces.

I don’t know how profoundly significant all these works are, only time (and more performances/recordings) will tell.  But these are attractive pieces that fill historical gaps and that is apparently the goal of this clever ensemble.  Even if these are not first order masterpieces they do speak to the historical evolution of the American sound in the twentieth century.

Marion Bauer is herself in need of a reassessment.  This woman, 20 years older than Aaron Copland was essential in the establishment of the foundational institutions of American music.  Few of her works have been recorded and even fewer given good or great recordings.  So this 1944 Trio Sonata No. 1 recording is a very good start.  This, like the other works on the album do not stray far from basic romantic tonality but were the “modern” idiom for the works of their day.  The sound of mid-century neo-romanticism is clearly in evidence in this lovely and lyrical three movement sonata.

Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) is now better known for his excellent music criticism but he was also one of the finest examples of the American neo-romantic tradition (and the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for a film score) and his work is sadly under-appreciated. The five brief movements are infused with the composer’s folk and hymn references like much of his work.  I do not think this lovely little Serenade for Flute and Violin (1941) has been recorded before and, hearing it now, I can’t imagine why not.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is represented here by two late works from 1971 and 1973, both entitled Threnody.  The first is dedicated to Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the second to Copland’s friend Beatrice Cunningham.

As far as I know this is the first recording of these two works.  They are short and intense pieces whose apparent simplicity most likely belies some complexity but these are very approachable works.  It is a great service to have them available for listening.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is probably the foremost representative of American romanticism.  The brief Canzone for Flute and Piano (1961) was originally written for a friend.  The melody made its way into Barber’s Piano Concerto Op. 38 (1962) and has been given the opus number 38a.

Ned Rorem (1923- ), composer and diarist is also a strong contender for the romantic crown in American music.  He is the youngest of the composers represented on this recording (though this reviewer would like to make the case to perhaps include David Del Tredici 1937- for inclusion in this survey of mid-century American romantics).  Best known for his songs, Rorem’s orchestral and chamber music have only recently begun to get the attention they deserve.

His Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano (1960) is very strong example of the quality of his chamber music.  The four movement trio has been recorded before but this performance is about as fine and definitive as one could imagine.

Paul Bowles (1910-1999) is far better known for his literary endeavors and is connected to the beat writers.  His novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949) secured his literary fame.  Bowles spent much less time on composition after 1956 but his music has (though painfully slowly) been going through some reckoning in recent years.  And so it should.  This contemporary of Aaron Copland  has written a fair amount of music, much of that in the form of incidental music for various plays.  This Sonata for Flute and Piano (1932) has been recorded before but it is good to see it made available in a competent recent version.

Ned Rorem, the only composer here still living, gets the final word in The Unquestioned Answer (2002).  It is essentially a reflection on Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question (1908, rev. 1930-5) and provides a fitting conclusion to this wonderful survey.

I very favorably reviewed a previous release by the Walden Chamber Players (Marianne Gedigian, flute; Curtis Macomber, violin; Tatiana Dimitraes, violin; Christof Huebner, viola; Ashima Scripp, cello and Jonathan Bass, piano).  And they continue their intelligent and very personal survey of chamber music.

This is a very satisfying album which achieves its goal of displaying music which clearly contributes to the collective voice of American music as it developed in the early to mid- twentieth century.  This intelligent selection of music, well-performed, fills gaps in the recorded repertoire and, one hope, will encourage others to bring more of this work to recordings and performances.