Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Here the Cliffs: the Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann

Here the Cliffs: Orchestral Music of Hilary Tann
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra
Kirk Trevor, conductor
North South

Very lyrical, yet highly individual music -- that's my impression of the compositions on this new recording. Hilary Tann’s works remind me somewhat of Alan Hovhaness’. Not in terms of melody or harmony, but rather in organization. The pieces move along from point to point driven by their own internal logic. Sometimes the underlying form isn’t readily apparent, but that doesn’t matter –- somehow it all works.

From Afar has some large gestures in it, and the orchestral sound ebbs and flows like the sea. The Cliffs is a work for violin and orchestra, that's really a concerto, but more of a rhapsody. The solo violin remains in the forefront throughout most of the work, playing angular melodies that the orchestra then comments on.

A short and attractive work. The Feather to the Mountain sounds the most to my ears like Hovhaness. The wide-open theme (the feather, I suppose) is supported by long, static chords and big chordal clusters, both suggesting the massiveness of the mountain. It makes for an interesting study in contrasts.

 Integrating an alto saxophone into an orchestra can be a challenge. In The First Spinning Place, for alto sax and orchestra, Hann partially solves the problem by making the alto a solo instrument. But she also effectively brings it into the orchestra by coupling it with unusual instruments – such as a marimba. That provides a surprisingly effective blend. The fluidity of the solo line is perfectly suited to the alto sax, and I suspect this may soon enter the solo saxophonists’ repertoire (if it doesn’t, it should).

Max Lifchitz has done an amazing job with his North/South Recordings label. For years it has championed contemporary music that’s not quite avant-garde, but still innovative enough to deserve a hearing. This new recording of Hillary Tann’s orchestral music is another outstanding addition to the North/South catalog.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 - A new cycle with Marin Alsop

Prokofiev: Symphony No.5; The Year 1941
Sao Paulo symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop, conductor

One of Prokofiev's most popular symphonies kicks off this first installment of a new symphonic cycle. The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra and their new principal conductor Marin Alsop provide an interesting program by coupling the work with the symphonic suite "The Year 1941."

"The Year 1941" was written during World War II, and articulates Prokofiev's first-hand impressions of the struggle. The first movement, "In the Struggle," sounded a little too subdued to me. The orchestra hit all the marks, but there didn't seem to be a sense of urgency -- just a bustling of rapid motifs being tossed back and forth. The second movement, "In the Night," and the third, "For the Brotherhood of Man," fared better. Alsop and the orchestra seemed to have a greater affinity for their lyrical (and in the case of the third hymn-like) nature. In fact, the finale sounded rapturous, and almost worth the price of admission alone.

Perhaps its the nature of the music, but to my ears the Symphony No. 5 was a much more successful performance. It's a decidedly more lyrical work, and the smoothness of the slower sections showed off the ensemble to good effect. Alsop's vision of the symphony is a valid one, and she makes the case for it by the way she has the orchestra articulate the various sections and shifting moods. There's a clear sense of direction here, and while my overall impression is that this is a (relatively) mellow reading, it's certainly one that makes musical sense.

The Sao Paulo Symphony has a very warm ensemble sound, yet they can be strident and spiky when they need to be. I'm looking forward to the other volumes in this series.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gorecki: Concerto-Cantata - A welcome addition to the catalog

Gorecki: Concerto-Cantata 
Anna Gorecka, piano 
Carol Wincenc, flute 
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra; Antoni Wit, conductor 

For many, Henryk Gorecki is a one-hit wonder. The Polish composer’s 3rd Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs became an international sensation. But as well-crafted as the work is, it’s not fully representative of the composer’s style. Gorecki continually developed and grew as a composer over the course of his fifty-year career, and the 3rd Symphony was just a milepost along the way. This current collection from Naxos helps fill in some of the gaps, and does so quite effectively.

The earliest work on the album, Three Dances, sounds something like a very conservative Stravinsky. And as they were written in 1973, that makes them practically mainstream. Simple scales and repeated patterns drive these dances forward.

Also presented are two concertos. The Cantata-Concerto for flute was commissioned by flutist Carol Wincenc, who performs the work on this recording. As the name implies, the work isn’t so much a showcase for the flute, as a lyrical work that often uses the flute as a solo singer. The second is Gorecki’s harpsichord concerto from 1980. In this recording, the composer’s daughter performs the solo part on the piano, and keeps the energy level high on this short-but-sweet concerto.

Included is the Little Requiem for a Certain Polka (1993). It’s a work for a chamber ensemble, that moves between slow, meandering melodies and large, static blocks of sound.

Antoni Wit leads the Warsaw Philharmonic with authority, and provides sympathetic readings for these works. For anyone wanting to know more about Gorecki and his music, I highly recommend this recording.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reclaiming the 4th of July (musically)

In the last post I outlined my thoughts about programming music for the 4th of July. Unfortunately, we had serious problems with our on-air signal (still recovering from last week's storm). The program aired in its entirety online, but only some of it was heard over the air.

Not to worry. It's saved in our online archive, and you can replay it anytime during the next two weeks. The 4th of July special is listed under "Gamut" at the WTJU tape vault. (

So what did I air? Here's the complete program, with some background as to why I chose each selection.

- Ralph

Liberty Fanfare - John Williams
     Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Eric Kunzel conductor

John Williams gets played a lot on the 4th -- but it's usually his film scores. I decided to open with a work he specifically wrote for the holiday.

Bunker Hill, a Sapphick Ode - Andrew Laws
Heroism - Supply Belcher
Liberty Tree - Anon. 18th C.
The Sons of Liberty - Anon. 18th C.
  Waverly Consort

This set of tunes all date from around 1780. They're excellent examples of patriotic songs that would have been sung by veterans of the Revolution.

Bold Island Suite - Howard Hanson
   Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Eric Kunzel, conductor

Howard Hanson was an outstanding American composer, and as a teacher and a conductor was a champion of American music. This evocative work is a good introduction to Hanson's style.

O come, come away - Anon. 19th C.
School hymn - Anon. 19th C.
Gospel Feast - Anon. 19th C.
   Boston Camerata; Joel Cohen, director

These hymn tunes were created during the Second Great Awakening of the 1790's-1830's. The melodic shapes and harmonies of these hymns were distinctively American. Designed to be sung by amateurs with limited vocal range, they're nevertheless powerful and attractive works.

Freedom Fanfare - Tim Rumsey
   Kiev Philharmonic; Robert Ian Winstin, conductor

Not all American composers are dead. Many aren't even middle-aged. This work was written just a few years ago, and is a great occasional piece.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home - Roy Harris
  Louisville Symphony; Jorge Mester, conductor 

In the 1960's, this work was regularly programmed for patriotic events. Many of Roy Harris' works have American themes, or are based on American subjects. It's always been a puzzle to me why he's not performed more frequently in this country.

Overture and Opening Credits to "How the West Was Won" - Alfred Newman
   MGM Orchestra & Chorus; Alfred Newman, conductor 

Many 4th of July programs include movie soundtracks -- and they're almost exclusively John Williams scores. "How the West Was Won" was a sprawling epic chronicling three generations of a family as they move west from Ohio through to California (and being a part of every major historical event between 1840-1890). In addition to the rousing original music Alfred Newman wrote for the film, which has more of an American rather than Western character, he also researched music of the period. The overture features a medley of folk songs and ballads spanning the mid-1800's -- perfect for a day which celebrates all things American.

Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes - Charles Tomlinson Griffes
   Kohen Quartet

Charles Tomlinson Griffes achieved international success in the early 1900's with his tone poems. And while his music does have a cosmopolitan sound to it, he was also looking to American music for inspiration. This string quartet is an interesting experiment, and while today we might not consider the treatment of these themes very authentic, they certainly evoke the romanticized ideal of Native American life.

Battle of San Juan Hill - Albert C. Sweet
   New Columbian Brass Band

In the late 1800's community bands were an important part of many cities and towns. They often played throughout the warmer months, and most definitely on important events like the 4th of July. This tone poem is somewhat literal, with its bugle calls and cannon fire. But if folks like gunshots with their music, why not give them something relating to American history -- instead of the 1812 Overture (which celebrates Russia's victory over Napoleon)?

Singing School - Anon. 19th C.
Thomas-Town - William Billings
Amazing Grace - Anon. 19th C.
   Boston Camerata; Joel Cohen, director

Shape note singing is a distinctively American art form. Developed in the 1790's, this music was written with symbols non-musicians could easily understand. And the rudimentary counterpoint in these tunes -- called fuguing -- is absolutely unique to America. What better music for an absolutely unique American holiday?

Fanfare and Allegro - Clifton Williams
   Eastman Wind Ensemble; Frederick Fennell, conductor

Concert marches are a staple for 4th of July programs. But most concerts seldom venture beyond Sousa. In the latter part of the 20th Century, Clifton Williams was the master of the concert march, many of which entered the band and orchestral repertoire.

American Hymn - Nancy Bloomer Deussen
   Kiev Philharmonic; Robert Ian Winstin, conductor

Another short work written within the past few years. Deussen demonstrates that accessible, well-crafted and tuneful music is still being written in this country.

Dance in Three-Time - Quincy Porter
   Albany Symphony Orchestra; Julius Hegyi, director 

Although seldom played today, Quincy Porter is a quite important American composer. He had a successful career both in America and Europe, and even won the Pulitzer Prize for his second piano concerto. This short orchestral work at least gives the listener a taste of his compositional style.

Hymn, Chorale, and Fuguing Tune No. 8 - Henry Cowell
   Northwest Chamber Orchestra; Alun Francis, director

Henry Cowell was an American composer with a distinctively American voice. I thought it appropriate after playing some original fuguing tunes to air one of Cowell's 1947 interpretations of this American genre. 

Fanfare for the Signal Corps - Howard Hanson
   Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Erich Kunzel, conductor

During the Second World War, many composers were commissioned to write patriotic pieces. Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" might be the best known, but it's not the only example. This short fanfare is another -- and it happened to fit nicely in the two-minute window I had at the end of the show.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Retiring the 1812 for the Fourth

I originally posted this on my own blog, Off Topic'd on 7/1/07. I think it still applies. I'll be hosting a program this coming July 4, and while I might not play the selections listed below, I'll be airing other music by American composers that deserve a hearing.

 - Ralph

I'll be doing my WTJU radio program "Gamut" on the 4th of July. This past Sunday in the Washington Post Tim Page offered up some thoughts about music for the Fourth of July. Personally, I like his idea of playing Hans Pfizner, Elliott Carter and Anton Bruckner instead of the usual fare, but both he and I concede that won't work for everyone.

Still, there's plenty of great American classical music that would be appropriate for the Fourth, and I'm not just talking about Sousa either.

Personally, I think it's past time to give the "1812 Overture" a rest. OK, it's got canons, but has anyone listened to this work? Tchaikovsky wrote it to commemorate the Battle of Borodino, where Russian forces turned back Napoleon. The work contains the Russian and the French national anthems, and uses those two tunes to represent the ebb and flow of the two armies.

Is blasting out the "God Save the Tsar" really the best way to celebrate Independence Day? And what about "La Marseillaise"? Perhaps an apologist could construe it as an acknowledgement of Lafayette's contributions, but it wasn't that long ago we insisted those potato strings be called "freedom fries."

So let's forget the Russian overture written by a Russian honoring the victory of a Russian monarch over a French military dictator and trot out some red-blooded American classical music written by real Americans.

In past years I've played some of these works on "Gamut" for the Fourth of July, and I might air some of this for this upcoming program.

Charles Ives: Variations on "America"
- No composer sums up the American spirit of independence of thought than Ives. His variations on this distinctively American tune are original and inspired, and makes more traditional arrangements just sound tired.

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 66, "Hymn to Glacier Peak"
- Hovhaness was another American original, placidly making his own music without getting sucked into the academic fashions of the day. Hovhaness drew inspiration from mountains, and his symphony to Glacier Park captures the grandeur and spaciousness of this national treasure.

Howard Hanson:
"Merry Mount" Suite
- Harris had a distinctly American voice, and his opera "Merry Mount" is a distinctively American story. Based on the short story "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it dramatizes the conflict between the fun-loving colonists of Mount Wollaston, Massachusetts and their more serious Puritan neighbors.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Union Paraphrase en Concert
- Gottschalk was an internationally renowned piano virtuoso. In many ways, he was the American Franz Liszt, performing and composing. The "Union Paraphrase" is an excellent example of Gottschalk's technique and a rousing piece of musical Americana.

Many celebrations will features some Aaron Copland (usually "Fanfare for the Common Man"), or some Leonard Bernstein -- good choices, but there are so many more. We have a rich classical music tradition stretching back over 200 years -- music written by Americans that have a distinctively American voice that speaks to us today.

This Fourth of July, I'm declaring independence from unimaginative programming. Who's with me?

- Ralph