Classical Notes

An American Celebration

A survey of An American Celebration, the NY Philharmonic's fabulous box set of American classical music, from the pioneering work of Ives and Ellington to the modernism of Crumb and Reich, with special attention to Copland and Bernstein.

Just what exactly is American classical music? That's a simple question to raise, yet an awfully hard one to answer. A fabulous box set from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra suggests why.

treble clef graphicUntil a century ago, there really was no distinctive classical music in America. There was plenty of serious musical activity to be sure, but it was all indistinguishable from European models. As late as 1895, the great Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak, residing in New York, still felt the need to urge American composers to look to their native sources for inspiration and material, offering his “New World” Symphony (stirred by our spirituals and Indian rhythms) as an example of what could be achieved.

With the advent of the 20th century, undoubtedly sparked by the immigrant urge to assimilate, isolationism, the excitement of jazz, and a “can-do” spirit, American composers finally found voices of their own. Making up for lost time, they created an astounding variety of unmistakably homegrown work. Since then, despite its late start, American classical music has become the richest in the world, embracing and developing every style imaginable.

This incredible abundance is reflected in "An American Celebration," a ten-CD box set Cover of Volume One of CD setfrom the New York Philharmonic featuring 49 broadcast and concert performances under 21 conductors from 1936 to 1999. The variety and consistent excellence of both material and performances is truly astounding. The presentation, too, is superb - fine sound (mostly by Seth Winner), well-filled discs (averaging 78 minutes), cogent notes, interviews and pictures, all packed into two sturdy space-saving cases.

But excellence has its price, and in this case it's $185. Cover of Volme Two of CD set The sting of the sticker shock may be somewhat salved by knowing that the proceeds support one of America's premier cultural institutions rather than lining the pockets of some huge foreign conglomerate. But if you're not feeling quite that charitable, the Philharmonic has a generous gift in the form of a $6 sampler (available at Tower) that provides a tempting taste of the full set and suggests the richness of our American classical heritage.

Limited to full orchestral works, the collection misses all the solo and ensemble material where so much innovation and personal expression is focused nowadays. Even so, its scope is still so large as to defy a single plan to present the bounty logically. The best I can do is to approach the contents in the following groups: first, I'll consider the importance of the initial disc; then the 13 works involving Leonard Bernstein; then the eight of Aaron Copland; modern music; other performances of particular interest (to me, at least), a listing of the remainder, and then the two concluding works. Finally, I'll try to consider (ahem) What It All Means.

Here goes, with the works contained in or excerpted for the sampler indicated by an asterisk:

The First Disc

While the set proceeds roughly in chronological order of composition, the controlling factor was to cram as much as possible onto each volume. (And boy, do they succeed - the average running time is 78 minutes, with four discs falling only seconds short of their maximum 80-minute capacity.) Therefore, the logic of the programming is often elusive. But whether by intention or not, the first disc presents a fine overview of both the historical and aesthetic context.

  • Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man * (written in 1942; this performance was conducted by Masur in 1997) - The box begins with the quintessential piece of American classical music - Aaron Copland's short, simple and direct evocation of the bold spirit, steady resolve and searching vision of our Pioneers. More than any other, this work crystallizes our myth of the promise and challenge of the wide open spaces of our manifest destiny. It's also significant as an example of our melting-pot - this depiction of the West was written in Brooklyn by a son of Russian immigrants and it's conducted here by a German. How utterly American!

  • Chadwick: Melpomene Overture (1896; Bernstein 1958) - The rest of this disc reveals the difficult journey that led to such an achievement. Chadwick was one of America's most important and influential musicians in his time, yet his evocation of a Greek muse summons every cliché of European music without a dollop of inspiration or originality. It's all (borrowed) form and no substance, instantly forgettable and without any distinguishing personality of its own.

  • MacDowell: “Indian” Suite (early 1890s; Bernstein 1958) - Here, while some of the themes and rhythms are derived from North American Indians, the forms remain thoroughly Old World. Ironically, MacDowell decried nationalism in music and this is one of his very few works that even flirts with local color.

  • Griffes: The White Peacock (1919; Hanson, 1946) - At last a piece with distinctive character. The only problem, though, is that it's not an American one, but rather French impressionist.

  • Schelling: A Victory Ball (1923; Rodzinsky, 1945) - Another false start. This is as literal as program music ever gets, illustrating a specific story (a soldier's disillusionment with war) with obvious totemic bugle calls, battle din and a Dies Irae. That this horribly trite piece was hugely popular in its day signifies the pedestrian public taste to which any would-be successful musician had to pander and any composer with integrity had to overcome. (Incidentally, its only recording, which made more of its inherent irony, was by the Philharmonic under Mengelberg in 1925 (the orchestra's first electrical 78s, now on Pearl CDS 9922).

  • Ives: Three Places in New England * (1908-14; Masur, 1994). And then, seemingly from out of nowhere, comes this magnificent piece, shouting America from the rooftops. It's hard to believe that this music, which still sounds so modern, predated nearly everything else in this entire collection, but it did. And it's even more remarkable in the context of its vapid predecessors. Like all of Ives's work, it draws upon European precedent even as it bristles with fierce Yankee independence and unabashed chauvinism, as if to say, “We'll never forget our roots in other lands and cultures, but we're here on our own now and damned proud of it!” The first movement, “The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common (Colonel Shaw and his Colored Regiment),” is a stream of evanescent, evocative and respectful reflections on a statue commemorating the struggles and pride of the African-American civil war brigade whose exploits were depicted in Glory. The second movement, “Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” is a wide-eyed child's Fourth of July, a jumbled heap of fragmented impressions of noisy celebration and awe-struck wonder. The finale, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” is a summer idyll as Ives evokes walking with his wife along the banks of his favorite river after their wedding, distant hymns and memories jostling for attention and then piling up to a massive climax. The end is pure Ives - a few casual scattered notes simply trail off, as the wisps of lingering thought flit away. There's something distinctly American about all this: everything we've heard before is here - Chadwick's tonality and formalism, MacDowell's nativism, Griffes's exotic coloration and Schelling's trumpets and marches - but they've all been tossed together and transmuted into a wholly new quality, inclusive yet distinct. In that sense, perhaps the Ives is the key to the rest of the entire set, in which our composers and performers mold traditional materials into something tangibly different that somehow manages to reverberate deeply within our national psyche.

Leonard Bernstein

Some may debate whether Bernstein was the greatest and most influential musician America has ever known (but not me - please see my Bernstein appreciation). Yet, it is surely beyond dispute that he was the Philharmonic's most important conductor. Thus it seems fitting that he is honored with 13 performances and over a quarter of the total running time of this collection. Among these are many important additions to the Bernstein discography.

  • Copland: Orchestral Variations (1957; Bernstein, 1958). This work must have held enormous nostalgic importance for Bernstein. The composition date is a bit deceptive; it's an orchestral transcription of the 1930 Piano Variations, which Bernstein loved as a college student back in the days when he seemed destined for a career as a piano virtuoso. He used to brag that as a party gag he could empty a room in two minutes by starting to play it. One occasion when his guarantee failed was a bash attended by the composer, who was so amazed at the youngster's talent that he became a mentor and proceeded to launch Bernstein's career. Perhaps it's a measure of how far we've come (or, to traditionalists, how far our standards have slipped) that, in either version, the Variations don't sound nearly as forbidding as they apparently once did.
  • Copland: A Lincoln Portrait (1942; Bernstein, 1976). Bernstein repaid Copland's attention by becoming a forceful advocate for his work. Yet, surprisingly, Bernstein never recorded this, one of Copland's most popular (and populist) works, a palpably stirring frame for Lincoln's own words, culminating in the Gettysburg Address. Bernstein's performance is definitive and was appropriately broadcast during the Bicentennial (but ironically from London). The text has attracted celebrities ranging from Katherine Hepburn to Norman Schwartzkopf; here, it's read by William Warfield with deeply affecting dignity. It's true that Copland unabashedly pushes our emotional buttons, but somehow it seems OK when they're so patriotic and pushed so effectively.

  • Thomson: Four Saints in Three Acts (Acts III and IV abridged) (1928; Bernstein, 1960). Bernstein captures the essential spirit of this bizarre work by playing it straight, giving full rein to the contrast between the deliberately trite music and Gertrude Stein's repetitious word word word again poem again words that constantly tweak European operatic convention, whether it's the all-black cast, a march tangling left and right, gravely portentous pronouncements of “Wed, led, said, dead,” an argument over whether to have a fourth act (they do!), or a 3-word scene four (“And no more”). Even in this heavily cut excerpt, the concept begins to jell and the words, more tongue-twister dada patter than narrative, cast off their literal nonsense to suggest some weird plebian poetry. The influence on Bernstein was two-fold: its playful spirit infused his own wordplay in Trouble in Tahiti, his only opera, and the ironic counterpoint between words and music underpinned his score to Candide.

  • Foss: Introductions and Goodbyes * (1959; Bernstein, with John Reardon, baritone, 1960). Bernstein was first and foremost a man of the theatre, and here's another offbeat piece right up his alley. It's short, as befits its intentional shallowness - a vapid cocktail party is reduced to the host's introductions among ridiculously-named guests, followed by their immediate departure, the cutesy and sly music undercutting the unctuous words.

  • Rorem: Symphony # 3 * (1958; Bernstein, 1959 - world premiere). Rorem's notes lavishly praise Bernstein's intuitive grasp of his new work in preparing its premiere: “…from that score of two million flyspecks, Lenny brought forth sounds I'd not known I placed there.” Beyond Bernstein's genius, part of the reason may have been the Symphony's striking similarity to Copland's and even Bernstein's own output. In any event, it fits comfortably into the mainstream of “modern” music of its time. Perhaps it becomes “American.” for the very reason of blending influences in lieu of asserting a distinctive sound of its own

  • Schuman: Symphony # 6 (1948; Bernstein, 1958). Like Bernstein's, Schuman's career embraced a wide range of musical activity in America, including leadership of the Lincoln Center where the Philharmonic made its home. Bernstein's fine studio recordings of Schuman's Third, Fifth and Eighth Symphonies (now on Sony SMK 63163) are now joined by this magnificent concert of the Sixth. Despite its use of the traditional orchestra, this is one of the most complex and difficult works in the entire collection, a single half-hour movement that evolves through a huge variety of moods. Matching its demands with his own stamina and versatility, Bernstein rises brilliantly to the occasion.

  • Mennin: Concertato (Moby Dick) * (1952; Bernstein, 1963). Like Schuman, Mennin was a great American administrator, and perhaps it was this background that shaped his composing style to exemplify qualities we associate with our national pride - accessible, compact, efficient, vigorous and exciting. Bernstein's tight reading is incredibly fine.

  • Harris: Symphony # 3 (1938-9; Bernstein, 1957). From the time of his Harvard doctoral thesis, Bernstein shared Harris's concern with the integrity of American classical music, precariously balanced between imitating European forms and sliding into pop idioms. Harris's Third is generally considered his masterpiece and indeed has a distinctively American air. Bernstein clearly loved the score and produces a wonderfully ardent, heartfelt reading. Yet, as grand as this concert was, I really wonder whether it was essential to include it, as we already have two of Bernstein's studio recordings with the NYP (1961 - sharp and brilliant - on Sony SMK 60594 and 1985 - more reflective - on DG 419 780-2). Surely something else of Bernstein could have been included instead, so as to better extend our knowledge of his art.

  • Varese: Integrales (1926; Bernstein, 1966). I also question the inclusion of this. It's a fabulous work, an immigrant's startled vision of a big, brash, industrialized America, but this is one of those pieces that takes more of a traffic cop than an interpreter to bring off successfully. Yes, Lenny had rhythm and he keeps the events coming on schedule, and perhaps this reading shows that despite his own proclivities he wasn't afraid of loud, noisy unromantic scores, but this piece basically plays itself and we already have the fine studio recording under Boulez (Sony SMK 45844).

  • Bernstein: Serenade after Plato's "Symposium" * (1954; Slatkin with Glenn Dicterow, violin, October 14, 1990). At first, this performance, too, seems redundant, as Bernstein himself left us two terrific studio recordings (1956 with Isaac Stern on Sony SMK 60558 and 1965 with Zino Francescatti on Sony SMK 60559). Yet, there's nothing as poignant as a composer's own requiem played in his memory. Here, there couldn't have been a dry eye in the house when Bernstein's Serenade was played by “his” orchestra and its long-time concertmaster with transcendental passion on the occasion of the memorial concert given four days after the death of its beloved Conductor Laureate. Even on CD across the gulf of ten years' time, this performance is overwhelming.

  • Bernstein: “Candide ”Overture (1956; no conductor, 1992). Two years later, Bernstein's most popular work was given by the orchestra without a conductor in celebration of its 150th anniversary. More than a trained animal act, the feat can perhaps be viewed as symbolic of Bernstein's enduring influence and the ultimate tribute to his lasting memory as we enter our second decade without him. Since he was the first native-born conductor of the Philharmonic, it also serves to pinpoint Bernstein's importance as a symbol of the emergence of a classical tradition based on our own culture and resources.

Aaron Copland

Among its 38 composers, this collection pays particular homage to Copland by including eight of his works. We've already noted the Fanfare for the Common Man, Lincoln Portrait and Orchestral Variations, so here are the others:

  • Prairie Journal (1937; Mehta, 1990). An incredible “discovery,” this marvelous piece resonates with the same American feeling that fuels Copland's better-known work, yet it lay unpublished for 31 years and has yet to be formally recorded. In the finest Copland popular tradition, it's lovely, wistful, accessible, inviting and flits spontaneously among moods and ideas. Never overstaying its welcome, it's a first date you want to last forever, and when it's over, you just want to play it again ... and again. (Fortunately, with this CD now you can!) Apparently it took a conductor born in Bombay and trained in Europe to reopen our eyes to such a magnificent yet forgotten slice of America.

  • Appalachian Spring (1945; Rodzinski, 1945 - world premiere). This work, though, is Copland's best-known and deservedly so - it's a ravishingly gorgeous portrait of a newly married pioneer couple surrounded by their community and then left to the challenges and promise of their life together. There's something so elemental here, as if to say that in a sense we're all pioneers setting off on whatever adventures life holds for us. Written as a ballet for Martha Graham, this was the world premiere of the concert suite. Beyond its historical importance, Rodzinski crafts a beautiful, gentle reading seeped in sweet nostalgia, not as sharp or ardent as Bernstein's own approach, but with a winning, natural flow of its own. This performance has circulated before in cruder sounding “unofficial” editions, but despite remnants of surface noise it sounds wonderful and needs no apology for its vintage.

  • El Salon Mexico (1937; Cantelli, 1955). The notes justify including this performance by vaunting it as “rousing,” but to my ears it's bland, perfunctory and deadly literal. Cantelli's an alien here stepping cautiously in a strange land. Bernstein, by comparison, provides the proper touristy feel, enlivened by brilliant zest in his first NYP recording (on Sony SMK 47544) and tempered by introspective reserve in his second (DG 431 672-2). If the point was to have shown that Cantelli did occasionally program American music, it would have been far better to have chosen his vital NYP concert accounts of the Piston Toccata or the Creston Dance Overture (both on AS Disc 505).

  • Music for the Theatre * (1925; Leinsdorf, 1985). This piece is deeply symbolic of both Copland's and America's growth. After completing his studies in Europe, Copland figuratively signaled his return home by incorporating jazz solo turns, rhythms and forms into his music. Extending the trend begun by Gershwin the previous year with his Rhapsody in Blue, this suite scandalized conservative critics but delighted the public and helped pave the way for the distinctive populist trend in our musical development. I guess it's obvious, but my touchstone for Copland interpretation is Bernstein, not only because of the excellence of his recordings, but because he was so close to the composer, both professionally and personally, and thus his approaches can be assumed authentic. To say that Leinsdorf's performance has much of the feel of Bernstein is meant as a high compliment, yet, in this context, it's a criticism as well. Because of its extreme similarity to records we already have, this adds little to our existing knowledge of the piece and it seems a shame to squander the space even while the producers bemoan in their notes the omission of several other important but less familiar pieces they had wanted to include for lack of disc capacity.

  • Nonet (1960; Steinberg, 1964). This, on the other hand, is a rich find, rarely heard or recorded in its version for a full string section rather than a chamber ensemble. It's an unusual stylistic departure for Copland, based on the old baroque ricercar form but restructured so that in lieu of building toward a final climax, it subsides back into the calm from which it emerged. It's a fine performance - strong and rigorous - just what we'd expect from a conductor whom Toscanini selected to assist him but whose career and understated style are now largely forgotten.

The Modern Stuff

Orchestral concerts are by nature conservative, and with good reason - they're a business and have to avoid offending the timid taste of their core constituency of patrons and contributors. Visionary experimentation is fine for friends and self-amusement, but it scares off audiences. Indeed, it's something of a miracle that the Philharmonic routinely included so much modern music in its concert programs. To me, this is the true glory of this set - pieces you might never hear elsewhere, in idiomatic performances by an organization of musicians who don't just indulgently tolerate but truly revel in such stuff.

  • Hovhaness: To Vishnu (1967; Kostelanetz, 1967 - world premiere). “Promenade Concerts” prompt visions of vapid pop programming of waltzes, overtures and Beatles medleys. Yet, this mystical, fitful and challenging (albeit brief) work, seeped in the sounds of the Orient, was commissioned for the Philharmonic's Promenade Concert series by Andre Kostelanetz, its director. That fact alone stands as a towering tribute to the sophistication of the cultural outlook of not only the orchestra but its audiences - here is an organization that considers modern music not a distasteful duty worth only an occasional grudging gesture but an integral part of its life and mission, an attitude which even its most traditional constituency actively embraces.

  • Ruggles: Sun Treader (1926-31; Masur, 1994). Despite the early date of its composition, this remains a thoroughly modern-sounding piece. Like his contemporary Ives, Ruggles was fiercely independent from and disinterested in the musical mainstream, but there all resemblance ends. Ruggles was a rigorous formalist and had no interest in the stream-of-consciousness quotations of Ives's lifeblood. He was also a perfectionist who destroyed most of his music and whose surviving lifetime output would fit on a single CD. One of only two large-scale works, Sun Treader sounds rough-hewn yet it's tightly structured with a deep emotional undercurrent. From its unforgettably bold opening, it presses on relentlessly while managing to sound like nothing else. Masur's approach is far more blended than the pioneering readings by Michael Tilson-Thomas and even turns downright romantic at times.

  • Carter: Concerto For Orchestra (1970; Boulez, 1975). Pierre Boulez followed Bernstein not only alphabetically and (as his successor at the NYP) chronologically, but aesthetically as well. For Bernstein, music had to have an emotional dimension at its core, but Boulez took the further leap to the most progressive music in which randomness and mechanics play essential roles. Carter's wildly complex Concerto for Orchestra is rich but difficult music, brimming with ideas and textures. Bernstein led its world premiere in 1970 and his recording that year (also with the NYP, now on Sony SMK 60203) bristles with his trademark energy to create a living, thrashing organism. Boulez's firm control, hair-raising precision and piercing textural clarity creates an impression of deep, abiding rationality. It's a matter of heart versus mind. Taken together, the two NYP performances serve as a fine reference point for the poles of modern music interpretation, exemplified by these two Music Directors. That the orchestra could be fully responsive to their divergent approaches speaks volumes for its versatility and devotion to all aspects of the modern idiom.

  • Crumb: Star-Child (1977; Boulez, 1977 - world premiere). After the decay of a deep gong, strings intone a constant, barely-shifting soft foundation fabric, which is rent by a meandering trombone, a medieval soprano and a vast battery of percussion, both traditional (huge pounding drums) and un- (chains, pot lids, thunder sheets). The complex overlay of rhythms and the spatial placement of the performers requires four conductors. The end symbolizes hope, as the din subsides, yielding to the constancy of the quiet, ever-present continuity of the primal strings (somewhat reminiscent of Ives's Unanswered Question). It's not a pretty work, but it's deeply atmospheric, sonically bizarre and hugely impressive and memorable.

  • Druckman: Lamia * (1975; Boulez, with Jan DeGaetani, soprano, 1975 - world premiere). To stylize its inherent drama, traditional opera developed the coloratura soprano technique in which words are extended with florid embellishment. The singing here, though, is something else again. DeGaetani's emotional range was staggering, and here (in a work she commissioned), to explore facets of the power of sorcery, she coaxes astounding meaning out of texts from baroque Italian opera, Wagner, Ovid and Malaysian, French romantic and medieval folk conjurations. All this sounds like a random hodge-podge, but it's an astounding and unique tour de force that, like the best modern music, leaves an unforgettable impression - not just a hummable melody or a brief catharsis, but something far more haunting and thought-provoking.

  • Rouse: Trombone Concerto (1991; Slatkin, 1992 - world premiere). This is a deeply serious work, dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, whom the composer met briefly in 1989 and whose death the following year left him, like so many others, devastated. The work begins and ends with somber, rumbling timelessness in the deepest bowels of the orchestra, rising to a brutal central episode. It also serves as a sensational display vehicle for the art of NYP principal trombonist Joseph Alessi, for whom it was written - he shines not just in typical frenzied virtuoso passages but far more subtly as well.

  • Reich: Tehillim (1981; Mehta, 1982 - world premiere of orchestral version). Not that it matters, but this is my favorite work in the entire box. Unlike most modern orchestral music (including most of the works above), Reich resists the temptation to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. After all, the highest artistry lies in thoughtful selection. Here, Reich sticks to a steady intricate overlapping of four voices over persistent percussion and rich orchestral harmonies, pausing only for a searching slower central section. Mesmerizing and hypnotic, suspending traditional concepts of time, its 32 minutes fly by in an instant. It pulls off the great trick of minimalist music, seemingly constant yet evolving just enough to prevent boredom. It's so very abundant in so many ways - ancient Hebrew Psalm texts and modal melodies in modern harmonic garb, fundamentally static yet always changing, joyously affirmative yet with hints of unstable insecurity, mechanical yet heartfelt, gripping yet soothing, a firm beat yet rhythmically complex, simple materials combined in a kaleidoscopic variety of ways, breathtakingly eclectic in its materials yet fully cohesive in its overall effect. The result is an exquisitely beautiful experience. And I know it's a masterpiece because words utterly fail to suggest its true magnificence.

Other Interesting Stuff

  • Ellington: A Tone-Parallel to Harlem (1950; Marsalis/Masur, 1999). What, you may well ask, is Duke Ellington doing in a collection of classical music? A politically-correct gesture? Elegant slumming, perhaps? As the notes point out, beyond being a prolific master synthesizer of pop elements, Ellington is actually one of the most conservative composers included here. He was deeply concerned with traditional form, and here he adapts the tone poem structure to a work exploding with fine ideas, all brilliantly organized. If you're still not convinced, then consider its credentials: it was commissioned by none other than Arturo Toscanini, not known for his love of the modern, and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, hardly a hotbed of radical taste. It's not just a curious adjunct but an integral part of our American classical heritage. This breathtaking performance is with Winton Marsalis and his immaculate Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

  • Cowell: Hymn and Fuguing Tune # 2 (1944; Paray, 1956). This is the second of Cowell's 16 simple and eloquent works that tap deep into American roots, using the sound of hymns (without quoting them directly) to evoke the earlier and simpler times, and the dignity and rigid ideals, of our forefathers.

  • Schuller: Dramatic Overture (1951; Mitropoulos, 1957). The multitalented conductor, jazzman and author brought unaccustomed depth to his compositions. Here, he has a field day with Berlioz, not only adhering to the structure of his overture style, but evoking the spirit of the originals by seizing upon melodic fragments and even emulating the leaping strings and blaring brass of the orchestration. The result is respectful but a load of fun, a typically sassy American view of Old World culture shaped to modern taste.

  • Creston: Symphony # 2 (1933; Monteux, 1956). This performance is an especially propitious confluence between conductor and work. Intended by the composer, a self-taught New Yorker, as an apotheosis of song and dance, this work careens between pastoral and rhythmic episodes with dizzying speed. Monteux, perhaps the most versatile of foreign conductors, negotiates the mood swings beautifully, presenting each section persuasively and blending it all into a wonderfully unified and powerful vision.

  • Bloch: Concerto Grosso # 1 * (1925; Munch, 1948). I'm not quite sure what this is doing here. While much of his other work espouses American ideals of freedom and justice, this piece is a rather dry neoclassical abstraction, rooted in old forms but with a modern temperament and sound, and seems tied far closer to Bloch's native Switzerland than to his adopted land. Even so, Munch leads the excellent performance with a bold and vital precision that belies his stereotype of being a French specialist who took occasional superficial forays into other repertoire.

  • Gershwin: An American in Paris (1928; Rodzinski, 1944). Bernstein loved Gershwin even while disparaging his work as a weakly-structured procession of unrelated themes. This performance overcomes that flaw through a smooth, flowing well-proportioned blending that preserves the classical balance while accenting the jaunty American character. That Rodzinski shared Bernstein's feeling is evident from his frequent and very audible vocal cajoling. Despite improved sound over previous releases, surface noise remains intrusive.

  • Hanson: Symphony # 2 (“Romantic”) (1930; Hanson, 1946). Hanson intended this work as unabashedly warm-blooded music to stem the tide against "modern" intellectual dispassion. Yet, as fine as the performance is, it largely parallels the composer's two recordings with his own Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (now on Biddulph WHL 038 and Mercury 432 008-2). The producers vaunt the superiority of the NYP, but, truth to tell, that's not consistently so (the final chord, for example, is a muddle here but is cleanly executed by the Eastman-Rochester “amateurs”). In any event, there's something deeply satisfying in the Rochester performances by the composer's own orchestra which he founded and led for 40 years and which he surely had in mind when composing.

Briefly Noted

For the sake of completeness, here are the remaining works in this set. Most are easy on the ears, gentle and a bit jazzy - while certainly enjoyable, they just didn't strike me as quite as significant as the ones I've described above:

  • Loeffler: Memories of My Childhood (1924; Barbirolli, 1936)
  • Barber: Essay # 1 (1937; Szell, 1950)
  • Herrmann: The Devil and Daniel Webster Suite (1942; Stokowski, 1949)
  • Still: Old California (1941; Monteux, 1944)
  • Hanson: Serenade for Flute, Harp & Strings * (1945; Stokowski, 1949)
  • Gould: Dance Variations * (1953; Mitropoulos, 1953)
  • Barber: Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance (1955; Mitropoulos, 1956)
  • Diamond: The World of Paul Klee (1957; Lipkin, 1960)
  • Tower: Sequoia (1981; Mehta, 1982)
  • Zwilich: Symphony # 3 (1992; Ling, 1993 - world premiere)
  • Bolcom: Clarinet Concerto * (1988; Slatkin, 1992 - world premiere)

The End

While the programming of most of these discs seems dictated more by exigencies of capacity rather than strict logic, the sampler and full set each end with appropriate finales.

  • Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine * (1986; Masur, 1991). Essentially an extended fanfare from a composer who reveres Copland's assimilation of the American vernacular, this serves as a fitting end for the sampler disc that began (like the full box) with Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Its depiction of a ride in a sports car pushing its mechanical limits, giddy and exhilarating yet slightly out of control, also serves as a fitting metaphor for America itself confidently hurtling headlong into the dangers and excitement of the next century.

  • Sousa: The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896; Toscanini, 1944). How else could you possibly end an American celebration than with a Sousa march? Here, a certain former Italian bandmaster who led the Philharmonic from 1926 to 1936 conducts with his customary focus. Unfortunately, this was a combined concert with the NBC Symphony and the bloated texture creates the orchestral equivalent of inducing an elephant to act like a gazelle, worsened by a rhythmically-challenged cymbal player. (Compare, for example, Toscanini's sharper contemporaneous 1943 concert version (on dell'Arte DA 9024) and 1945 record (on BMG 60307-2), both with the NBC alone.) Even so this reading provides an essential close to a magnificent edition.

My Brilliant Conclusion

So, after all this, what exactly is American classical music? Surely, after intensive exposure to all that “An American Celebration” has to offer, we can derive some indisputable distinguishing characteristics and arrive at a definitive answer to that gnawing but basic question.

Perhaps more than anything else, this set serves to demolish simplistic generalizations:

  • Does American classical music require that its artists be native-born? While all but four of the composers in this set were born in the US, only four of the conductors were, the others hailing not only from Europe but from places as wide-spread as India (Mehta), Russia (Kostelanetz) and Indonesia (Ling).
  • Should the music honor our culture? While some surely does (Ives's Three Places in New England, Herrmann's Devil and Daniel Webster Suite, Copland's Lincoln Portrait), others celebrate exotic locales (Copland's El Salon Mexico, Diamond's World of [Swiss artist] Paul Klee, Loeffler's Memories of My [Russian] Childhood).
  • Is it populist? Some is (Copland's Music for the Theatre; Gershwin's American in Paris), but Barber's Essay # 1 and Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium are rather elitist.
  • Is it light and fun (Foss's Introductions and Goodbyes; Adams's Short Ride on a Fast Machine)? But Rouse's Trombone Concerto and Ruggles's Sun Treader are grimly serious.
  • It can seek new forms (Crumb's spacey Star-Child, Reich's enthralling Tehillim), yet so many other works here are traditional symphonies, concertos, overtures and even an opera.
  • It can reflect a composer's own roots (Ellington's A Tone Parallel to Harlem), but not always (African-American William Grant Still's old-Westerny Old California).
  • It doesn't even respect gender - Jacob Druckmann's Lamia explores the feminine mystique while Ellen Zwilling's Symphony # 3 explodes with macho outbursts.

So where does this leave us? Once we rebut and discard all the easy assumptions, what's left? As trite and tautological as it sounds, perhaps it just comes to this: American classical music is nothing more or less than music produced by anyone who chooses to identify as an American.

Any country's music is a distillation of its culture. Ours always has been, and hopefully always will remain, a proud amalgam of so many varied sources. That is our only “tradition” and that is our abiding strength. The huge and unwieldy scope of everything we recognize as American classical music simply reflects the wonderfully diverse nature of America itself.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2000 by Peter Gutmann

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Classical Notes
copyright © 1999-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.

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