Monday, July 16, 2007

Americana, In Observance Of The Fourth

For the last month and more, Joshua and I have kept six discs in our disc player. We have been extremely busy, and not at home much, and we have not had many opportunities to listen to music over the last four, five or six weeks. Consequently, these discs have spent an unusually long time in our player. In fact, it seems like they have been in our player forever.

The discs all feature American music, in tribute to the Independence Day holiday, and we are still listening to these discs of American music even though July 4 has long since come and gone.

A disc of Americana, performed by the Eastman Rochester Orchestra under Howard Hanson, on the Mercury Living Presence label

“American Orchestral Music”, a two-disc set of orchestral compositions by Hanson, MacDowell, Rorem, Schuller, Schuman and Thomson, performed by various orchestras and conductors, on the Vox label

Piano Music of Samuel Barber, performed by John Browning, on the MusicMasters label

“American Anthem—From Ragtime To Art Song”, a disc of American songs, performed by Nathan Gunn and Kevin Murphy, on the EMI label

The Original Broadway Cast recording of “1776”, on the Sony Broadway label

The Mercury Living Presence disc includes performances of Douglas Moore’s “The Pageant Of P. T. Barnum”, John Alden Carpenter’s “Adventures In A Perambulator”, Burrill Phillips’ “Selections From McGuffey’s Reader” and Bernard Rogers’ “Once Upon A Time—Five Fairy Tales”.

This disc of Americana is disappointing. I had hoped that these orchestral compositions, all associated with children, might be tuneful, witty, descriptive, charming, and fun—“light” music in the best sense—but they are none of those things. All four works are colorless, uninteresting musical compositions, assembled from unremarkable diatonic material, capably but dully orchestrated. Josh and I have listened to this disc several times, waiting, in vain, for an interesting rhythmic event, for a pleasing melodic fragment, for a musical phrase wittily expressed, for a chromatic harmonic sequence. It is easy to understand why this music is never programmed—was it EVER programmed?—and why it has disappeared from view. The performances are good, and the recording is excellent, especially given its 1950’s vintage.

The Vox two-disc set, as a whole, is quite intriguing. It includes Edward MacDowell’s Suite No. 2 (“Indian”), Virgil Thomson’s “Louisiana Story” Suite, Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 6, Ned Rorem’s Symphony No. 3, Gunther Schuller’s Symphony 1965 and William Schuman’s Symphony No. 7.

The MacDowell, Thomson and Hanson works are performed by the Westphalian Symphony Orchestra under Siegfried Landau. The Rorem and Schuman symphonies are performed by the Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. The Schuller symphony is performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Donald Johanos (who died around the time we put these discs into our player).

The MacDowell and Thomson orchestral suites are attractive, even if in a faded sort of way. Josh and I had listened to the same Thomson work just a few months ago, in the superb performance on the Hyperion label, and Ronald Corp on the Hyperion disc emphasized the “white-key” harmonies of Thomson’s music much more than Siegfried Landau does on the Vox disc. Landau makes Thomson’s music sound more German-American than French-American, which robs the music of much of its individuality and interest. However, the performance is surprisingly pleasant, even if Landau seems to be searching for (and occasionally finding!) echoes of Max Steiner in the score.

For years, I have tried—very, very hard—to like the symphonies of William Schuman. I have devoted hours and hours getting to know the Symphony No. 3, and the Symphony No. 7, and the Symphony No. 8, and the Symphony No. 10, and the Symphony For Strings. There is a certain symphonic cohesion and strength in Schuman’s Symphony No. 3, but the rest of Schuman’s symphonic output leaves me unmoved, and unimpressed, and ultimately uninterested. Schuman had a capable command of musical materials and their manipulation, but his music lacks personality and character and individuality and expression—and, worst of all, commitment and passion. I believe that Schuman wrote music because it was something he COULD do—but it was not something he HAD to do. The performance of the Schuman Symphony No. 7 on the Vox disc is about as good a reading as it will ever receive—I think the performance is marvelous, beautifully played and beautifully conducted and beautifully recorded—and yet it remains a lifeless and dull work, despite the best possible advocacy.

The Schuller symphony is a tough nut to crack. It is a dissonant, serial score, typical of Schuller’s music from the mid-1960’s. I have listened to this disc many, many times, and it is still difficult for me to grasp what Schuller is trying to say and what Schuller is trying to express in this piece. His musical gestures strike me as a series of artificial and clumsy poses, assumed to impress a panel of academic adjudicators, and the musical language is needlessly complex. I have no dislike of serial music, and I love much of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone work, and I love just about everything I have ever heard from the pen of Anton Webern, but Schuller’s twelve-tone music has always left me cold. I have no idea, in the case of this particular recording, whether the fault lies with the performers or with the composer. Perhaps Solti and Chicago could have brought this score to life, or perhaps Dohnanyi and Cleveland, too, but Johanos and Dallas seem to be straining to get as many notes as possible right, and nothing more. It is almost painful to listen to this score in this performance. Joshua hates it.

It is the Rorem and Hanson symphonies that make this set of discs truly worthwhile and distinctive. Both are exceptionally fine symphonies, if very conservative in idiom, and both should have entered the repertory by now. Audiences would enjoy hearing these works, I believe, and musicians surely would enjoy playing them.

The Rorem Third Symphony is his final published work in the genre. Written in 1958, near the end of his long stay in Paris, it is an unusual symphony. It is in five movements, it is beautifully and delicately orchestrated, and it is very “French” in tone: lucid, objective, understated, urbane, elegant and piquant. It is a very unique work, full of beauty, free of rhetoric, and it is the finest Rorem composition I have ever heard. Why does this man waste time writing songs, a field in which he has no skill (despite the efforts of many American writers to declare him America’s finest songwriter), when he is capable of writing orchestral works as fine as this? The Vox performance seems to me to be a very fine one, and it makes me want to run out and buy the much newer Naxos recording of this work as soon as possible.

The Hanson Sixth Symphony is also exceptionally fine. Written ten years after the Rorem, it, too, is an unusual symphony. It is in six movements--a contrasting sequence of andante movements and allegro movements, one after another--and it strikes me as the symphony in which Hanson finally broke free of the influence of Jean Sibelius. This symphony is not a typical Hanson symphony—inflated, Neo-Romantic, Neo-Nordic, full of Neo-Sibelian utterances. Instead, it is a very personal and distinctly American work, which seems to catch Hanson in an autumnal, Neo-Classical vein near the end of his composing life. The Vox performance seems to me to be just about perfect: cool and precise, with an avoidance of romanticism or excessive sentiment. Some time ago, I listened to this same composition in the Delos set of complete Hanson symphonies, with the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz, and I recall being completely indifferent to this work while listening to the Delos discs. The Vox performance is much finer, and much better recorded, than the Delos performance. This symphony has fully attracted my notice. Why is this marvelous score never played? I think that the Sixth must be Hanson’s finest symphony.

The sound on these Vox discs is extremely fine. The original source material obviously was good, and Vox has done wonders cleaning up and expanding the 1960’s and 1970’s sound. These are virtually audiophile recordings in their compact disc incarnations, and I am surprised that this set never attracted much notice. It is an invaluable collection of American music, in what are, for all practical purposes, historical performances.

The disc of Barber piano music is not particularly rewarding.

Barber was an excellent composer, a master of form and content, and one of the finest composers America has ever produced. His music is sophisticated, learned, earnest and true. However, Barber lacked an individual voice—his music could have been written by anyone in possession of a similar level of talent—and this is the reason why Barber’s music is so seldom heard outside English-speaking countries. Barber was the Karl Goldmark of the 20th Century--a composer of the utmost skill, a composer of many excellent pieces in many different forms, and yet a composer devoid of a unique and instantly-identifiable voice, that certain “something” that tells the listener, in the first two bars, “Oh, yes, this is by composer such-and-such”.

John Browning was always considered to be the “definitive” Barber pianist, and this particular disc is considered to be one of the essential Barber recordings. However, this disc is not very good.

The best work on the disc, and surely the most famous, is the Piano Sonata. Some commentators still regard this work as the finest American piano sonata, which it very well may be. Nonetheless, it is not a very good work.

The influence of Prokofiev on the Piano Sonata is far too intrusive—although Browning downplays the Prokofiev influence much more than Vladimir Horowitz did in his famous recording of the work—and the melodic material is far too mundane. If the melodic invention matched the sonata’s mastery of form, this sonata would be heard constantly all over the world. As it is, this sonata is only pulled out of the trunk for an occasional airing by American pianists. Is it any wonder that Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels gave it a pass (along with newer generations of Russian pianists like Mikhail Pletnev and Evgeny Kissin)?

The Piano Sonata is coupled with Barber’s well-known Nocturne, and the Ballad, and the fanciful “Excursions”, and the Interlude No. 1 (“Adagio For Jeanne”). None of this music makes much of an impression. Even second-tier piano music by Karol Szymanowski is about one hundred times better than this thin stuff.

What a waste of our time!

The Nathan Gunn recital disc is destined to be a collector’s item, of sorts, in coming decades--but for all the wrong reasons. Issued almost a decade ago, “American Anthem” was Gunn’s debut recital disc. Understandably, no more recital discs have followed.

The song selection is a good one, although it is a little too predictable. Songs by Samuel Barber, William Bolcom, Aaron Copland, Lee Hoiby, Charles Ives and Ned Rorem all make an appearance, alongside a couple of traditional songs and a couple of standards.

Gunn misses the wit of the three Bolcom songs, without which these songs are not worth performing. The Ives songs are overstated and over-emphatic, the Rorem songs are under-characterized and wispy, and the Copland songs pass by without a trace of personality or expression.

The Barber songs, however, come to life, and Gunn offers a simple but effective rendering of “Sure On This Shining Night”, one of the very finest Barber songs. However, any American baritone seems to be able to make a success of “Sure On This Shining Night”, a song that practically sings itself.

What makes this disc unique--and surely makes it a mark for satire in coming years--is the selection of songs by Gene Scheer, surely the most inept songs ever written.

Are these songs for real?

That is the question Josh and I asked ourselves the first time we listened to the Scheer songs on this disc.

I have not heard such maladroit songwriting in my life. Scheer’s music does not display any musical training—if he received any, he should immediately ask for his money back—and it also does not display any musical talent. However, Scheer is hardly alone among American composers in that regard.

What make these songs surefire objects of derision are the lyrics, which send the listener howling for replacement lyrics by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter . . .or Oscar Hammerstein . . .or Irving Berlin . . .or, for that matter, Julia Ward Howe! Those writers, at least, believed in what they were writing, or knew how to mask any lack of conviction with craft, something I cannot say for Scheer.

I cannot, for a minute, believe that Scheer’s lyrics are honest representations of any human being’s thoughts and emotions. Scheer’s words seem to come from the world of radio jingles, as served up by locally-owned, low-budget radio stations. His lyrics are manufactured and trite: a series of plastic, unimaginative, jingoistic clichés strung together, clichés so stale and so counterfeit that I can only marvel that anyone would have the face to use them.

They are unbelievably hokey. I have not heard such hokum since my childhood days, when I participated in my elementary school’s Thanksgiving pageant, in which we second graders, portraying Pilgrims, were assigned lines--enabling us to communicate with the native “Indians”--that were dementedly corny.

The song that ends the disc is the real vomiter. It is named “American Anthem” and it is hard to believe that this song is not one giant put-on. The first time Josh and I played this disc, we looked at each other in utter disbelief while this song played. We thought that the song must be a total send-up of patriotic songs.

Alas, it is not. Josh and I played the song straight through, eleven consecutive times, in mounting amazement, as Gunn uttered its senseless, incoherent sentiments, set to a cheap, fake-noble musical line. How did Gunn possibly manage to sing such babbling foolishness without breaking out into guffaws and horse snorts?

“American Anthem” is surely the worst patriotic song ever written, at any time, at any place. It gave me an instant appreciation for the “Horst-Wessel-Lied”, an appreciation I had hoped never to acquire.

What kind of person could possibly respond to this song?

It is instant camp.

Gunn is an odd singer. He is not as talented as his immediate American baritone predecessors, Richard Stilwell and Thomas Hampson, both of whom were and are far more musical and far more intelligent and specific in their musical phrasing and treatment of text than Gunn. Unlike his two illustrious predecessors, Gunn has never enjoyed the major international career—a career filled with prestigious engagements, at the world’s most prestigious venues, singing major roles, and appearing in new productions, and working with the world’s very finest conductors and directors--that Stilwell enjoyed and Hampson still enjoys.

Gunn’s career has been almost exclusively a U.S. one. Even his calling-card role, the title role in “Billy Budd”, has only been seen and heard by American audiences (he will sing the role in concert next season at the Barbican, but he has never been engaged to sing the role at Covent Garden or at the Coliseum--or anywhere on the continent, where “Billy Budd” is Britten’s most popular opera and is now staged everywhere). Further, it is time for Gunn to drop this role, as he is getting a little long-in-the-tooth to play an innocent and guileless young boy.

In a career lasting a decade and a half, Gunn’s European engagements have been few and far between, and those at major venues may be literally counted on the fingers of one hand: Gunn sang the small role of the Harlequin in “Ariadne Auf Naxos” at Covent Garden a few years ago, and Prince Andrei in “War And Peace” at Opera Bastille two or three seasons ago, and he has appeared a couple of times at Glyndebourne, and he is currently singing in Aix-En-Provence’s summer festival. Those have been his only engagements at major European theaters.

In person, Gunn has a winning manner, and this helps him carry the day in live performance. In fact, his winning manner, and not his voice, has been the key to his career.

On a recording, however, sound is the only means a singer has to communicate, and Gunn is a vacant singer and a vacant musician. He has a pleasing but bland voice, and he does not know what to do with it, and he does not know what to do with the music so as to bring it to life. He is an insipid, flavorless, limited musician. He is “simply not a first-rate talent”, to borrow the words of a major conductor who once auditioned him.

Every time Josh and I have listened to “American Anthem”, I have kept asking myself, song after song after song, “I wonder whether Simon Keenlyside might be able to make this song work” or “I wonder whether Matthias Goerne might be able to make this song work” or “I wonder whether Bryn Terfel might be able to make this song work” or “I wonder whether Thomas Hampson might be able to make this song work”. Listeners never ask themselves such questions, when listening to a disc, unless the performances of song after song after song are total duds.

We chose the cast recording of “1776” because the Guthrie Theater is presenting the musical this summer, and we are considering attending one of the performances.

This is sort of an interesting disc, because “1776” is not especially typical Broadway musical fare. The story of the creation of the Declaration Of Independence is something one does not necessarily expect to see treated in musical-comedy fashion.

The score has three or four good, extended numbers, involving almost the entire cast, working in ensembles of shifting sizes, and these numbers advance the plot and display some skill in writing for the stage. They are the best portions of the score by far.

The solo numbers, however, are pretty faceless, and do not display much melodic gift nor much musical imagination. These waltzes, marches, gavottes and ballads pass by without making much of an impression upon the listener.

“!776” was composer Sherman Adams’ only Broadway score—he was a successful writer of pop songs—and he was a skillful but hardly inspired composer for the stage, writing unmemorable, all-purpose tunes that lack individuality and character. The orchestrations have a nice period feel.

At least on disc, some of the songs simply do not work, although they very well may work in the theater. The song about fallen soldiers, and the song about slavery, and the final impassioned outcry from John Adams, “Is Anybody There?”, all seem synthetic to me, hitting false note after false note after false note, until they positively made my blood curdle.

The cast album does not exactly make Josh and me eager to see the Guthrie Theater staging of this show.


  1. You're right. It's time for Gunn to get rid of the Billy. I saw the Chicago production last year, and I couldn't understand why the reviews were good.

  2. Lyric Opera Of Chicago did "Billy Budd" last year?

    I heard Gunn sing the role in San Francisco in 2004, and he was already too old for the part back then. He looked like a middle-aged weight-lifter, turning the good-versus-evil battle with Claggart into purest nonsense.

    Simon Keenlyside was also too old for this role when I heard him sing it in Vienna in 2001 (in the same production San Francisco borrowed three years later) and Dwayne Croft, too, was way too old for the part when I heard him sing it in Washington in 2005.

    Why are middle-aged singers cast in this part? It destroys the very heart of the opera.

    At least Richard Stilwell had the good sense not to hold onto the role too long.

  3. Yeah, Chicago's Billy Budd was not last year. Confused about the year.

  4. quote: Scheer’s words seem to come from the world of radio jingles, as served up by locally-owned, low-budget radio stations.

    Crass comparison.

    Locally owned low budget radio stations, or the remaining ones left, are a GREAT slice of America. A rural Nebraska farm report followed by hastily read copy for a local appliance store is as beautiful and as much America as a 4th of July parade.

    Simple life can appear an easy target, but an astute mind knows how to listen, appreciate, and educate themselves from ALL walks of life.

    You've seen "A Prairie Home Companion" right? It's set in your neck of the woods.

    Sorry to pick apart one tiny reference, but it comes across as quite condescending and arrogant. Just because a piece of art, music, or performance fails to merit your standard doesn't diminish it to worthlessness for all others.


    All the best, James...

  5. Well, I am not sure if it matters that Barber may not have been a distinctive voice that is easily recognizable. Some of his contemporaries certainly felt he was a throwback. But I say what a fabulous throwback. Vanessa is easily among my top 5 favorite operas. If I could be a soprano for a night Vanessa's "Do not utter a word" would be my aria of choice. Knoxville Summer of 1915 never fails to transpot me through time and space, the overplayed but still orgasmic Adagio, the songs...You know, in a lot of ways he is a bit of an American Vaughan Williams. Perhaps this supports your argument about his lack of individuality, but that may not be a bad thing given all that he has given us.

  6. Thomas, there is a lot of Barber music I love.

    "Knoxville: Summer Of 1915" is just about the finest piece of American music ever written, and a few months ago I wrote about that particular composition, and how much it moved me.

    I also like the three concertos, despite their structural deficiencies, and I like the three essays for orchestra, and the early overture, and what parts of "Anthony And Cleopatra" I have managed to hear.

    I think that Ralph Vaughan Williams had a very individual voice. I can always identify a Vaughan Williams orchestral work immediately (but not the songs, which could have been written by anybody).

  7. You know when I say that he is a bit like an American Vaughan Williams I am admitting that Barber's sound sounds like somone else--at least in the string writing.

    As to "Knoxville" it is the spiritual basis for my blog site. Every evening when I walked to my house in Ithaca, New York while I was at Cornell, I could hear the opening lines...It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches...

  8. "Knoxville" is such a beautiful piece, isn't it? The part that always gets me--in truth, it almost makes me weep--is when the child talks of the other family members, and how they are good to him.

    I have always believed that there were many similarities between the music of William Walton and Samuel Barber, at least on the surface--there is a lot of acid-tinged romanticism in the music of both composers.

    I used not to like William Walton's music, but I like it very much now. I believe that Walton's time will come.

    It is nice to know, Thomas, that the name of your blog derives from Agee/Barber.

    Have a good weekend.

  9. I am going to be in Minneapolis next weekend and was hoping to hear the Minnesota Orchestra while in town, but alas other commitments will keep me from doing so.

  10. We pretty much avoid the summer concerts, Thomas, because they are not sufficiently rehearsed.

    We are going to one of next weekend's concerts solely because it will be my father's birthday, and because he loves the Dvorak Cello Concerto, and because he admires Daniel Muller-Schott, who will be making his Minnesota Orchestra debut.