Americans in Rome

Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome, Donald Berman, Artistic Director, 4 Discs, Bridge Records 9271A/D 2008.

by Andrew Violette

Americans in Rome CD cover The first thing that struck me was the homogeneous style. These composers are not the pioneering visionaries you’d expect from an American disc. You’ll find no Conlon Nancarrow, La Monte Young, Kenneth Gaburo, Morton Feldman or Philip Glass. Instead you’ll find what Kyle Gann terms “midtown” composers – those still working within a tradition acceptable to mainstream ticket and CD buyers of classical music. The craftsmen on these discs reap the rewards of a musical system which lauds those who put out well-packaged and highly skilled music appealing enough to woo the average concert-goer who wants “something more” than another rendition of Mahler but is still put off by a premiere of Milton Babbitt. Bridge’s Americans in Rome marks the history and success of this institutional sponsorship (Problem: how to create good music without pandering). I juggled the first eighteen tracks on disc A (vocal music), without reading the copious notes beforehand, to see if I could pick out the composers. I couldn’t. They all sounded alike. But this is understandable. Samuel Barber and his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, had already worked out the lingua franca of this type of American art song music which would appeal to a middle-brow audience and it stuck – all the way to third generation Robert Beaser.

This version of American music (a love affair between our capitalism and Europe’s various flavors of socialism) was officially sanctioned in Roosevelt’s New Deal which funneled government cash into music projects for a middle class (supposedly) hungry for culture with a capital C. Enter Copland (along with Samuel Barber, Roy Harris and others) who sought to unite what critic Van Wyck Brooks in 1915 termed the false dichotomy between highbrow and lowbrow, academic and pop, intellect and pizzazz. He needed a recognizable American style and found it under the Parisian tutelage of Stravinsky-ite Nadia Boulanger.

I concur with Alex Ross’s statement in The Rest is Silence, page 291, “If you were to take a Stravinsky score such as the Octet or the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, loosen up the tightly controlled structure, and insert a few melodies of the New England hymnal or urban-jazzy type, you would have the beginnings of a Copland work such as Billy the Kid or Appalachian Spring. The entire style is implicit in the ‘Pastorale‘ of Histoire du soldat.

Now take Samuel Barber, who knew a good thing when he heard it. He blended Copland’s new American sound with Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony and voila! Vanessa and the hundreds of Barber-Menotti modeled art-songs and operas by hundreds of other composers throughout the 20th century. Barber’s long, lush lines, rich orchestral color and elastic bar-lines mirror American diction perfectly (inspired perhaps by late Janacek’s conversational Czech). He was eminently soothing to an audience weaned on Brahms. The Barber songs featured on this compendium, In the Dark Pinewood, Beggar’s Song, Of That So Sweet Imprisonment and Sleep Now, were composed “in short order” and premiered at the Academy (1935) when the composer was in his mid-twenties. Barber himself was a vocalist (his aunt was Met contralto Louise Homer). He studied both voice and composition at Curtis. (The recording to hear Barber sing Barber is Great Performances from the Library of Congress, Samuel Barber, baritone and piano, Bridge 9156). On this CD soprano Susan Narucki and baritone Chris Pedro Trakas sing these early gems with careful diction and what Copland called Barber’s “absolute sincerity.”

Randall Thompson’s Siciliano (1978) is a lovely song – even taking into account the unmistakable echoes of Britten’s Cole Porter inspired Tell Me the Truth About Love. Its “flowing melodic character” (quoting the program notes) hearkens to the songs of the at-that-time-discredited Henry Cowell.

Sessions was the ur-university composer who resisted Copland’s new simplicity. He remained tied to the Schoenberg circle he befriended on his trip to Berlin in the early 30s. The Copland-Sessions concerts bridged this gap in a mutual neo-classic/American expressionist hug. Sessions became the spokesman for composers obeying only their “inner creative urge” with no creative obligation to write in a more populist style. (Query: What about the composer who writes populist music out of his “inner creative urge”?) Sessions’s influence as a teacher and writer would spawn the whole post World War II 12-tone crowd by way of his student Milton Babbitt so much so that Kurt List would write that Sessions’ atonal polyphony [would be] the only valid “expression of modern America.” I saw the American premiere of Roger Sessions’ Montezuma under Sarah Caldwell. The costumes were abominable (who wants to see fat singers in terry-cloth?) but the complaint at the time, that the orchestra buried the singers, I thought was unfounded. Still, Richard Aldag lightens the texture in his arrangement recorded here of Malinche’s Aria (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, percussion) which brings soprano Susan Narucki to the fore. It’s a stunning rendition.

The CD is rounded off with two early neoclassic songs by Elliott Carter, Warble for Lilac Time and Voyage, composed for piano and voice in the 1940s and later orchestrated (1970s) on Carter’s return to the AAR. In these songs Carter had not yet renounced the Church of Copland. “I was particularly concerned with giving my compositions an American flavor,” he writes. In his Warble for Lilac Time he sought to use “smooth, flowing diatonic lines in the accompaniment and a lyric vocal line that becomes increasingly rhapsodic as the song progresses.” Later, of course, with the prodding of the philosopher-cum-music critic Adorno and the new Babbitt articles heralding the ecstasy of hexachordal-inversional-combinatoriality, Carter strayed from the party line. With this, the American supported European welfare state recipients at Darmstadt, headed by Boulez, embraced the new Carter as a member of their tribe. How they loved that dense, difficult First String Quartet with its juxtaposed voices, each independently getting-faster/getting-slower in its jazzy, Ivesian way!

But that’s the future. Here the neoclassic Carter is recorded beautifully by soprano Tony Arnold and sensitively conducted by Scott Yoo with the Colorado College Festival Orchestra. A new era and the neo-romantics group hugged the old Copland crowd: the “seven captivating works… personal and searingly communicative” (according to Robert Beaser) of disc B of this compendium reflect that. As on disc A, I juggled the tracks to see if I could name the composers. The only composer I got right alas! was Alexander Steinert and that was only because his 19th century late romanticism, by way of Gabriel Faure by way of Nadia Boulanger, stuck out from the peek-a-boo tonality offerings of the late 1990s and early 21st century. Steinert’s 1930 sonata for violin and piano, beautifully played by Donald Berman, piano, and Sunghae Anna Lim, violin, was rescued from out-of-print oblivion by Mr. Berman. Leo Sowerby wrote in 1928, “The sonata is reminiscent of Ravel, though the workmanship is splendid.” It was a pleasure to hear the recording. Once.

The others on disc B are pleasantly generic. True, Paul Moravec toys with the BACH motive, Stephen Hartke explores Renaissance counterpoint, Aaron Jay Kernis gets his shtick from a Mozart string trio and Martin Bresnick has his extended cello technique. Still, to these ears, they were all written with much skill and no particular personality. (P.S. I realize that these are Very-Distinguished-and-Lauded-American-Composers so I’m willing to concede that I may be a third-rate composer myself whose ears cannot discern the maverick in Moravec, the genius in Kernis or the pioneering-edge in Bresnick. On the other hand, the answer to my perception of their collective sameness might lie in their collective eagerness to please.) Disc C features an “assemblage of piano music [which] spans a period of almost seventy years,” says Yehudi Wyner’s program notes. There’s an offering of George Rochberg’s Bagatelles (1952) before he went functionally tonal in his Third String Quartet. It’s expertly executed by Donald Berman, who, by the way, performs all the piano music on disc C.

In Lukas Foss’ Fantasy Rondo (1944) the composer, according to Berman, “openly bows to the swing tradition of its time and is saturated with toe-tapping tunes.” Mr. Berman savors every beautiful moment in the piece but he doesn’t connect all those beautiful moments into a coherent whole. The work should swing but Berman’s tempo is so slow it’s danced with leaden feet. (Listen to Foss Plays Foss, Elysium, ELY 724 2003. The composer-pianist’s dance rhythms move; the attacks are crisp; the pedal light. Foss plays the contrasting sections of his Rondo so clearly that the structure leaps out.)

Disc D features music for winds and piano and, as one would expect of American instrumentalists, the performances are uniformly technically excellent. With the creation in the 60s of the National Endowment for the Arts and The Ford Foundation cash flowed from government and big corporate sponsors into the hands of the composer – provided the composer was willing to write in the received style of the time. (Sorry, no money for minimalists – this is the age of international dodecaphony. Philip Glass and Steve Reich would have to go into the furniture moving business. But Charles Wuorinen, George Perle, Harvey Solberger and company as well as all their students – take our money, please!). Yehudi Wyner and Andrew Imbrie both embrace this systematically intellectual nontonal writing that seems made to be analyzed in a university course on American late twentieth century contrapuntal technique. But who cares if you listen? – though Imbrie’s Dandelion Wine (played with technical proficiency by the Collage Music Ensemble) is, as a matter of fact, a beautifully written, artfully executed species of this style and Yehudi Wyner’s Commedia (also expertly played by the composer at the piano and Richard Stoltzman on the clarinet) is interesting of its type.

David Lang is the lone post-minimalist. He, along with fellow students of the Yale School of Music in the 80s, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, wrote Bang on a Can’s Manifesto, “We had the simplicity, energy and drive of pop music in our ears… but we also had the idea…that composing was exalted.” Lang’s Vent heard here features the usual steady pulsing but also a peculiarly hypnotic second section though the performers, Donald Berman (piano) and Patti Monson (flute), don’t quite get the downtown style. (Benefit of the doubt: I don’t have the score but the execution sounds a little too careful, not pop enough, to my ears – but it could be the piece itself.) The disc ends with Harold Shapero’s Six for Five Wind Quintet (1995) – a musical dessert. Berman writes that “this CD project was designed to capture [a] community of composers, reclaim their music and put it in historical context.” “The time was ripe for reassessing the canons of twentieth century American music,” he continues. Mr. Berman, searching the steel drawers of the Academy’s three thousand plus scores, unearthed “among the more obscure personalities” some interesting music.

But has the AAR really played “a unique role in nurturing American composers,” as Adele Chatfield-Taylor, its president, asserts? Yes, if you happen to be a composer known to Isaac Stern, who exclaimed that, “every important American composer in the twentieth century was associated with the Academy.” But one look at Mr. Stern’s discography would convince you that, though a great virtuoso, he was hardly an authority on contemporary music. So in the end I can’t help but think what Elliott Carter’s pen-pal put forth in his Essays Before a Sonata. Charles Ives, premiere American musical visionary, wrote, “Possibly the more our composer accepts from his patron ‘et al’ the less he will accept from himself. It may be possible that a day in a Kansas wheat field will do more for him than three years in Rome.” And here’s to you Chuck! II

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