July 27, 2006


Roy Harris: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (“Folk Song Symphony”). Marin Alsop conducting the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Naxos. $8.99.

     Marin Alsop, who will assume the post of music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra later this year, has a special affinity for American music – and is especially effective when conducting episodic works that allow her to bring out details without needing to focus on a grand overview of the music or its monumental sweep.  This CD is therefore doubly successful: it plays to both areas of Alsop’s strength.

     Roy Harris’ symphonies are not especially well known, perhaps in part because their history and numbering are confusing.  He completed 13 orchestral works that he called symphonies, even though some (such as No. 4) are not really symphonies at all, and others (such as No. 3) are single-movement works.  Harris also gave the name “symphony” to some works that are not for orchestra, and to some works that he did not complete – about 18 in all.  This CD is intended as the first in a series of all 13 of his numbered orchestral works designated as symphonies.

     Heard simply on its own, the CD is impressive.  Symphony No. 3 shows Harris with a distinct style, despite the fact that numerous elements of the work reflect the music of other composers: hymnlike sections sound a bit like Ives, some rhythmic angularities are reminiscent of Copland, and a lengthy central section that features quietly scurrying strings and occasional brass outbursts resembles the music of Sibelius.  Still, the symphony, written in 1938, does not come across as imitative: the various elements are integrated into a cohesive whole.  Alsop’s conducting makes the work somewhat episodic, but no less effective for all that.

     Symphony No. 4 was written one year later and is really a fantasia for mixed chorus and orchestra.  It has seven movements, of which only two short interludes are for instruments alone.  In fact, the orchestral introduction to the fifth movement, “Negro Fantasy,” is longer than either of the two interludes.  This “Folk Song Symphony” uses various American tunes in a mostly downbeat fashion.  The “Negro Fantasy” movement, the second-longest, is funereal until the very end, and the longest movement of all, “Western Cowboy,” offers a bleak orchestral accompaniment to two songs about death on the American frontier.  These two movements together represent half the symphony’s length.  The orchestral interludes are brighter, but the remaining vocal movements are also on the dark side – except for the finale, which is based on “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and which comes as something of a shock with its resolute triumphalism.  Alsop treats each movement as a miniature, not attempting to provide any sort of overarching shape to the work – a task that would, in any case, be difficult.  The Colorado Symphony Chorus sings sweetly and clearly, and the orchestra is quiescent and spirited at the appropriate times.  These symphonies do not in themselves establish Harris as a major American composer, but they show strong workmanship and a clear personal style that accepts various influences and transforms them.  And Alsop proves herself a strong advocate of the music.

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