May 29, 2008


Hanson: Suite from the Opera “Merry Mount”; Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Robert Russell Bennett: Suite of Old American Dances; John Williams: Arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner”; Joseph Wilcox Jenkins: American Overture; Christopher Tucker; Ceremonial Fanfare; Steven Bryant: Radiant Joy; Sousa: The Washington Post March. Lone Star Wind Orchestra conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon; Richard Shuster, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Ernst Toch: Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano; Burlesken for Piano; Three Impromptus for Cello; Piano Quintet. Spectrum Concerts Berlin: Daniel Blumenthal, piano; Annette von Hehn and Julia-Maria Kretz, violins; Hartmut Rohde, viola; Frank Dodge, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

      While some American composers embrace their country wholeheartedly, others seem more uneasy or uncomfortable with it – so that American music is as likely to be uncertain and even dour as it is to be bright and uplifting. Eugene Migliaro Corporon and the Lone Star Wind Orchestra mainly favor the positive in their well-played mixture of familiar and unfamiliar works by well-known and less-known composers. Howard Hanson’s sole opera, Merry Mount, is scarcely upbeat: based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, it is about repressed lust in Puritan times that eventually leads to murder. Hanson’s suite from the opera dates to 1938; this wind-band version, created by John Boyd in 2000, retains the strong depictions of sternness and unrequited passion. The rest of the CD comprises far more affirmative music. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue gets a well-played, rhythmic performance, with Richard Shuster as pianist, in a rendition made up of the Ferde Grofé orchestrations of 1924 and 1926 – an interesting variant on the familiar full-orchestra version, although not, in truth, as effective. Robert Russell Bennett’s 1949 Suite of Old American Dances looks back enthusiastically to tunes from the 19th century. The rest of the works here are short. Joseph Wilcox Jenkins’ American Overture (1955) has folklike melodies and uses the band’s instruments well – it is an original band composition, not an arrangement. Christopher Tucker’s Ceremonial Fanfare (2004) is fairly sober – it is based on a piece Tucker wrote after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 – and has a majestic feeling. Radiant Joy by Steven Bryant, written in 2006, follows Tucker’s piece on the CD and is a strong contrast to it, being very upbeat and filled with elements of jazz and pop music. The CD starts and ends with real American classics. John Williams’ 2004 arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, which opens the disk, is strong and respectful – this 18th-century British drinking song has long since become defining American music, although it was not designated the national anthem until 1931. John Philip Sousa’s 1889 The Washington Post March, which closes the CD, has been tremendously popular for well over a century, and its high-spirited two-step remains a strong affirmation of American spirit today.

      But not all composers thought of as American fit easily into the country’s musical life. Ernst Toch (1887-1964) never fully did. An Austrian Jew who fled to the United States after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Toch was musically self-taught (learning fundamentals from Mozart’s string quartets) and himself became an important theorist and teacher. Late in life, between 1950 and 1964, he crafted seven well-wrought symphonies, the third of which won a Pulitzer Prize. But even though Toch created all those symphonies in the United States, and wrote for more than a dozen Hollywood films between 1933 and 1945, his heart remained in the Old World and his music remained reflective of it. The four works performed by members of Spectrum Concerts Berlin show this clearly. The Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano dates to 1928 and is suffused with melancholy. Burlesken for solo piano is from 1923; its three short movements are more upbeat, notably its concluding “Der Jongleur.” Toch himself was an accomplished pianist, and this work shows his virtuoso interests. The Three Impromptus for Cello are quite late, written in 1963, and are one of three compressed sets of solo-instrument music – the others being for violin and viola. The Piano Quintet, which dates to 1938, is the largest work on this CD – longer than all the others combined – and the most unusual and impressive. In four movements called “The Lyrical Part,” “The Whimsical Part,” “The Contemplative Part” and “The Dramatic Part,” Toch provides power, wit and ingenuity aplenty, sustaining musical flow effectively throughout – always within a language that is essentially European rather than in any way American, for all that the piece was written five years after Toch arrived in the U.S. It is in some ways ironic that a composer who fit so uneasily into the “American music” mold is buried in Los Angeles.

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