April 09, 2009


Abraham Lincoln Portraits: Music by Ives, Persichetti, Harris, Bacon, Gould, McKay, Turok and Copland. Soloists, Nashville Symphony Chorus and Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Samuel Jones: Symphony No. 3, “Palo Duro Canyon”; Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. Christopher Olka, tuba; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $8.99.

     How much Lincolniana is enough? The Naxos “Lincoln Portraits” set offers nearly two hours of music inspired by the United States’ 16th president, the bicentennial of whose birth is being celebrated this year. The works have little in common except their inspiration, and are quite diverse in length, form, approach and – in truth – effectiveness. Best known is Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (1942), an exercise in hagiography (as are just about all the works here) that remains effective, if somewhat overdone, 60-plus years after it was written. Narrator Barry Scott avoids pomposity in his delivery, and that helps. Strongly contrasted with Copland’s work is Charles Ives’ Lincoln, the Great Commoner, the shortest work in this set (three-and-a-half minutes) and the most pointed, filled with Ives’ Yankee forthrightness without devolving into soupy sentimentality. Between these poles are works of greater or lesser historical and musical interest. Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, which like Copland’s work is for narrator and orchestra, uses Lincoln’s second inaugural address as its basis, but the many references to the Civil War were thought to hit too close to home during the Vietnam War – with the result that the work was yanked from Richard Nixon’s 1973 inauguration, for which it was commissioned (although it was widely played once the circumstances of its removal became known). The piece no longer seems controversial; neither is it especially challenging either to the ear or to the mind. Roy Harris’ Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, however, comes across as particularly thoughtful. Based on an evocative Vachel Lindsay poem and written for mezzo-soprano (here, Sharon Mabry) and piano trio (here, Roger Wiesmeyer, piano; Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, violin; and Anthony LaMarchina, cello), the work reflects the dark introspection in which Lincoln often engaged – and has the effect of humanizing him. Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865, at half an hour the longest work in this set, dates to 1946 and is a cycle of 12 short movements based on a Paul Horgan play. Some parts are effective enough, but the work as a whole is episodic rather than cumulatively moving. More effective – and half the length – is Morton Gould’s 1941 Lincoln Legend, which makes its points without overdoing them and also reflects the wartime in which it was written. From George Frederick McKay, who is perhaps better known as a teacher of John Cage and William Bolcom than as a composer, To a Liberator (A Lincoln Tribute) is another work of the World War II era, dating to 1939. Of the five movements, the most impressive are the third (a march) and the last, which provides a quiet and thoughtful ending. Also interesting is Paul Turok’s Variations on an American Song: Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty (1963), which is based on the “Lincoln and Liberty” campaign song of 1859 that in turn uses an Irish tune, “Rosin the Bow.” That tune uses only the seven white notes of the piano, but Turok creates an impressive set of musical effects from it, and the work is more upbeat than many others here. Leonard Slatkin leads the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with his usual verve and spirit, and if the Lincoln theme does tend to wear a bit thin as one piece of praise follows another, the individual works are all worth at least an occasional hearing, and several are worth more than that.

     Samuel Jones (born 1935) offers Americana of a different kind. Jones, now in his 12th year as composer in residence of the Seattle Symphony, wrote his one-movement Third Symphony (1992) for the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra and based it on Palo Duro Canyon, a natural wonder some 20 miles from Amarillo. This is program music in a very general sense, starting by portraying the windy plains and then, when it comes time to “see” the canyon musically, using a broad, noble theme in the brass. There are also Comanche Indian melodies incorporated into the music. Jones is unafraid of dissonance but not wedded to it for its own sake. As a result, his music tends to be tuneful and expressive, although not particularly challenging or profound. His Third Symphony is certainly one of the more accessible American works from the last decade of the 20th century. And Jones’ Tuba Concerto, which dates to 2005, is accessible as well, although not very easily so for the soloist. The work was written for Christopher Olka, who plays it with great skill and apparent enjoyment. It is the first of three Jones concertos for lower brass instruments, the second being for horn and the third and newest for trombone. The interplay of orchestra and solo instrument is particularly well handled in the Tuba Concerto: the tuba’s deep sound is never overwhelmed by that of the other instruments, and there are even some amusing sections in which the largest of all brass instruments is paired with the highest woodwind, the piccolo. The concerto showcases the dexterity of both Jones and Olka, and Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony provide carefully calibrated backup that brings out Jones’ colorations as effectively here as in the Third Symphony. It would be exaggerating to call Jones a major American composer, but he is a highly skilled craftsman whose work deserves to be more widely known.

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