March 31, 2011


James Hewitt: Medley Overture (1798); New Medley Overture (1799); New Federal Overture (1796); Benjamin Carr: Federal Overture (1794); Alexander Reinagle: Miscellaneous Overture (1801); Occasional Overture (1794); Overture in G (1787). Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $8.99.

Charles Wuorinen: Scherzo (2007); First String Quartet (1971); Viola Variations (2008); Second Piano Quintet (2008). Peter Serkin, piano; Lois Martin, viola; Brentano String Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello); Curtis Macomber and Jesse Mills, violins; Fred Sherry, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Richard Danielpour: The Enchanted Garden—Preludes, Books I (1992) and II (2009). Xiayin Wang, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Michael Colina: Three Cabinets of Wonder (Concerto for Violin) (2010); Goyescana (Concerto for Guitar) (2008); Los Caprichos (2008). Anastasia Khitruk, violin; Michael Andriaccio, guitar; London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ira Levin. Fleur de Son. $18.99.

     It would be easy to make the statement that American music has never been so internationally acknowledged and accepted as it is today. But the statement is correct only with a host of qualifications and a very careful definition of “American music.” For in fact, American music was in a sense “international” from the time the United States was founded – a time at which, after all, there were no “American-born” composers. There were, however, composers working in the fledgling nation and creating music intended to be identified with it – composers such as James Hewitt (1770-1827) and Benjamin Carr (1768-1831), both born in England, and Alexander Reinagle (1756-1809), born in Scotland. A selection of their works on a new Naxos CD shows little that is substantive: most of the overtures are pastiches of popular music of their time and some famous tunes from European classical composers. And there is little to distinguish the composers from each other stylistically – although, since all these works have been edited, reconstructed and/or orchestrated by the same person (Bertil van Boer), it may also be that that composer/musicologist has left a strong imprint on everything. In any case, this is pleasantly rousing music, nearly all of it in the bright major keys of C, D and G (although Hewitt’s Medley Overture is partly in D minor); none of it is especially consequential except historically. It is, however, of passing interest to notice that these works from the early days of the United States as an independent nation are played – and played very well – by an ensemble from Finland, which did not gain its own status as an independent country until as recently as 1917.

     Two centuries after the time of Hewitt, Carr and Reinagle, composers such as Charles Wuorinen have elevated American music to the forefront of many modern trends. Wuorinen (born 1931) has written some 250 works, generally demanding considerable virtuosity from performers while presenting a mixture – sometimes comforting, sometimes discomfiting – of modern techniques with references to Baroque and even earlier polyphony. His First String Quartet, in the traditional three movements but with a distinctly nontraditional sound, dates to 1971 and is the oldest piece on a new Naxos recording of his chamber music. It is played here, with great skill and understanding, by Curtis Macomber, Jesse Mills, Lois Martin and Fred Sherry. Martin is the violist for whom Wuorinen wrote his Viola Variations, and she handles this highly virtuosic solo work – which looks back to Bach but clearly features Wuorinen’s personal style – with considerable élan. The stylistic similarities and differences between this solo-viola work and Scherzo for solo piano are fascinating, with Peter Serkin (for whom Scherzo was written) managing the work’s considerable technical demands with unfailing virtuosity. Serkin and the Brentano String Quartet gave the first performance of Wuorinen’s Second Piano Quintet, and their recording of it surely deserves to be called definitive: they handle the interplay among instruments with elegance and ease, and the sometimes prickly structure with sureness and understanding.

     Xiayin Wang’s pianism in The Enchanted Garden by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) is also highly impressive. Wang gave the first performance of Book II of this work in New York City in 2009, and she has clearly studied the seven preludes of this book carefully and found ways to bring out their coloristic and occasionally eerie qualities (each work draws on an experience or memory that Danielpour found significant). Wang also does a top-notch job with Book I of The Enchanted Garden, whose five movements are described by the composer as musical responses to dreams. There are many interesting international elements to this Naxos CD and the music on it – not just Wang herself (who studied in China and then the United States), but also the clear influence on Danielpour of French Impressionism and the composers who interpreted it sonically. Yet there is very little that is derivative in this music except for the basic notion of painting tone pictures associated with specific scenes (in this case, mostly dreams and reveries rather than realistic appearances). Danielpour’s early music was strongly serialist, but his more recent works, including both books of The Enchanted Garden, show the influence not only of international (and more accessible) musical trends but also of rock music (notably the Beatles). He also has a fine sense of juxtaposition, as when, for instance, he follows Book II’s “Surrounded by Idiots” with a moving piece simply entitled “Elegy.”

     Michael Colina’s influences are international, too – and his music has attracted considerable attention outside the United States, as a new CD with performances by the London Symphony Orchestra shows. Colina’s earlier work was strongly jazz-oriented; indeed, he came to modern classical style only within the last five years or so. But he quickly made that style his own by imbuing it with soul, gospel and Latin music (his father was Cuban, and Colina [born 1948] considers a visit to Cuba with his father in 1999 to be a milestone in his musical development). Even when he works in traditional classical forms such as the concerto, Colina’s music never really sounds like straightforward classical works. He attaches evocative programmatic titles to his movements – the three for Three Cabinets of Wonder, for example, are “Fanny’s Brother,” “Buddha’s Assassin” and “Guardian of the Glowing” – and imbues all his works with elements that are distinctly Cuban or otherwise redolent of Latin America. Los Caprichos, for example, is a set of 11 short movements based on prints by Francisco Goya, inviting comparison with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but sonically worlds apart from that 19th-century work (and the 20th-century orchestration by Ravel in which it is usually heard). Colina’s music is mostly quite accessible, easy to hear and absorb, and just exotic enough to sound not quite American but not quite like music of any other country, either. It truly has an international flavor – and all the performers on this CD sound thoroughly comfortable with it in their solid, idiomatic readings.

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