Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Dana Suesse: Concerto in Three Rhythms; Jazz Nocturne; James Price Johnson: Yamekraw, a Negro Rhapsody; Harry Reser: Suite for Banjo and Orchestra. Gary Hammond, piano; Tatiana Roitman Mann, piano; Peter Mintun, piano; Michael Gurt, piano; Don Vappie, banjo; Créole Serenaders; Hot Springs Music Festival Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Rosenberg. Naxos. $8.99.
Roberto Sierra: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3; Fanfarria, aria y movimento perpetuo. Trío Arbós (Miguel Borrego, violin; José Miguel Gómez, cello; Juan Carlos Garvayo, piano). Naxos. $8.99.
Gabriela Lena Frank: Hilos (Threads); Danza de los Saqsampillos; Adagio para Amantaní; Quijotadas. ALIAS Chamber Ensemble; Gabriela Lena Frank, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire; Michael Gandolfi: Q.E.D.—Engaging Richard Feynman. “eighth blackbird” sextet; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus conducted by Robert Spano. ASO Media. $18.99.
It is unfashionable nowadays to imply that the music of a particular country has specific characteristics – it smacks of typecasting and thus of bias. No such political correctness affected composers of the past, though – Arnold Schoenberg, for example, developed 12-tone music in part to guarantee what he saw as the pre-eminence of German music into the future. And fashionable or not, there are certain musical elements that seem to characterize works from particular countries more often than not, both in their older music and their newer. In the case of music by American composers, there is frequently some surface glitz, an attractive veneer characterized by skillful orchestration or instrumental disposition, a certain amount of superficiality, and (often but certainly not always) a desire to please potential audiences with accessibility and interesting gestures. Certainly many of these characteristics appear in the works on a new Naxos CD entitled “Jazz Nocturne: American Concertos of the Jazz Age.” The only household-name composer here is, of course, George Gershwin, whose Rhapsody in Blue has been heard innumerable times. But this CD offers something not experienced before: the work in its full original 1924 version for jazz band, in which form it was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé (now remembered mostly for his Grand Canyon Suite). This first complete and unabridged recording from the manuscript proves a salutary experience: Grofé keeps the music bright and free-flowing, and the familiar melodies sound, well, jazzier here than as usually heard when played by a full symphony orchestra. And the Gershwin is accompanied on the disc by some genuinely interesting and entirely neglected works of the same period. Dana Suesse (1909-1987) was actually called the “Girl Gershwin” by no less than The New Yorker, and proves to have a fine sense of style and rhythm in her 1932 Concerto in Three Rhythms – whose three movements are a fox trot, blues and rag and whose orchestration, interestingly, was also done by Grofé. Suesse’s Jazz Nocturne, which gives this CD its title, is a short work from 1931 that contains a theme that became the song “My Silent Love,” a hit for famed crooner Bing Crosby. James Price Johnson (1894-1955) was an African-American composer whose 1927 Yamekraw (the title comes from an African-American area outside Savannah, Georgia) is steeped in the sensibility of the blues – and featured none other than Fats Waller as pianist at its first performance. And Harry Reser (1896-1965), a master banjo player, not surprisingly requires masterful solo work in his Suite for Banjo and Orchestra (1922-30), whose three short movements leave an overall impression of bright, forthright enjoyment, if little subtlety or significant musical substance.
There is something more substantive – and still heavily jazz-influenced – in the piano trios of Puerto Rico native Roberto Sierra (born 1953). Puerto Rico both is and is not “America,” depending on whom you speak to and under what circumstances the conversation takes place. Certainly there is a strong Spanish influence in all these works, whose Latin and jazz elements are intermingled with Romantic-era gestures as well as considerable modernism (Sierra studied with György Ligeti). All the trios have movements whose tempos or moods are given in Spanish – a clear indicator of the composer’s predilections. The first, “Trio Tropical,” dates to 1991 and is the most “ethnic” in sound. The second (2002) and third (“Romántico,” 2008) provide a greater blend of influences. And the short Fanfarria provides an interesting comparison with the third and final movement of the first trio: both open with slow, expressive sections and then switch to what the composer calls a movimiento perpetuo, but the handling of the material is quite different – and not solely because Fanfarria is only for violin and piano rather than piano trio.
There are significant multicultural elements as well in the music of Gabriela Lena Frank (born 1972). Her mother had Peruvian/Chinese ancestry; her father was descended from Lithuanian Jews. This certainly gives Frank very considerable musical influences on which to draw – but the works on the new Naxos CD of her music, all of which receive their first recordings here, all have a focus on South America. Like Sierra’s, they feature movement titles in Spanish and many inflections reminiscent of Latin music, although interpreted by Frank very differently from the way Sierra handles them. Hilos (Threads), written in 2010 for the ensemble that performs it here, is for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and includes eight short movements (the last being the most extended) that seek to interpret Peruvian textiles and everyday life in the country. Danza de los Saqsampillos (2000/2006), for two marimbas, is bright and lively, while Adagio para Amantaní (2007), for cello and piano, is mysterious and emotional – intended to refer to the beautiful but barren island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. And the mood is multifaceted in Quijotadas (2007), a work for string quartet that, as its name implies, was inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quijote – and that nicely captures some of the many moods of the novel, including a central movement that portrays the title character’s madness through a well-constructed Moto Perpetuo.
Modern American composers draw their influences from just about everywhere. Michael Gandolfi (born 1956) gets many of his from science. His 2010 work for chorus and orchestra, Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman, an Atlanta Symphony commission just issued on the orchestra’s own label, was inspired by the work and memoirs of the physicist (1918-1988). Gandolfi created a libretto from lines by various poets that a Feynman colleague had gathered and reassembled for a YouTube video relating to Feynman’s work on quantum electrodynamics (hence “Q.E.D.,” which also refers to the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum, “which was to be demonstrated,” indicating that a proof is complete). The various inspirations would be irrelevant if the work did not have value on its own, but it does: Feynman was good at explaining abstruse concepts in an accessible way, and Gandolfi manages here to make satisfying music by using a variety of compositional techniques that do not get in the way of his communication with the audience. It would be stretching things to call the work profound, but it is interesting, and in some ways a good deal more enjoyable than anything with a basis in theoretical physics has a right to be. It is coupled with a highly unusual concerto by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962) called On a Wire – also from 2010 and, in this case, an Atlanta Symphony co-commission with several other organizations. Higdon wrote it for an ensemble that calls itself “eighth blackbird” (small letters, without quotation marks) and intended the title to reflect a sort of high-wire act by the six-member solo group. More modernistic than Gandolfi’s piece and more self-consciously clever, On a Wire is designed to let the soloists engage in behavior that they favor, such as using instruments in ways that were not intended by the instruments’ creators (a bowed piano, for example). The instruments involved are flute/piccolo/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello, marimba and piano. There are many interesting passages in this extended single-movement work, but the cleverness wears thin after a while – the piece may have been more enjoyable to see than it is to hear on CD, since the soloists not only change instruments but also move around from one place to another during the work. The performance itself seems quite fine – it is probably safe to call it definitive – and there is something very American in the notion of a piece created for what appears to be almost no significant purpose but display and ebullience.