November 03, 2011

(++++) SOUNDING LIKE AMERICA

The Heritage of John Philip Sousa, Volume 9. “The President’s Own” conducted by Lieutenant Colonel Jack T. Kline, USMC. Altissimo. $19.99 (2 CDs).

Ned Rorem: Chamber Music with Flute. Fenwick Smith, flute; David Leisner, guitar; Ronald Thomas, cello; Mihae Lee, piano; Ann Hobson Pilot, harp. Naxos. $9.99.

James Aikman: Violin Concerto—Lines in Motion (2009); Ania’s Song—A Pavane for String Orchestra (2006); Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra (2010). Charles Wetherbee, violin; Taimur Sullivan, alto saxophone; St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Lande. Naxos. $9.99.

River of Light: American Short Works for Violin and Piano. Tim Fain, violin; Pei-Yo Wang, piano. Naxos. $9.99.

     In certain ways, there remains no more quintessentially American music than that of John Philip Sousa, the super-prolific march composer and the man who brought the American band to its highest level of skill – and international fame – at a time when American orchestras were nonexistent or barely being formed. And for interpreting Sousa’s music, there is certainly no more dyed-in-the-wool American ensemble than the U.S. Marine Corps Band, known as “The President’s Own.” Sousa’s music has universal appeal and has been exceptionally well performed by bands all over the world, but there is something especially appealing about hearing it played by the most unabashedly red-white-and-blue of all United States bands – even when the music itself is not purely patriotic in nature. Sousa, after all, wrote in a number of forms, and in addition to creating marches, he wrote operettas and suites and other decidedly non-martial music. Each volume of the Altissimo Heritage of John Philip Sousa series offers a fine mixture of the marches for which the “March King” was best known and other fine works with which listeners are likely to be less familiar. Volume 9, the last one of the series, is a real winner, including the best-known Sousa march of all, The Stars and Stripes Forever, along with such top-notch toe-tappers as The Thunderer, Boy Scouts of America, The Royal Welch Fusiliers, The Rifle Regiment, When the Boys Come Sailing Home, and Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. Everything is played with strength and a very high level of skill – and that includes not only the familiar works but also less-known ones such as the three Camera Studies (The Flashing Eyes of Andalusia, Drifting to Loveland and The Children’s Ball), Columbia’s Pride, The Free Lance, Wisconsin Forward Forever, The High School Cadets, The Charlatan, The Pride of Pittsburgh, Sound Off, Recognition March, The Pathfinder of Panama, Jack Tar, Prince Charming, excerpts from the operetta El Capitan, and Rose, Thistle and Shamrock (representing, respectively, England, Scotland and Ireland). Sousa’s rhythms may be foursquare much of the time, but his melodic inventiveness and skill at orchestration keep his music bright, interesting and very American in its uplift and promise of a better day – a message just as valuable in difficult modern times as it was when Sousa created these pieces and brought them to the United States and the world.

     The music of Ned Rorem (born 1923) is altogether more modest and intimate, far more at home in the recital hall than the outdoors or the sorts of grand stages where Sousa performed. Rorem is especially well known for his songs, but he has also written some well-made chamber works, including several featuring a prominent part for flute. Five of these, collectively covering much of the composer’s career, are now available in fine performances featuring Fenwick Smith – and if their style of expression will not be to everyone’s taste, their emotional content will certainly be clear to all listeners. One piece, Mountain Song, is a 1949 arrangement for flute and piano of a rural Kentucky folk song; the other works were written for flute from the start. They are Trio for flute, cello and piano, from 1960; Book of Hours (1975), a meditative piece for flute and harp that goes on a bit too long for this particular instrumental combination; Romeo and Juliet (1977), for flute and guitar, which captures many elements of the timeless love story and is very well played, but which again seems somewhat too much for two fairly delicate instruments; and Four Prayers, for flute and piano, written in 2006 and very effectively combining the meditative with the outgoing. This (+++) Naxos CD is a fine addition to the Rorem discography and will be of considerable interest to listeners who mainly know Rorem through his vocal music.

     Another (+++) Naxos CD, entitled Venice of the North Concerti, offers three works by James Aikman (born 1959) that show a sensibility quite different from Rorem’s, for all that both composers were born in Indiana. The three Aikman works here draw on multiple stylistic influences, with distinct jazz and pop-music elements and very different levels of expressiveness. The Violin Concerto is the most intricate of the pieces, retaining a strong flavor of improvisation even when thoroughly written-out: the first movement is actually called “Prologue/Improvisation” and the second “Quasi una Fantasia,” emphasizing the free-flowing form of the whole. At the other emotional and structural end of things is the dissonant and rather harsh Saxophone Concerto, whose clarity of orchestration strongly contrasts with its generally acerbic tone and a sound recalling that of Alban Berg. In the middle of these pieces, both on the CD and in terms of its impact, lies Ania’s Song, a short and peaceful work that functions, both aurally and in terms of its middle placement on the CD, as a respite for the ear. Aikman’s music not only shows the recent American tendency to pick up influences from many places but also showcases the increasing international acceptance of music by American composers: the orchestra here is Russian and the recording was made in St. Petersburg, yet nothing sounds exotic or as if it is played by musicians uncomfortable with Aikman’s American style.

     Indeed, there is no single “American style” anymore, if there ever was. The well-played (+++) Naxos CD called River of Light shows that clearly by offering disparate short pieces by nine different composers – each work from a different time and in a different form, all of them united only by their American origins and their use of violin and piano. Like most anthology discs, this Naxos compilation has high points and low ones, but which are which will depend on individual listeners’ preferences. The pieces appear in no particular order; their varied effects tumble over one another without much regard for what has come before or will be heard afterwards. For example, the opening Aria, written in 2002 by Kevin Puts (born 1972), is decidedly lyrical; it is immediately followed by a very impressively played rendition of Knee Play 2 (1976) from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass (born 1937); this provides a strong contrast. Then the effect switches again with Air (1995) by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960), immediately complemented by (rather than contrasted with) Sicilienne (2002) by Lev Zhurbin (born 1978). The other works here are the eponymous River of Light (2007) by Richard Danielpour (born 1956); Graceful Ghost Rag (1979), providing further evidence, if any is needed, of the versatility of William Bolcom (born 1938); Legacy (1999) by Jennifer Higdon (born 1962); The Light Guitar (2006) by Patrick Zimmerli (born 1968); and the short, aptly titled Wistful Piece (1953) by Ruth Shaw Wylie (1916-1989) – a work that ends this multifaceted and somewhat disjointed recital in quietude and with a sense of solace. That is a fine way to bring a survey of American music to a close, being a strong contrast to the ebullience of Sousa and a respite from the tonal and dramatic explorations of so many 20th-century American composers.

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