June 06, 2013

(++++) COMPOSERS IN FOCUS


Sousa: Music for Wind Band, Volume 12. Royal Swedish Navy Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $9.99.

Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 2—Guillaume Tell; Eduardo e Cristina; L’inganno felice; La scala di seta; Demetrio e Polibio; Il Signor Bruschino; Sinfonia di Bologna; Sigismondo. Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $9.99.

Michael Daugherty: Mount Rushmore; Radio City—Symphonic Fantasy on Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra; The Gospel According to Sister Aimee. Paul Jacobs, organ; Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony conducted by Carl St. Clair. Naxos. $9.99.

Jerome David Goodman: Montségur Suite; Three Piano Preludes; Saxophone Quartet; Violin Concerto. Navona. $16.99.

Yves Ramette: Works for Piano; Works for Orchestra. Navona. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     It is difficult to get a full portrait of any composer from a single CD release, although companies sometimes try to provide one. More often, though, a series – sometimes a long series – is necessary to give listeners a satisfactory musical picture. That is certainly true for John Philip Sousa, who wrote more than 200 works, including suites and operettas, but is known to most listeners only for his marches – and only for a very few of those. It is true that his greatest march tunes are unsurpassed in their melodic gifts and upbeat attitudes, but it is also true that a great deal of less-known Sousa music is exceedingly delightful and ought to have a more-prominent place in concert halls and at outdoor musical presentations than it typically does. Several of the works on the 12th CD in Naxos’ first-rate ongoing Sousa series fall into this category. One is the Mikado March (1885), which manages to encapsulate many of the famous tunes from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in less than two-and-a-half minutes. And then there are three Sousa marches that are intended for actual drills and date to the composer’s time as conductor of the U.S. Marine band: Right Forward (1881), Right-Left (1883), and Sound Off (1885), whose very names sound like military commands. Two of Sousa’s earliest marches are here as well, both dating to 1876: Revival and The Honored Dead, the latter a funeral march that Sousa conducted at the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant in 1885. And there are a couple of Sousa’s occasional marches here as well, written for specific purposes: Transit of Venus (1883), marking an astronomical event, and Marquette University (1924), a late work written after the Wisconsin school awarded Sousa an honorary doctorate. In addition to presenting rousing performances of the march tunes, Keith Brion and the Royal Swedish Navy Band showcase some music in which Sousa goes beyond the form for which he is most famous. There is Marching Through Georgia—Patrol (1891), a setting of the famous Civil War song; Peaches and Cream (1924), a charming foxtrot reflecting a popular dance of its time; Maidens Three (1887-1901), a three-movement suite lightly portraying “The Coquette,” “The Summer Girl” and “The Dancing Girl”; Leaves from My Notebook, a much later suite (1923) dedicated to the Campfire Girls of America; and, in its world première recording, the overture to Chris and the Wonderful Lamp (1899), Sousa’s take on the famous tale of Aladdin. There is much more to Sousa than The Stars and Stripes Forever and the Liberty Bell March, as wonderful as those pieces are – and this excellent series continues to show just how much more there is.

     Naxos’ series of Rossini overtures conducted by Christian Benda will be only four volumes long, but here too there is a considerable amount of highly enjoyable music that goes well beyond the familiar. In the series’ second release, the Prague Sinfonia Orchestra seamlessly mixes some very lighthearted works with some showing Rossini’s much-more-serious side – opening with a highly dramatic rendition of the all-too-familiar but still exceptionally effective overture to Guillaume Tell. The seven other works on this CD range from very familiar concert pieces (La scala di seta, whose scurrying is particularly well handled here, and Il Signor Bruschino) to a series of less-known overtures, including one (Sigismondo) that Rossini dipped into repeatedly for other works in the self-borrowing for which he was famous (or notorious). Rossini’s overtures have often been subject to trivialization because of the formulaic elements that many of them share, such as the “Rossini crescendo” and a sort of bright bubbliness that is not always in keeping with the subject matter of the operas that the works introduced (Rossini did not hesitate to use the same piece to open a comedy and a drama). But what many listeners do not realize, and will appreciate all the more after hearing the works in this Naxos series, is that Rossini had a remarkably short operatic career: it began with La cambiale di matrimonio in 1810 and ended with Guillaume Tell in 1829. That the composer created so much excellent music – a good deal of it quite serious, even tragic – within this time span is a significant accomplishment, and one to which listeners do not always pay sufficient attention. This very well-performed series of Rossini overtures helps put the composer into much clearer focus.

     The latest Naxos CD of the music of Michael Daugherty (born 1954) shows only part of his musical personality, but it is a very intriguing part. Daugherty is a particularly American composer, in the sense that he draws his inspiration repeatedly from events and personalities that are unique to the United States. Some background on the works’ inspiration is helpful in listening to Daugherty’s music, which can be enjoyed as is but does benefit from knowing what he is trying to portray and communicate. Whether this is a strength or weakness is debatable: knowing what the music is about lends extra interest to it, but having the music’s full effect dependent on the story behind it is a disadvantage for listeners who do not take the time to find out what Daugherty intends them to hear. In the case of the three works here, all commissioned by and very well performed by the Pacific Symphony and Carl St. Clair, Mount Rushmore (2010), for chorus and orchestra, pulls readers into its musical story through the sung texts – which are by or about each of the four presidents portrayed on the famous South Dakota monument. But the specific text choices are not as evocative as they could be. Those for Thomas Jefferson, for instance, include not only Jefferson’s explicit comment on music as “the passion of my soul” but also love-letter excerpts that listeners will not comprehend at all without Daugherty’s explanatory notes. The George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt sections of the work mix the presidents’ words with lines from an anthem (Washington) and hymn (Roosevelt); and the Lincoln segment, the work’s last and longest, includes – unsurprisingly – the entire text of the Gettysburg Address, an obvious choice that at this juncture sheds no new light on Lincoln the man or Lincoln the president. Mount Rushmore is a serious and carefully constructed work, but takes a rather foursquare, expected approach to its subject matter, especially where Lincoln is concerned. The Radio City fantasy (2011) is more interesting, its three movements portraying Arturo Toscanini – brilliant conductor and notorious martinet – at work in the New World after fleeing Italian fascism. Cleverly designed to contrast New and Old Worlds and then, at the end, to give an impression of a Toscanini radio broadcast – complete with the breakneck tempos that the conductor favored – this is an effective musical portrayal of an important musical figure. The Gospel According to Sister Aimee (2012) for organ, brass and percussion is even more effective, being as bright, forthright, and in-your-face as was evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (“Sister Aimee”), a huge media star in her time and a revivalist whose life and preaching were so over-the-top that they inspired Sinclair Lewis to write Elmer Gantry. The work’s three movements reflect specific circumstances in McPherson’s life: “Knock Out the Devil!” for her preaching at a boxing match; “An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance” for her notorious staged drowning and disappearance, possibly to meet with a lover in Mexico; and “To the Promised Land” for the end of her life – she overdosed on sleeping pills, apparently accidentally, in 1944. Paul Jacobs’ excellent organ playing pulls together the elements of this suite, whose overall effectiveness as pure music is not significantly diminished even if listeners know little about its subject – although it is certainly enhanced by knowing more about the work’s reason for being.

     Two new Navona releases do try to encapsulate composers’ overall musical stances, and both are successful to a considerable degree – although the music itself is of somewhat variable quality. The works by Jerome David Goodman (born 1933) are generally interesting. His musical language differs from Daugherty’s, but Goodman also produces some pieces whose background it is necessary to know in order to obtain their full effect – such as Montségur Suite, a four-movement exploration of the viciously murderous 13th-century Albigensian Crusade, through which Pope Innocent III arranged the killing of tens of thousands of supposed heretics and the seizure of their property to enrich the Catholic Church. The castle of Montségur, a stronghold of the Cathars who rejected Catholic orthodoxy, was razed in 1244 after the Catholics’ victory; the nine-month siege of the castle is the subject of the suite’s final movement. This work is scored interestingly: it is performed by the New Slovak Wind Quintet and Double Bass, and its unusual instrumentation adds to its effectiveness. None of the other Goodman works here is program music. Three Piano Preludes, played by Ron Dank, are well-constructed and satisfying in their frequent mood changes, if not especially gripping. Saxophone Quartet, performed by the Prism Saxophone Quartet (Timothy McAllister, soprano; Michael Whitcombe, alto; Matthew Levy, tenor; Taimur Sullivan, baritone), is more subtle, its four movements interweaving the sounds of the instruments’ varying registers to good effect. And Goodman’s Violin Concerto, played by Jana Herajnová with the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Válek, is an attractive work in traditional three-movement form, its movement designations (“Vigorous,” “Leisurely,” “Spirited”) very accurately reflecting its pacing and moods.

     The two-CD set of music by Yves Ramette (1921-2012) does not sustain as well and gets a (+++) rating. Ramette’s music draws on multiple influences and absorbs or integrates many of them, but does not sound as if it has a distinctively original point of view or any characteristics that immediately identify it as by this specific composer rather than another schooled in similar French works. The first CD is entirely given over to solo-piano music, performed with sure-handed skill by Eric Himy. The works are sometimes Impressionistic, sometimes written in traditional forms – but pushing their bounds – and generally on the rather mild side despite some passages of considerable technical difficulty. The Variations sur un thème d’Honegger show one of Ramette’s influences; Naïades, Pastels and Fontaines et Cascades are three pieces that give full rein to Ramette’s Impressionistic leanings; Sonate and Humoresque are in more-traditional forms and have some intriguing passages, especially in Sonate, but do not seem ultimately to have a great deal to say. The second CD in this release features Prélude, Fugue et Postlude – another piece with strong traditional roots, performed by Himy with the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Válek – plus two of Ramette’s symphonies. No. 3, played by the same forces but without piano, is a single-movement work built in an arch-like structure that opens and closes with Adagio sections and confines more-active elements to the center. No. 5, “Hymn for Life,” is played by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jan Stulen, and sounds more interesting even though its subject matter is pedestrian: the movements are called “The Struggle,” “Dreams and Visions,” and “Ascent to the Light,” and the music tends to follow that progression in generally predictable ways. Ramette was an effective composer but not a particularly innovative one, and while Navona’s two-CD set does a good job of showing his skills in various forms, it also leads to the conclusion that his music may be better heard in modest doses than in a wide-ranging retrospective.

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