November 07, 2013


Philip Glass: The Perfect American. Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret; Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Real and The Improbable Skills Ensemble conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Opus Arte DVD. $29.99.

Barber: Piano Concerto (1962); Copland: Piano Concerto (1926); Gershwin: Concerto in F (1925). Xiayin Wang, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian. Chandos. $19.99 (SACD).

Daniel Elder: Choral Music. Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller; John Hudson, piano; Mark H. Foster and Jeffrey D. Grubbs, percussion. Westminster Choir College. $16.99.

Superheroes! Cincinnati Pops Orchestra conducted by John Morris Russell; Adam West, narrator. Fanfare Cincinnati. $16.99.

     These days, American contemporary classical music is as much a part of the world music scene as music from anywhere else. But there are still certain composers whose works proclaim the United States to the world at large, and Philip Glass is one of them. Glass has been highly influential with his minimalist approach, which proponents find deeply involving in a nearly hypnotic way and which detractors simply find dull and directionless. There is merit to both sides of this argument, as The Perfect American shows clearly. This is an opera dealing with the last days of Walt Disney. Based on a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk, The Perfect American considers Disney’s visual imagination and its huge contribution to and influence on American culture in the context of Disney’s personal, psychological turmoil during his final illness. Disney (Christopher Purves) does not come off as a very attractive character here, being given to emotional outbursts directed at a talking Abraham Lincoln robot, delusions of immortality through cryogenic preservation, and a preoccupation with a back yard filled with toy trains. Except for some utopian visions, Disney has little that is likable about him, as is shown in his treatment of Austrian cartoonist Wilhelm Dantine (Donald Kaasch), who helped illustrate Sleeping Beauty and worked on other Disney projects in the 1940s and 1950s and who, in the opera, desperately tries to get recognition from Disney. Disney does not treat anyone well – not his wife, Lillian (Marie McLaughlin), nor his mistress, Hazel George (Janis Kelly), nor his children, Sharon (Sarah Tynan) and Diane (Nazan Fikret). Glass makes him neither a particularly deep thinker nor a particularly admirable human being, begging the question of what it was in Disney’s imaginings that inspired so many people and continues to delight millions worldwide today. This well-recorded Opus Arte DVD, from the opera’s first performances in Madrid earlier this year, features interesting but scarcely innovative staging with the usual multimedia elements expected in modern opera. Dennis Russell Davies keeps things moving along nicely, but like the music of Glass, the story seems one-dimensional to an unfortunate degree, its drama forced and its portrayal of Disney lacking not only in warmth but also in a suitable level of gravitas.

     Last century, American music had less of an international character and represented more of a balancing act between the Old World and the New. This comes through clearly in Xiayin Wang’s very fine performances of three 20th-century American piano concertos with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Peter Oundjian. The jazziness and rhythmic bounce of Gershwin’s Concerto in F are well-handled here, and even though Gershwin consciously tried to make this a work of “serious” rather than “popular” music, it comes through again and again as reaching across that divide in a highly appealing way. Copland’s concerto is even more strongly jazz-influenced – like his Music for the Theater, the concerto was explicitly written to celebrate what Copland at the time considered the first genuinely American music. Barber’s much later concerto has a more “European” feel to it, with two intense outer movements (the finale being a modified rondo with heavy use of percussion) enclosing a rather sweetly sad central movement that Barber later transcribed as an elegy for flute and piano. Wang’s playing is international in a modern sense, treating all the music as being part of the world piano repertoire rather than as anything “American.” That is, she does not over-emphasize the jazz elements in Copland and Gershwin, instead simply handling them as integral to these concertos’ structures. The result is that although these are all American concertos, there is nothing particularly “American-sounding” about them, given the reality that jazz influences have long since become international. Fine recorded SACD sound complements the skillful solo and orchestral playing on this Chandos disc, which breaks no new interpretative ground but offers solid readings of three works that succeed quite well when heard in juxtaposition.

     The extent to which American composers are now part of a world music community is clearly apparent in a new release of music by Daniel Elder (born 1986 in Georgia). The 11 works here owe something to the minimalism of Glass without being directly tied to his compositional style. They are intended to evoke a commonality of emotion that links people everywhere, sometimes using traditional religious elements (“O Magnum Mysterium,” “Seven Last Words from the Cross”), sometimes seeing calm through their words as well as their notes (“A Breathing Peace,” “Lullaby”), and sometimes delving into overtly popular tunes to showcase them in new ways (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”). The works are pleasant to hear and not especially challenging to either performers or listeners; the Westminster Choir under Joe Miller presents them all with grace, beauty and understanding. Elder’s use of piano and percussion is modest and controlled, as are the vocal sounds he evokes. He uses the accompaniment as well as the words to convey emotions, treating the instruments as participants in communication rather than simply as supporters of the vocal forces. The result is pleasantly evocative music, especially in the three settings for choir and percussion of poems by the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi.  Elder’s music here plumbs no great depths, but it does put across a sense of the universality of human experience and human response to nature and mystery.

     Evocative in an entirely different way, and playing directly into the common perception around the world of Americans as brash and rather surface-level personalities, is the Cincinnati Pops CD called Superheroes! What could be more American than smashing things, battling bad guys (or trying to), taking revenge on evildoers, and doing it all in blatantly patriotic (or at least primary-color) costumes? John Morris Russell leads the 15 tracks here with all the enthusiasm – and superficiality – that the subject matter merits. “The Captain’s March” and “Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger are here, along with the theme from The Avengers, “The Lonely Man Theme” from The Incredible Hulk, “Superman March” from Superman, and even “To the Rescue! A TV Superhero Theme Medley” with narration by Adam West (who played Batman on television in the 1960s). There is not an iota of great or important music here – and none of it pretends to have any meaning beyond pure entertainment, lighthearted and signifying not much of anything beyond supersized fun and pathos that never even comes close to tragedy (as in the end credits from X-Men: The Last Stand). This sort of music is now made just as often in other countries as in the United States, but the concept of larger-than-life heroes and villains does still seem to have a distinctly American slant to it; so if American music is now largely subsumed within the world community, American sensibilities – for better or worse – retain some of their uniqueness even in the 21st century.

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