June 29, 2017
Ives: A Symphony—New England Holidays; Orchestral Set No. 1—Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set No. 2. Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot. Seattle Symphony Media. $16.99.
Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches. Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $12.99.
Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; Samuel Barber: Symphony No. 1; Samuel Adams: Drift and Providence. National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic conducted by James Ross. Naxos. $12.99.
Battle Creek Transit Authority Live in Concert. Brass Band of Battle Creek conducted by Michael J. Garasi. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Just as there are styles of classical music that are noticeably German, Italian, English or French, there is one that is noticeably American – and there are certain conductors, including Ludovic Morlot and Leonard Slatkin, whose comfort with the American style runs particularly deep. It is not a matter of how well various non-American orchestras play the music – the Melbourne Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis, for one, has shown itself capable of producing extremely idiomatic and well-thought-out Ives recordings. But there is a deep affinity for the underlying “American-ness” of American music at the Seattle Symphony and Detroit Symphony Orchestra that turns the essentially optimistic, broadly conceived and innovative material of composers such as Ives and Copland into music that speaks of America even as it speaks to the entire world. Morlot’s latest Ives recording on the Seattle Symphony’s own label is as good as his previous ones. The large-scale New England Holidays compendium of four movements – which Ives said could be played separately or together as a symphony – comes off especially well here, with Morlot paying close attention to the structure as well as the sound of “Washington’s Birthday,” “Decoration Day,” “The Fourth of July” and “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day.” The contrast between those last two movements – one being a boy’s view of a patriotic celebration in the midst of which the boy seems, through the music, to become aware of the sacrifices underlying Independence Day joy, the other being a distinctly adult and solemnly spiritual tribute to America’s Puritan heritage – comes off especially well. Three Places in New England is also filled with contrasts, among the three movements and within each of them, and Morlot brings those out to fine effect. Ives’ music, for all its rhythmic, tonal and harmonic complexity, often follows a rather simple structure of fast-slow-fast or slow-fast-slow, sometimes using that structure within a movement and then using it on a larger scale for an entire work. Morlot clearly understands this, and by focusing on the pacing of the sections and individual movements, he produces a recording of strong contrasts but with underlying solidity – an appropriate metaphor, as it happens, for Ives’ own view of a complex but foundationally solid turn-of-the-20th-century America. Orchestral Set No. 2 also is contrast-filled, its opening movement, “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” going to much the same place as the finale of New England Holidays without sounding anything like Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day. The most affecting movement of Orchestral Set No. 2 is its finale, in which Ives quite amazingly recaptures a spontaneous outpouring of patriotism and grief that he witnessed and heard after the Lusitania was sunk in 1915. Ives was a brilliant scene-painter for whom reality transferred to music with unusual clarity – hence the chaos, sometimes real but more often only apparent, of so much of his music. Morlot and the Seattle players get the sound and worldview of Ives just right, and the results are exhilarating.
Slatkin takes a more-considered, rather cool approach to Copland’s Symphony No. 3 on a new Naxos CD, showing this as a work both distinctively American and well aware of European symphonic traditions. Written in 1946, by which time Ives had essentially retired from composing for 20 years, Copland’s symphony sounds more conventional than Ives’ music but shares with it the sense of triumph attained only through sacrifice and difficulty. The symphony is famous for the way its finale begins with Fanfare for the Common Man, but there is a great deal more to the work than that. The expressiveness here tends to be straightforward and even surface-level – in fact, part of the tempo indication for the first movement is “with simple expression” – but the feelings beneath the music are anything but shallow. Copland said this symphony reflected the nation’s euphoria at the end of World War II, but it is a euphoria tempered by the knowledge of years of pain and hardship, just as surely in its way as Ives’ view of seriousness beneath the celebration of “The Fourth of July” is in its different circumstances. Slatkin conducts the symphony with a sure sense of pacing and strong feeling for the work’s rhythms and orchestral balance. He brings a fine sense of rhythm to Three Latin American Sketches, too. Written much later than the symphony, in 1971 (although parts were composed earlier than that), these three short pieces really are surface-level tributes to a part of the world to which Copland felt a strong attraction. They are essentially encores, the three of them collected into a colorful 10-minute suite whose bounce and verve provide considerable contrast to the seriousness and strength of Copland’s Third Symphony.
A certain level of simplicity does seem to underlie much American music, even when someone like Ives takes that simplicity and, by layering it onto other simplicity, produces works that are extremely complex. Symphony No. 2 by Randall Thompson (1899-1984) is a good example of a work whose forthright, direct expression carries none of the overtones of seriousness of Copland’s Third or much of the music of Ives. Bright orchestral colors and a certain charming naïveté – another frequent characteristic of American music – pervade this work, whose first movement mixes strength with playfulness and whose second is sentimental and sounds as if it would go well with a rather syrupy film of its time (1931). Thompson is best known for his choral music, but his second symphony (he wrote three of them) shows him quite capable in purely orchestral guise, even if the work is a trifle too, well, trifling to make a lasting impression. The National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic under James Ross plays the symphony quite well, never seeking profundity that is just not there. The orchestra also does a fine job with Symphony No. 1 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), a work of roughly the same time (1936). Barber consciously modeled this youthful work on Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 (1924), making it a single-movement symphony that nevertheless has distinct sections roughly corresponding to separate movements. This is a well-made work in which Barber clearly shows his understanding of and capability in traditional symphonic form, but it is a work lacking any really distinctive character. There is something formulaic about the three-theme opening section, which becomes the basis for the whole work, just as there is about the short passacaglia toward the symphony’s end and the way in which the final portion becomes, in effect, a recapitulation of the entire piece. One characteristic often attributed to Americans is superficiality, and this symphony seems to partake of surface-level music-making even though it is quite well-crafted and nicely orchestrated. Americans are also sometimes accused of being gimmick-prone, and that accusation could be leveled at the final work on this (+++) CD, Drift and Providence (2012) by Samuel Adams (born 1985). Adams here seeks thoroughly contemporary oceanic sound-painting along the lines of what Debussy did in La Mer back in 1905. But because it is intended to be up-to-date, Adams’ work relies heavily on electronics, provided by Adams himself for this recording. The piece is basically a 21st-century five-movement sonic suite, incorporating electronic elements but not being fully electronic. There is some reasonably effective tone-painting here, but there is also quite a lot that is obvious – another characteristic sometimes attributed to American music, and to Americans. The piece is not unlikable, but neither is it memorable – there is simply not very much to it.
Nor is there very much to the music heard on a new MSR Classics release called Battle Creek Transit Authority Live in Concert. The 13 pieces on this disc never aspire to profundity. They are simply enjoyable forays into sound by the Brass Band of Battle Creek, which here brings considerable technical prowess to play in the service of music that, it must be said, is not especially noteworthy. Michael J. Garasi leads everything with enthusiasm, whether offering swing, show tunes, pop or dance music, marches or even a touch of the Dixieland sound. The pieces heard here range in length from a minute and a half to nine minutes, so they give the band ample chances to showcase its ability to toss out a bit of flashiness or, alternatively, to present a somewhat mellower, more-meditative mood. There is plenty of energy in evidence, and the band’s overall sound is a fine and well-balanced one, very much in the tradition of that most American of all bands, John Philip Sousa’s. But the music itself is just not very interesting: “Jamaica Farewell,” “Children of Sanchez,” “Make Me Smile,” “If You Leave Me Now,” and so forth. The Brass Band of Battle Creek is certainly capable of playing some more-complex material, including, for example, some of Sousa’s own compositions. A stronger mixture of tunes would have given this (+++) disc greater staying power. As it is, the recording is a fine example of the skill of these Michigan players and will be a treat for band fanciers who may be unfamiliar with this particular ensemble. But the specific works here are not involving enough to repay multiple hearings – except for listeners whose primary interest is the very fine sound of this band rather than the specific works through which that sound is demonstrated.