June 25, 2020
Zdeněk Fibich: Orchestral Works, Volume 5—Symphony No. 3; Šarka—Overture; Bouře (The Tempest)—Act III Overture; Nevěsta messinská (The Bride of Messina)—Act III Funeral March. Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Marek Štilec. Naxos. $11.99.
Music for Cello and Piano by Composers of African Descent. Duo Dolce (Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun, cello; Phoenix Park-Kim, piano). MSR Classics. $12.95.
Although it is certainly possible to listen to the music of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov because it is deeply Russian, to that of Ives or Copland because it is deeply American, or to that of Dvořák or Smetana or Janáček because it is deeply Czech, it is fair to say that this is not the primary reason most people hear and enjoy these composers’ works. Instead, it is because their creations partake of their respective cultures while also transcending them that the works reach out to a wide audience rather than one listening out of a sense of obligatory patriotism or social/political “correctness” of some sort. Even composers who draw deeply on their heritage without being quite as brilliant in turning it into something with wider appeal may create works that effectively incorporate national (or nationalistic) material into pieces that listeners can enjoy, and that can evoke audiences’ emotions, without requiring people to be deeply “in tune” with the music’s roots. This is the situation with Zdeněk Fibich (1850-1900), the fifth volume of whose orchestral music has finally been released by Naxos after a five-and-a-half-year gap since the prior release. This concluding CD, which features top-notch and highly idiomatic playing by the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava conducted by Marek Štilec, offers a particularly interesting mixture of material that is redolent of Czech atmosphere and music that pays homage to its ethnic roots but goes well beyond them. Fibich’s third and final symphony has some strongly Czech elements, notably in its third movement (which is just the sort of Scherzo in which Dvořák also brought folklike material to the fore); but its overall impression is only incidentally one of Czech music. Instead, it comes across as a thoughtful and dark work (its home key is E minor) that claws its way somewhat laboriously to a positive resolution. Almost unrelieved intensity, starting with a movement labeled Allegro inquieto, is the chief characteristic here – there is not even a broad or expansive slow movement to relieve the headlong forward motion. Even the start of the Allegro maestoso finale retains the pervasive sense of gloom – but eventually, brighter (and definitely Czech-inflected) material pushes through, somewhat effortfully, and a struggle with the more portentous elements ensues. Brass chords closely resembling those bridging the last two movement of Smetana’s Má Vlast herald a conclusion in which positivity finally wins through to a triumphal major-key resolution.
The remaining works on the disc, all from operas, partake of Czech culture to varying degrees. Šarka is based on the same legend that inspired the third movement of Smetana’s Má Vlast, and this is definitely a folktale of Fibich’s and Smetana’s homeland. But Fibich, to a greater extent than Smetana, does his scene-setting on a broad canvas, emphasizing the tragic elements of the story in grand fashion and only introducing a degree of local coloration in the slower part of the overture, prior to its emphatically dark conclusion. Bouře (The Tempest) draws on an English source – Shakespeare’s play – and the overture to the third act conveys a suitable scene of sylvan placidity and overall gentleness, albeit with a few gestures, especially in the lower winds and strings, that could well be indicative of the strange supernatural beings found on Prospero’s island. The source for The Bride of Messina is German – the play is by Friedrich Schiller – and this is a somewhat overdone tragedy, redolent of revelations in the style of ancient Greek tragic plays. The plot involves two brothers who fall in love with the same woman, who turns out to be their long-lost sister – a revelation that results in both brothers’ death and fulfillment of a prophecy that their sister would be fatal to them both. There is nothing particularly Czech in the story or in Fibich’s handling of it, with the funeral march from the opera’s third act simply functioning as a highly effective mood-enhancer within a tale that is melodramatic in the extreme. Fibich’s music on this disc, and the four prior ones in this series, is very well-crafted, quite aptly structured for its various purposes, and amply flavored with Czech nationalism and feelings – without, however, ever sounding like mere patriotic assertion or a pure affirmation of the individuality of the Czech nation within what was, in Fibich’s time, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Assertion of provenance is, however, the point of a new (+++) MSR Classics CD featuring works by seven African-descended composers from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The dozen works here are of varying quality and varying levels of interest, but the disc’s focus seems to be less on the music than on the background of the composers – as if they deserve to be heard because of where they come from (or where their ancestors came from), not because of the music’s quality. This is unfortunate, since it implies that the music cannot stand worthily on its own. But it can – some of it, anyway. Four of the composers represented here are still living: Richard Thompson (born 1960), Adolphus Hailstork (born 1941), John Wineglass (born 1972), and Michael Abels (born 1962). The other three flourished in the 20th century, although one was born in the 19th: William Grant Still (1895-1978). Of the remaining two, Howard Swanson lived from 1907 to 1978, and Moses Hogan from 1957 to 2003. The CD is not presented chronologically, and while some of the works were written for cello and piano, others are arrangements; again, they appear in no particular order. Presumably Kristen Yeon-Ji Yun and Phoenix Park-Kim simply thought these pieces, in this sequence, would make a pleasing recital. The disc opens with two atmospheric works by Still, Summerland and Mother and Child, both of them slow-paced and moody. Next is Swanson’s four-movement Suite for Cello and Piano, the longest piece on the CD – and one whose mood cleaves rather closely to that of the two Still character pieces, although Swanson’s second movement, “Pantomime,” has a bit more brightness to it. Thompson’s Preludes Nos. 1 and 5 are for solo piano. No. 1 continues in the same vein already established on the disc, of mid-tempo, mostly quiet, mildly emotional music; No. 5 is somewhat more varied in mood and covers a bit more ground even though, at only two minutes, it is quite short. The next work here is Hailstork’s Theme and Variations on “Draw the Sacred Circle Closer,” a solo-cello piece whose African roots are clear from its title – but one whose structure and development are far more European than African, with Hailstork showing considerable command of the variation form and a fine ability to write cello music that lies well on the instrument and communicates effectively. This is followed by Wineglass’s Piano Suite No. 2, “Times of Solitude,” whose three movements are the slow and melancholy “A Midsummer Waltz,” the slow and atmospheric “The Journey,” and the slow and delicate “Distant Memories” – there are nice piano touches throughout, but the generally plodding pacing makes the work seem longer than its 10½ minutes. This is followed by four Hogan arrangements, for cello and piano, of spirituals: “Deep River,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Give Me Jesus,” and “Were You There.” The music is performed with considerable feeling, and the warmth of the cello comes through very well, but by now, listeners may well have tired of the unremittingly slow-to-moderate pace of nearly all the works on the CD. The last piece on the disc, an arrangement of Abels’ Chris and Rose (the love theme from a film called Get Out), is more of the same: a fine opportunity for the performers to bring forth emotion (rather surface-level emotion in this specific case), but once again at a pace that implies there is never anything upbeat, bright, quick or light in music by composers with roots in Africa. In reality, that notion is nonsense: it is simply that the performers’ choice of these works by these composers leads to a recording that offers what is essentially 77 minutes of a single mood. Casting a wider net among the works of these composers, or including pieces by entirely different ones, would give a much better picture of the musical thinking of composers of African descent – and a much stronger reason to listen to this disc than the composers’ ethnicity and ancestry.
Aaron Jay Kernis: Color Wheel; Symphony No. 4, “Chromelodeon.” Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. Naxos. $11.99.
Sunny Knable: Song of the Redwood-Tree; Tango Boogie; Double Reed; The Busking Bassoonist. Scott Pool, bassoon; Natsuki Fukasawa, piano; Stefanie Izzo, soprano; Xelana Duo (Ana García, alto saxophone; Alex Davis, bassoon); Gina Cuffari, soprano and bassoon; Sunny Knable, accordion. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Whether composed for a large complement of instruments or a small one, 21st-century classical music has developed its own kind of sound, one in which tonal and atonal, consonant and dissonant, strident and lyrical elements mix and intermingle with apparent abandon. Different composers’ works come across quite differently, of course, but there is a pervasive overall willingness to combine disparate characteristics and techniques of classical music – and jazz, non-Western and other musical forms – for the sake of creating a kind of polyglot aural experience. This plays out in distinct ways depending on each composer’s sound-palette preference. A new Naxos recording of music by Aaron Jay Kernis (born 1960) offers two orchestral works whose titles relate them directly to color, and whose approach focuses on displaying both the massed sounds of a full orchestra and the comparative delicacy of individual sections and, at times, individual instruments. Color Wheel (2001) is a raucous and generally dissonant set of exclamations given in conjunction with periodic episodes of more-moderate expression. It is an orchestral showpiece, and at 22½ minutes a somewhat overextended but often very intriguing one. Giancarlo Guerrero has plenty of chances here to showcase the individual and collective strength of the Nashville Symphony, whose players balance exuberance with episodes of careful attentiveness to sections of the score that exhibit a degree of delicacy. Orchestra and conductor are equally adept with the three-movement Symphony No. 4, “Chromelodeon,” written in 2018 and bearing only a superficial resemblance to anything traditionally symphonic. It does have three movements, but the music and the movements’ titles combine to make the work seem a half-hour tone poem rather than a symphony in recognizable form. The first movement rises, as its title indicates, Out of Silence, and here Kernis uses exclamations from individual instruments and small groups to build to a larger sound. The second movement is oddly and rather puzzlingly titled Thorn Rose | Weep Freedom (after Handel): certainly it is thorny enough in its dissonant denseness, and its overall somber mood comes through effectively, but any resemblance to Handel is so coincidental as to be thoroughly irrelevant. The work’s third and shortest movement, Fanfare Chromelodia, is its most accessible and structurally clearest, being built from and around a fanfare-like theme that somewhat recalls Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Listeners to this recording of two world premières are left at the disc’s end with a sense of having completed an extended melodic and rhythmic journey through some generally craggy environs.
The four chamber pieces by Sonny Knable (born 1983) on a new MSR Classics CD are also all world premières, with the emphasis here being on eliciting varying moods and experiences from modest, chamber-size instrumental groups. The bassoon is the anchor instrument throughout, even in the two works featuring vocals. Song of the Redwood-Tree (2012) is based on poetry by Walt Whitman: it opens soulfully with “A California Song,” continues with a distinct boogie-woogie rhythm for “Death-Chant,” and concludes in “Golden Pageant” with a rather uneasy mixture of the lyrical and passionate with the acerbic. The totality does not seem particularly Whitman-esque, but the cycle certainly explores multiple moods. Double Reed (2014) is based on To the World’s Bassoonists by Charles Wyatt and is written for soprano, bassoon and accordion – a striking and rather weird-sounding combination that produces surprising aural experiences in all three movements: “Noble Bassoon,” “Tragic Bassoon,” and “Impossible Bassoon.” The first movement is rather declamatory; the second is rather more whiny than tragic; and the third is rather pretentious (“it may be a new dawn will come”). But from the standpoint of sheer sound, the song cycle is interesting to hear. The other works here are instrumental. Tango Boogie (2017) is bright and upbeat, and the blend of alto saxophone and bassoon proves a surprisingly effective one. The work is clever, bouncy, and lies well on both instruments. The Busking Bassoonist (2013), in three movements called “Underground Blues,” “Park Bench Ballad,” and “Street Changes,” is notable for the way it explores the bassoon’s full compass both in terms of notes and as regards emotions. The first movement growls as well as sings, the piano insinuating itself into the bassoon’s lines here and there; the second movement has the bassoon sounding much like the accordion in Double Reed; and the finale features jazzlike riffs and considerable verve – as well as the only elements on this CD in which the bassoon’s often-heard propensity for humor is exploited to any significant degree. All the performers approach the works with enthusiasm (including the composer on accordion), and the CD as a whole does a fine job of exploring contemporary musical thinking not only about the sound of the bassoon but also about the way this instrument fits surprisingly effectively into several non-traditional, unusual and frequently very interesting-sounding chamber groupings.
June 18, 2020
Couperin: Suites (Ordres) Nos. 6, 7 and 8 for Harpsichord. Jory Vinikour, harpsichord. Cedille. $16.
Caroline Shaw: Is a Rose; The Listeners. Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano; Avery Amereau, contralto; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Philharmonia Baroque Productions. $20.
Cedille has put forward a clear two-word answer to the ongoing question of whether Baroque keyboard music is best played on the instruments for which it was written or is equally worthwhile when heard on a modern piano. The answer is: Jory Vinikour. The excellence of Vinikour’s performance of three of the 27 harpsichord suites by François Couperin “le Grand,” the alternating episodes of splendor and intimacy, the unerring connection between performer and instrument and, thus, between performer-plus-instrument and audience, all make this release into unarguable proof that this music should be heard as it was intended to be heard, and played on the instrument for which it was created. “Unarguable” or not, of course this excellent CD will not lay to rest the long-running, well, argument about Baroque music, which nowadays is often designated as being “for keyboard” to avoid the uncomfortable (to some) reality that it is no more “for keyboard” than, say, Brahms’ piano concertos are “for keyboard.” Leaving aside this continuing dispute – for this is scarcely an argumentative release: it is simply a tremendously convincing one – there is no question about the excellence of Vinikour’s playing and his understanding of Couperin (1668-1733) and the French style of his suites (which Couperin called ordres). These works were published in volumes dated 1713, 1717, 1722 and 1730, with the sixth, seventh and eight leading off the second book. It is a shame that even many people who enjoy Baroque harpsichord music are less familiar with Couperin than with Bach: indeed, Couperin’s name is best-known to some listeners through Ravel’s piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), which uses the movements of a Baroque suite to pay tribute to friends of Ravel who had died during World War I. Couperin’s own music really deserves to be better-known, not only for its inherent excellence but also for its fascinating approach to the concept of a suite. Couperin does adhere to the basic idea of a sequence of dance movements, but he does not open any of his suites with an “Overture” and does not confine the works’ movements to dance forms for their own sake. Instead, he intersperses dances with character pieces that are cleverly conceived and delightfully reflective of their titles. The eight-movement sixth suite, for example, includes Le Gazouillement, which translates as “twitter” and features very considerable ornamentation whose reflection of birdsong is apparent. And that suite concludes with Le Moucheron, “the gnat,” whose irregular rhythm delightfully reflects an annoying little flying insect. The seventh suite, also in eight movements, includes four movements called Les Petits Ages (“the little ages”) that start with La Muse Naissante (“birth of the muse”), continue with L’Enfantine (“the child”) and L’Adolescente (“the adolescent”), then move on to Les Délices (“delicacies”). These are beautifully contrasted movements that invite listeners to imagine their titles’ connections to the music in addition to inviting the harpsichordist to decide how best to color the music so as to bring out each piece’s unique approach. The eighth suite contains 10 movements and, unlike the sixth and seventh, often (although not always) simply gives dance titles to each piece – Courante, Gavotte, Rondeau, Gigue, etc. But Couperin has his own, French-accented way of handling these forms that differs substantially from that of Bach and other German composers. The two Courantes, for example, are so strongly contrasted in mood and ornamentation that they scarcely seem to be the same underlying dance. And the Sarabande l’Unique does have an unusual (if not really unique) approach to the dance’s characteristic warmth and slow pacing. Vinikour’s exceptional performances fully plumb the intricacies of the wonderful miniatures that make up these suites, bringing forth emotions that clearly vary from the bright and happy to the inward-looking and darker – all with a comprehensive understanding of period style and an elegance of presentation that brings forth additional nuances on each hearing. This disc may not lay to rest all controversies about instrumental appropriateness for Baroque keyboard works – but it is hard to imagine wanting to hear these Couperin suites on anything but a harpsichord after listening to the way Vinikour makes it clear how intimately the music’s communicative potential is bound up with its performance on the instrument for which it was created.
One of the many pleasant elements of the Vinikour release is that it does not “celebrity-ize” the performer: as good as Vinikour is, he stays focused on the music, not on display for its own sake; and Cedille’s packaging also makes it clear that this recording is far more about Couperin than it is about someone interpreting Couperin’s music. Matters are quite different, rather surprisingly so, on a (+++) new recording from the excellent Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, on its own label. This features Baroque and post-Baroque music rethought, reconsidered, and in some senses (although not that of piano-vs.-harpsichord) brought “up to date.” The release bears the title “PBO & Caroline Shaw,” which is displayed on both the front and the back, and a would-be purchaser would search in vain on either of those sides for exactly what is performed here: neither of the actual pieces by Shaw is even mentioned on the packaging. There are, however, four photos of “stars” of the recording, including Shaw – attention is demonstrably being given to the people involved in the production more than to the music. And that is a shame, since the music has much to recommend it. The concept is intriguing: PBO, an original-instrument orchestra, collaborated with Shaw for the creation of contemporary music that is designed for PBO instruments and takes advantage of their sonorities and the particular quirks involved in playing them. Thus we get Is a Rose, a three-song cycle written for and sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, which includes poetry from both the 18th century and the 21st. The attempted interconnection is obvious; how well it works is a matter of opinion. Certainly Shaw, herself a professional vocalist (and violinist), knows what she wants from the mezzo-soprano voice and the instruments accompanying it. And certainly she knows where to go to get what she seeks: The Edge (2017) uses words by contemporary poet Jacob Polley (born 1975), while And So (2019) uses Shaw’s own words, and Red Red Rose (2016) uses Robert Burns’ famous Scottish verse from the 18th century while treating it in a distinctly (although not always distinctively) modern way. The writing for orchestra is assured, and the vocals show a clear understanding of effective use of the voice. But the work is underwhelming: its expressiveness is more gestural than heartfelt, its concerns rather sophomoric (“will we still sing of roses?”), and its preoccupation seems more with words as building blocks than with them as communicators of meaning. In these respects it shares some of the characteristics of The Listeners, a longer and more-elaborate work – for soloists, chorus and orchestra – that Shaw deems an oratorio. It is loosely based on – or, more accurately, reactive to – the continuing journey through outer space of the Voyager spacecraft that were launched in 1977 and that carry recordings of music and words (plus photographs) intended to be used in any potential alien encounter to explain about Earth. Shaw put together her own libretto for The Listeners, whose opening and closing focus on the Spanish word brillas (“you shine,” although why Spanish is used is not clear, since the work is otherwise in English). Shaw certainly knows her musical techniques: vocalise, choral and solo presentations, sinfonia, minimalism, chromaticism, ornamentation, and even some straightforward narration find their way into The Listeners. The poetry of Walt Whitman is juxtaposed with that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson – and that of William Drummond (1585-1649) and Yesenia Montilla (a 21st-century poet who does not reveal her birth year, which is around 1988). A snippet of commentary by Carl Sagan pops in at one point and actually provides some respite from the broad but rather unfocused material that has preceded it. The instrumental sinfonia, placed next-to-last in the 10 movements, seems intended, along with the concluding epilogue, to pull listeners outward into space alongside the voyaging Voyagers. But it is all so contrived, scaled so cleverly but with so little sense of emotional commitment – much less a sense of wonder – that the entire oratorio is far less evocative of a mystical-and-hopeful outward journey than, say, “Neptune” from Holst’s The Planets (1914-16). The performances, vocal and instrumental, are first-rate, and listeners who find the basic idea of 21st-century creativity brought to bear on instruments designed for the 17th and 18th will surely be intrigued by Shaw’s work in both The Listeners and Is a Rose. But the focus of both pieces does seem to be more on Shaw herself, and the performers putting across her ideation, than on any sort of musical experience: this is material that is intellectually exciting but emotionally unconvincing. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has elsewhere shown its creativity again and again when performing works of the past. For these works of the present, it takes something of a back seat in presenting pieces that seem to be thought experiments rather than emotive expressions taking advantage of the PBO’s special capabilities.
David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe: Singing in the Dead of Night. Eighth Blackbird (Lisa Kaplan, piano; Yvonne Lam, violin; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Nathalie Joachim, flute; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinet; Matthew Duvall, percussion). Cedille. $16.
There is an abyssal divide between contemporary music that is totally integrated into a stage performance and the same music when heard without visuals. Certainly stage works of earlier times can be listened to without staging and still be effective: concert performances of operas are a longstanding tradition, as is the singing of excerpts from them. But opera is a merger of multiple effects: Franco Zeffirelli once memorably called it “a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts.” Contemporary musical stagings, especially those that are avant-garde by design, are a different matter: music often seems not to be their main point, which means that absent the visual material, the sounds come across as a somewhat pale and diminished part of a larger whole rather than as effective elements in themselves.
The new Cedille release of Singing in the Dead of Night is thus more of a take-home piece of memorabilia for listeners who have seen the production as a totality than it is a satisfying experience on a purely musical basis. It is important to have the right mindset for the whole thing – to know, for example, that Eighth Blackbird is a six-person ensemble, not an eight-person one, because its name was taken from the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Such esoterica may not be absolutely integral to audience enjoyment of what Eighth Blackbird does, but the extra-musical matters do help clarify the ensemble’s thinking and intent – the Stevens stanza refers to “noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms.”
Some such accents, some such rhythms, may be found in Singing in the Dead of Night, which is framed by a three-movement piece by David Lang that is not performed as three sequential movements – instead, the first movement is followed by a work by Michael Gordon, then the second Lang movement, then a piece by Julia Wolfe, then Lang’s conclusion. The reasoning behind this is a bit obscure, but remember that this is avowedly avant-garde material, and the entirety of the piece, or pieces, was created for this ensemble (in 2008). Oh – it also helps a good deal to know that each of the three works is named from the lyrics from Paul McCartney’s Beatles song, Blackbird. The three Lang movements are these broken wings, the Gordon work is the light of the dark, and the Wolfe piece is singing in the dead of night, the title for the overall assemblage.
If you do not know McCartney’s lyrics, if you do not know the relationship between his Blackbird song and the Eighth Blackbird ensemble and the Wallace Stevens connection and all the other elements that are foundational to this material, you will miss out on a great deal of the resonance (not musical but, if you will, editorial) of this world première recording. And that is not unusual in avant-garde productions, which so often speak to an “in” crowd that “gets” all the references and comments and connections and has little interest in “outsiders” who are insufficiently knowledgeable to make sense of everything.
In this particular case, “everything” would also include the elaborate staging elements that are de rigueur when it comes to Singing in the Dead of Night. This is a choreographed work using sound, lighting, costuming, and various vague but very with-it instructions, such as one from Lang telling the performers to “drop things.” Movement is supposed to be integral to the music, not an addition to it – which means that in the absence of visuals, listeners are exposed to a pale shadow of what this performance is supposed to be. The performers’ motions and actions are intended to be expressive but certainly not balletic – although it may be worth pointing out that many ballets are less than enthralling as pure listening experiences without their visuals: Tchaikovsky’s are the exception, not the rule.
There is nothing particularly “wrong” with hearing this music on its own, and the music itself has some interesting elements. Lang’s second movement, designated a passacaille, has a sense of drooping, of falling, of ongoing descent, that contrasts well with the much brighter near-ostinato rhythmic approach of his finale. Gordon’s piece is full of effects that are dear to contemporary composers, such as pushing the cello far past its usual tonal warmth into stridency and producing percussive bangs and crashes at unpredictable intervals. Wolf’s work, which runs an overextended 19 minutes and is by far the longest element of this offering, has its share of eeriness and oddity, all in the service of often-nightmarish electronic as well as acoustic effects, but seems to make its “dead of night” point far too many times. All the music is composed with skill, and all of it is played with enthusiasm that flows from a belief system in which this type of material is what contemporary music-making is all about, or should be. It is all very earnest despite having some lighter moments that presumably would correlate with visuals if any were present. Fans of everything avant-garde will welcome this CD, and audience members who already know the music in its visual context will enjoy using the disc as a recollection. But Lang, Gordon, Wolfe and Eighth Blackbird do not reach out with this disc in any sort of audience-building way – appearing to prefer the musical equivalent of “preaching to the choir,” just as so many other 21st-century musicians do.
June 11, 2020
The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century—including works by Beethoven, Varèse, Johannes Maria Staud, Richard Strauss, Bernd Richard Deutsch, and Prokofiev. Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Möst; Paul Jacobs, organ. Cleveland Orchestra. $60 (3 SACDs).
An exceptionally handsome presentation in which music, the supposed focus, often takes a back seat to design elements and self-praise, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century consists of a well-designed, photo-packed, 150-page book that sits in a cardboard tray and, when removed, reveals a neat little flap beneath which nestle three recordings of live performances from 2017 through 2019. The whole assemblage fits in an elegantly modern-looking slipcase designed to complement coffee tables and/or bookshelves rather than listeners’ music-storage spaces.
The point of the whole elaborate façade, and of the content within it, is to proclaim a new century for the orchestra (founded in 1918), announce the ensemble’s return to issuing recordings (on its own, all-new label), and lay to rest (for reasons that are not immediately apparent) the longstanding association between The Cleveland Orchestra and its longest-serving conductor, George Szell (1897-1970). Szell led the ensemble from 1946 until his death, turning a fair-to-middling regional American orchestra into a world-class ensemble so good that it brought enormous favorable attention to American classical music-making in general. The fine conductors primarily associated with the orchestra in the three decades after Szell’s death – Louis Lane, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnányi – largely preserved the Szell legacy but never really advanced it, and there was, if anything, some backsliding in the remarkable precision and commitment that Szell elicited from an ensemble that came to sound, under Szell, like a 100-member chamber group.
Franz Welser-Möst came to The Cleveland Orchestra in 2002, and his contract was recently extended to 2027 – which would make him, surely by design, a longer-serving maestro in Cleveland than Szell. The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century appears to exist largely to celebrate both the ensemble’s centenary and its emphatic move beyond the Szell era – a move that is made exceptionally clear through the choice of works included on the CDs within this release. It is also clear in the book, an element that is just as important here as the music: outside a discussion of the history of the acoustics of Severance Hall, the orchestra’s home, and some obviously necessary paragraphs within a mandatory (and 100% public-relations-focused) “Past, Present, and Future” section, Szell gets a couple of brief, suitably complimentary mentions, but only in passing – his era, after all, ended half a century ago. The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century is a tribute to the orchestra as it has been polished and positioned by Welser-Möst, who contributes a significant amount of the written material as well as the podium leadership.
This is a release clearly aimed at supporters and potential supporters, financial and otherwise, of The Cleveland Orchestra in its current incarnation. But for such an elegantly produced and packaged production, it has some strange omissions and outright errors. For example, the book’s narrative discusses the importance that Welser-Möst attaches to opera; and indeed, the inclusion of opera within the orchestra’s concert seasons is one distinctive element of the Welser-Möst era – actually a revival, of sorts, of an approach introduced by Artur Rodzinski in the 1930s. But nothing operatic appears on any of the three included CDs. Also, as usual in a document intended to praise rather than explore or analyze, the book allows statements to stand at face value when they are clearly questionable: Welser-Möst, whose commentary is for the most part both learned and genial, at one point describes the orchestra as a “supreme amalgamation of many parts working effortlessly as one,” a comment that is as much at odds with the enormously effortful requirements of rehearsals and in-performance perfection-seeking as it is possible to be. Elsewhere, he comments on ways in which Beethoven was “like so many composers lucky enough to reach the later stages of life” – but Beethoven died at age 56, living decades longer than Mozart (one example from his time) but not nearly as long as Haydn (another example).
These and other inelegances of expression contribute to a sense that the book appears to have been produced without input from any objective editor. Minor but irritating grammatical mistakes abound. For example: “The people of Cleveland recognized that having an orchestra of their own offered potential, both at home and on the road, for performing great music and by [sic] representing Cleveland throughout the world.” And: “The New York Times has declared Cleveland under Welser-Möst’s direction to be the [sic] ‘America’s most brilliant orchestra…’” Even the book’s table of contents contains embarrassing errors: there is a section correctly listed as starting on page 119, then one incorrectly listed as starting on page 135 (the correct page number is 133), and then one listed as starting on the same page 119 as the previous section (that one actually starts on page 135). So elaborate and costly a production deserved better.
So, for those not especially enamored of this particular orchestra for its own sake, and not necessarily inclined to become donors to it, does the music included here justify the purchase price and invite a potential new audience to The Cleveland Orchestra in the Welser-Möst era? The answer is: it depends. Once again, the intention to move determinedly past the Szell legacy is apparent in the choice of repertoire on display here: there is not one single piece from the more-traditional time periods championed by Szell, and indeed nothing at all in which a Welser-Möst reading could be compared with one by Szell by anybody so inclined. There are two works from the 19th century, two from the 20th, and two from the 21st, but there has apparently been a concerted effort to remain off the beaten path throughout, as if to proclaim in this way, as in others, the orchestra’s new direction.
From the standpoint of performance, though, considerations of the oddity of the repertoire are swept aside: Welser-Möst does an absolutely first-rate job with everything, and listeners looking for less-familiar pieces of all sorts will find a very great deal to enjoy and admire here.
Still, a raised eyebrow or two would be in order. There is a Beethoven work offered, but as part of the assiduous attempt to avoid any cross-comparisons, it is not a work for orchestra: it is his String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132, in a string-orchestra arrangement. This is the quartet in whose extended central movement Beethoven expresses his gratitude to God after recovering from an intestinal ailment. It is a very deeply felt work that uses the quartet form, and in particular the careful relationship among the four instruments, in some altogether new ways. Does it “work” when played by a larger string complement? Well, yes, in the sense that the added instruments broaden and deepen the sound of the music (inevitable when double basses are included); and in the further sense that The Cleveland Orchestra’s strings are one of the orchestra’s most-impressive-sounding sections, along with the ensemble’s woodwinds. But does the arrangement serve any particular communicative or emotive purpose? Well, no: if anything, it distracts from the intimacy of what Beethoven communicates here. The result is an interesting experiment that ultimately says more about Welser-Möst and his thinking than it does about Beethoven.
The other 19th-century work here is by Richard Strauss, whose opulence and grandeur would seem ideal for putting a high-quality orchestra through its paces. But Welser-Möst here chooses to present none of the better-known tone poems: he opts for Aus Italien, which is Strauss’ Op.16 and was written when the composer was 22. This four-section work is uneven, does not yet display many of the characteristics of Strauss’ more-mature (and better-organized) tone poems, and – except for some lovely horn material in the first movement – does not come through with nearly as much individuality as do the composer’s later endeavors. Is it worth hearing from time to time? Absolutely. Will listeners who know Strauss enjoy a well-played version of this early piece? Again, absolutely. But using this as the work with which to help showcase the “new century” of The Cleveland Orchestra is another rather odd decision.
When it comes to the 20th-century pieces here, the choices – both from the 1920s – are again a bit strange. Edgard Varèse’s Amériques (1921) seems nowhere near as explosive today as it used to – although it is still one heck of a showcase for percussion, which turns out to be another outstanding section of The Cleveland Orchestra. Amériques seems mostly a work of its time, of an age of industrialization and immigration and crowding and endless mechanical susurrations. Welser-Möst leads the piece with enthusiasm, emphasizing its many contrasts and certainly not holding back when it comes to the notorious use of a siren; it is a fine performance. And Welser-Möst is equally enthusiastic in presenting the other 20th-century offering, a Prokofiev symphony. But this is another very odd choice: it is not the well-known “Classical,” or either of the great symphonies (Nos. 5 and 6), or even the restrained and melancholic No. 7; nor is it the peculiar and oddly compelling No. 2, which dates to 1925 and shares many sensibilities with Amériques. No, Welser-Möst selects Symphony No. 3, which dates to 1928-29 and consists of material from the unsuccessful opera The Fiery Angel, whose first full performance occurred only in 1954, the year after the composer’s death. This is the closest thing listeners get in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century to something operatic, but there is actually little that is in any way opera-like in the symphony – themes from the stage are used very differently for the symphonic work. Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 3 is rarely heard in concert; listeners are most likely to own it as part of a complete cycle of the composer’s eight symphonic works (including the two very different versions of Symphony No. 4). It is, in fact, an underrated work that, when well-performed, has considerable power. And it is certainly well-performed here: Welser-Möst handles the complex and frequently rather noisy score sure-handedly and effectively. The Cleveland Orchestra’s excellent woodwinds, in particular, are standouts, and the strings are excellent in the pervasive eerie passages of the third movement. Yet as a whole, although this is a reading that is interesting and convincing, it is not one that is likely to leave anyone thinking that this work, despite its intriguing elements, is on the same level as the best of Prokofiev’s later, more-cohesive symphonies. It shows a different side of Prokofiev from those more typically heard, which may well have been Welser-Möst’s reason for programming it; but whether that is a sufficient rationale for including it in this particular package is at best arguable.
And that brings us to the two 21st-century pieces included in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, both of them world première recordings – and both of them offering good reasons for listeners to consider acquiring this release, despite its peculiarities and imperfections. Dating to 2016, Stromab (Downstream) by Johannes Maria Staud (born 1974) is not-quite-program music inspired by a specific program. Staud wrote it in response to Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 novella, The Willows, a tale that horror master H.P. Lovecraft placed at the top of both the lists he made of his favorite weird tales. Like many contemporary works for orchestra, Stromab calls for a very large orchestra and an enormous percussion section (needing four percussionists, which seems a lot except when compared with the number needed for Amériques: nine!) that includes cowbells and sleigh bells and tubular bells, nine gongs, four bongos, two conga drums, and much more. Staud uses the orchestra skillfully, creating a work whose meaning seems always just out of sight (thus reflecting the experiences of the characters in The Willows). The piece is unsettling rather than overtly frightening (again reflecting its source material) and is always anticipatory – from an opening that sounds a bit like that of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, through sections in which the orchestra emulates mystifying and possibly malevolent sounds, into segments that partake of minimalism but also feature sudden sonic eruptions. The work is largely and rather surprisingly tonal, certainly featuring plenty of dissonance but always bringing listeners to a grounding in consonance – it is no stretch to hear this as a contrast between the mundane world and something stranger, more evanescent and ultimately inexplicable, a stance that fits Blackwood’s ethos perfectly. Stromab is essentially a one-movement, 20-minute concerto for orchestra, and that is how Welser-Möst handles it: as a display piece, yes, and a showcase for the strength of the orchestra’s sections and the individual performers within them, but also as an opportunity to show the subtlety with which today’s Cleveland Orchestra can play a work of considerable rhythmic, harmonic and communicative complexity.
And then there is a piece that shows an entirely different side of The Cleveland Orchestra and, in the process, highlights an otherwise little-known element of its history through the performance of an outstanding soloist. The work, which dates to 2014-15, is Okeanos: Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, by Bernd Richard Deutsch (born 1977). And here Welser-Möst gets to show his approach to an element of conducting that many orchestra directors dislike or at best tolerate: accompanying a soloist and often playing second fiddle (sometimes literally) to the featured virtuoso. Much of the discussion of Okeanos in the book around which The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century is built centers on the Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellows program – Deutsch is currently serving in it, and Staud was in the program from 2007-2009 – and on the 1930-31 organ built for Severance Hall by Ernest M. Skinner, a famed Boston organ builder of the early 20th century. Remarkably – in light of the quality of the organ – the instrument essentially disappeared from Cleveland Orchestra use for 40 years, because of modifications to Severance Hall that significantly enhanced orchestral acoustics while seriously compromising those of the organ. This little-known story, told in the book (unsurprisingly) in a way that downplays the detrimental effects of the long neglect and builds to the reintroduction of the organ in 2001, after its restoration, becomes part and parcel of the story of Okeanos.
But it is Paul Jacobs who really tells that story – indeed, the story both of the work and of the organ on which he plays it. Jacobs is a remarkable organist, whose technical skill is wedded to profound musical understanding, whose comprehension of Bach is as impressive as his commitment to and elucidation of the works of contemporary composers. Okeanos gives him – and the orchestra – a real workout, and for that matter is also something of a workout, a bracing and pleasant one, for the audience. Like Staud, Deutsch calls for a large orchestra with plenty of percussion; also like Staud, Deutsch offers a work that is almost programmatic but never entirely illustrative. The concerto is named for the ancient Greek personification of the world’s oceans, but it is not simply about water: it deals with the old notion of “four elements,” the first being water, the second air, the third earth and the fourth fire. This is an excellent organizational structure – one thinks of Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2, “The Four Temperaments,” which has an analogous crafting – and Deutsch uses it quite well. His writing for organ is very sensitive, and Jacobs knows exactly how to make it as effective as possible – for instance, when the high-pitched stops are played against piccolos and high percussion, and when soft string stops are heard against orchestral trumpets and trombones. Jacobs has plenty of chances to display his considerable virtuosity – parts of Okeanos sound like toccatas with all the stops pulled out, in some cases pretty much literally. But this is far from a straightforward display piece: Jacobs is also required in many places to perform in balance with, rather than aurally in front of, the orchestra, and here too his first-rate musicality and sense of style come to the fore. Interestingly, Welser-Möst also shows himself willing to subsume his strong musical personality into the requirements of Deutsch’s work: the orchestra is certainly loud enough when called for, but there is no sense of competition between soloist ad ensemble here – rather, Jacobs cooperates with Welser-Möst to produce a whole greater than its constituent parts. That is an ideal approach to this (and many other) concertos.
As for the music of Okeanos, it has derivative elements, but from a wide range of sources: it sounds here like film music, there like post-Schoenberg atonality, elsewhere like outright spookiness of the sort for which organs are sometimes (indeed, all too often) employed. What is interesting is the way Deutsch plays with and plays around with these elements, using them – and encouraging Jacobs to use them – in ways that make Okeanos sound genuinely new despite its inclusion of material familiar from elsewhere. For example, there are several occasions on which something portentous seems to be going on – until Deutsch suddenly changes the sound, and Jacobs takes listeners in an unexpected direction. Sometimes that direction is an amusing one, as in the first movement, when everything builds and builds and gets more and more dramatic, only to come to a sudden and unexpected full stop that leaves just the sound of chimes and bells behind. The speed of the second movement contrasts well with the slow meandering of the third, while the finale, if not exactly fiery, is witty and speedy and – in Jacobs’ hands – thoroughly engaging and involving.
It is for the world première recordings of Stromab and Okeanos, for the exceptional performance of Paul Jacobs as much as for the consistently high-quality leadership of Franz Welser-Möst, that listeners should seriously consider owning The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century. The whole thing is overdone, self-important, self-referential, and somewhat too determined to bypass the legacy of the great conductor who brought the orchestra to a quality on which Welser-Möst has been able to build. And really, given the odd repertoire selection, The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century smacks of being a moneymaking project as much as a musical one. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with that: nothing here would be possible without sufficient generosity, and if this attractive-looking package is a bit over-the-top where packaging is concerned, and a bit underwhelming when it comes to repertoire, so be it. The Staud and Deutsch works are genuine finds, whatever the motivation for their inclusion here; Jacobs’ performance of the Deutsch is top-notch by any standards, and completely convincing; and even if self-aggrandizement has a somewhat too-heavy presence in The Cleveland Orchestra: A New Century, it is difficult, after reading so much and hearing so much, to do anything less than wish the orchestra well with its music-making, marketing and, yes, fundraising.
Chris Brubeck: Affinity—Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra; Leo Brouwer: El Decameron Negro; Antonio Lauro: Waltz No. 3, “Natalia”; Tan Dun: Seven Desires for Guitar; Richard Danielpour: Of Love and Longing. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Maryland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Elizabeth Schulze; Colin Davin, second guitar; Isabel Leonard, voice. ZOHO. $16.99.
Strings for Peace—Music for Guitar and Sarod. Sharon Isbin, guitar; Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash, and Ayaan Ali Bangash, sarods; Amit Kavthekar, tabla. ZOHO. $16.99.
Bach: Partita No. 4, BWV 828; Six Little Preludes, BWV 933-938; Adagio in G, BWV 968; Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1016—Adagio Ma Non Tanto. Marija Ilić, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Outstanding guitar playing, coupled with a strong personal commitment to new music and music outside the Western tradition, is the hallmark of guitarist Sharon Isbin – and is very clearly on display on two new CDs on the ZOHO label. The question for listeners will be how intriguing they find the musical material from their own perspective rather than Isbin’s: the works on these discs explore her preoccupations but may not reflect those of a wider audience. Indeed, the works are specifically designed as what could be called “Isbinisms,” all having been composed or arranged for this specific performer. Chris Brubeck’s Affinity, for example, is a single-movement 16-minute work that is a “concerto” in the sense of using solo guitar with orchestra but that is really more of a showcase for Isbin’s (and Brubeck’s) interest in multiple forms and styles of music. It is also, in part, a tribute to Chris Brubeck’s late father, Dave, one of whose melodies inspired part of Affinity. This kind of intensely personal involvement of composer with performer and of both with biographical material is characteristic of the works on both the new Isbin CDs. Leo Brouwer’s El Decameron Negro, to cite another example, was written specifically for Isbin after she won a major guitar competition; and Brouwer, himself an excellent guitarist, uses the work to pay tribute to his and Isbin’s instrument while giving her plenty of chances to showcase her own virtuosity. For both these works, the question for non-guitarists and people who are not members of Isbin’s inner circle is whether the pieces communicate effectively as pure music – as experiences that an audience can have without needing to read about the works’ provenance and the interrelationship of performers, composers, and biography. On this basis, Brubeck’s Affinity comes across well: it is very clearly jazz-influenced and jazz-inflected, and showcases not only the capabilities of acoustic-guitar virtuosity but also the instrument’s expressive potential. The work is not particularly cohesive, being more a series of sections than a piece with an overarching structure, but it sounds good and shows strength in composing both for the soloist and for the ensemble. Brouwer’s piece for solo guitar, which is in three movements intended to illustrate specific scenes, also works nicely, with well-crafted explorations of the instrument – even though the moods being portrayed are not entirely evident if the audience has not learned about them beforehand.
The three remaining works on this CD are also enjoyable, but more so for those who know whence they come and how, specifically, they connect with Isbin and her interests. Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No. 3, “Natalia,” is dedicated to the composer’s daughter, and Isbin played it in Venezuela – with the dedicatee accompanying her on the lute-like cuatro. This disc features a two-guitar arrangement by Colin Davin, who performs the work with Isbin. This is nothing like a Viennese waltz, but has a lilt all its own and some nice inter-guitar work. Tan Dun’s Seven Desires for Guitar is a solo piece for Isbin, drawn from the composer’s guitar concerto – also for Isbin. This is one of those multicultural, intercultural works in which one instrument (e.g., guitar) imitates and pays homage to another (e.g, pipa, a Chinese flute). It is well-played (as are all the pieces here) but somewhat overstays its welcome after making its basic point. The CD concludes with a song cycle by Richard Danielpour, written for the performers who offer it here. Again, multicultural/intercultural expression is basic here, the words being translated into English from 13th-century Persian poetry by Rumi. The words themselves are more expressive and sensual than the music to which Danielpour sets them, and the vocal writing, which is rather self-consciously contemporary, is somewhat at odds with the romantic nature of much of the material. The result is a piece that is impressive on an intellectual level without being particularly moving on an emotional one. But this work, along with the others on the CD, is certainly reflective of Isbin’s talent and interests, and will bring considerable enjoyment to her fans and fellow guitar players.
The CD called Strings for Peace is more specialized and considerably more rarefied. It features Isbin playing music based on North Indian ragas and talas, with the guitar being part of an ensemble whose primary focus is the sarod, a lute-like but fretless instrument whose primary characteristic (at least to Western ears) will be the near-constant use of glissandi by those who play it. Those sounds are underlined and punctuated by the dual-drum instrument, tabla. The shortest of the four works on the disc, called Love Avalanche, is the most effective, largely because it establishes a sound world unfamiliar to Western ears, works with and within it, and then ceases, giving listeners a chance to contemplate and absorb what they have heard. That works at a four-minute duration. It works less well at 13½ minutes (By the Moon) or at 16½ (both Romancing Earth and Sacred Evening). Each piece is based on different material and designed to serve a different purpose; and scholars of North Indian music will surely be interested in the way the underlying ragas are used here. Listeners already familiar with this type of music will enjoy the CD, and Isbin’s fans will no doubt welcome hearing her in a thoroughly non-Western context. But as the title of the disc indicates, this is something of a “cause” release, and as such is designed to communicate a nonmusical (or meta-musical) attitude and approach. It comes across as a kind of “preaching to the congregation” musical collation intended to make points – at some length – about multiculturalism and the equivalence and equal value of all traditions; and so on. The music does not really carry this sort of weight very well: the differing sound of the more-or-less-similarly-shaped stringed instruments is interesting enough, but beyond the sound for its own sake, little of the sociopolitical gloss of the CD’s title comes through; and it is arguable just how much such freight it is reasonable to expect this music to carry. This is basically a disc for people strongly committed to and intrigued by the music of India – especially ones who share the concerns and extramusical worldview that Isbin wishes to promote.
One need not compare Western instruments with Eastern ones to find examples of more-or-less-similar shape accompanied by substantial differences in sound. One need simply consider the harpsichord and clavichord of Bach’s time and contrast them with the later fortepiano – and then contrast that with the modern concert grand. The sonic disparities among these keyboard instruments are so vast that they have produced unending discussions (and arguments) about the “right” way to perform the works of Bach and other Baroque composers. Maria Ilić plays both harpsichord and piano, which makes her new MSR Classics CD of Bach all the more interesting for the extent to which it comes down on the “piano” side of this discussion. This is nowhere clearer than in Ilić’s own arrangement of the Adagio Ma Non Tanto from the third violin sonata: everything here is warmth and expressiveness, with plenty of pedal and thorough use of the piano’s sustaining ability and the way it allows notes to blend with and carry over into each other. This is a lovely approach for, say, Chopin, but it is about as far from historically informed Bach performance as it is possible to get. Ilić is clearly interested here not in authenticity but in bringing forth elements that she believes are inherent in the music and cannot be fully elucidated with the instruments for which it was written. This is an arguable proposition at best – it assumes Bach somehow yearned for nonexistent instruments even while composing brilliantly and completely idiomatically for the ones of his own time – but certainly Ilić’s playing has a pleasant immediacy about it that many listeners will find attractive. Indeed, pleasantry is the order of the day throughout this disc. The Six Little Preludes are nicely contrasted both in key and in mood, and another single movement – Adagio in G, BWV 968, adapted from the solo-violin sonata in C, BWV 1005 – is both dramatic and expressive as Ilić plays it, again utilizing the resources of a modern piano to underline the work’s emotions in a near-Romantic manner. The little preludes and two single movements stand as appetizers of a sort before the most-substantial work on the CD, Partita No. 4, BWV 828, played in a genuinely polarizing fashion: Bach seems like something of a distant memory here, providing the basic canvas on which Ilić paints a highly variegated and emotionally wide-ranging work of multiple moods – with special attention to the inward-looking ones. The longest of the seven movements, Allemande, is here a kind of mini-fantasia with some of the sensibilities of Schumann, meditative and steeped in emotionalism. The fifth movement, Sarabande, is another focal point, warm and intimate and deeply felt. The lighter movements are fine but are less of Ilić’s focus; and by the time of the double fugue in the concluding Gigue, listeners may largely have forgotten that this is a suite of Baroque dance forms, not a multifaceted deployment of Romantic sensibilities. Ilić plays skillfully throughout and makes a strong case for her approach to all the material here; certainly she is effective in using the piano’s resources to bring out the elements of Bach’s music that she wants to highlight. Whether they are the ones that Bach wanted to highlight is another matter. This is not a disc for historical-performance purists: it is for listeners who find Bach all the more enjoyable when his works are heard on a modern instrument from what is largely a Romantic or post-Romantic perspective.
June 04, 2020
The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906: The True and Tragic Story of a Black Battalion’s Wrongful Disgrace and Ultimate Redemption. By Lt. Col. (Ret.) William Baker. Red Engine Press. $24.95.
Nobody knows who killed Texas bartender Frank Natus on the night of August 13, 1906, and wounded police lieutenant M.Y. Dominguez so seriously that his arm had to be amputated. But for many decades, people thought they knew: the gunshots surely came from members of the 1st Battalion, 25th Infantry (Colored) – known as the Buffalo Soldiers – an all-black group stationed at Fort Brown, the encampment for which Brownsville, Texas, was named. It all happened after a report of an attack on a white woman during the night of August 12 – an incident that led the commanders of Fort Brown, who were white, to insist on an early curfew for their troops on the following night. But someone, or some group, did fire hundreds of rounds, apparently indiscriminately, in Brownsville overnight on August 13, and townspeople not only blamed the black soldiers but also produced spent shell casings to prove their guilt.
The battalion’s commanders denied the townspeople’s claims, saying all the soldiers had been in the fort, under curfew. The soldiers themselves said they were innocent and had no idea who did the shooting. There were suggestions that the “found” shell casings had actually been planted. And so began an early-20th-century political hot potato that came to involve President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of War (and soon to be President) William Howard Taft, and all the issues of legal segregation and Jim Crow laws that pervaded the United States at the time and were very prominent indeed in Texas. Urged by Taft and others, Roosevelt dishonorably discharged all 167 of the Buffalo Soldiers for participating in what came to be called the Brownsville Raid or Brownsville Incident. And so matters stood until 1972, when all but two of the discharged soldiers had died. But then, along came William Baker – and exoneration, almost entirely posthumous, for the Buffalo Soldiers.
This is not exactly a new story. John D. Weaver (1912-2002) wrote about it in two books, The Brownsville Raid and The Senator and the Sharecropper’s Son. And James Leiker (born 1952) wrote about it in Racial Borders: Black Soldiers along the Rio Grande. But Baker (1931-2018) brings something special to the tale, since he spent decades of his life learning about the Brownsville Incident and was eventually empowered by the Pentagon to get to the truth of the matter. The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906 is his posthumous summation of what he learned and how his knowledge led President Nixon, in 1972, to reverse the dishonorable discharges of all the Buffalo Soldiers, pardoning them all and changing their discharge records to “honorable,” albeit without back pay or other benefits (although in 1973, by which time only one of the men was alive, Congress gave him a tax-free pension award).
This is a book for lovers of American historical minutiae, for celebrants of wrongs being righted after lengthy time periods, and for anyone focused on civil rights and black-white relations in post-Civil-War times. Baker re-creates the night of August 13, 1906, with plenty of period detail and immersion in the social and racial attitudes of the time; and that reconstruction, even though it points no fingers at specific individuals, goes a long way toward explaining how and why the Brownsville Incident happened, and in what ways it quite clearly reflected the time period in which it occurred and the people and municipality involved.
The more-significant part of the book, though, is the more-personal one, in which Baker details his painstaking exploration and analysis of records relating to the Brownsville Incident on behalf of the U.S. Defense Department – and how his research led to the soldiers’ exoneration. The personal element long predates Baker’s service at the Pentagon: in the late 1930s, Baker’s grandfather, a former slave, told Baker about what happened and how vast was the injustice of the case. This planted the seed that flowered more than three decades later when Baker’s work led to the pardoning of the Buffalo Soldiers.
Not surprisingly, ironies abound in the story – notably the fact that a number of the Buffalo Soldiers had served honorably in Cuba with the same Theodore Roosevelt who, as president, condemned the battalion. And then there were the numerous eyewitnesses to the firing of hundreds of rounds of ammunition, who insisted they saw black soldiers shooting – even though the soldiers’ commander said none of the battalion’s rifles had been fired. But this is mostly the story of what Baker did when he had a chance to look deeply into the case by re-examining eyewitness accounts, reading contemporary news clippings, wading through court transcripts, checking ballistics tests, and carefully looking at military records (including some unofficial ones to which he gained access).
Baker details his work on the decades-old case, explores the differing concerns and agendas of many people (emphatically including politicians) at the time of the Brownsville Incident, and finds himself coping in the 1970s with a certain amount of pushback from contemporary military leaders who did not want Baker’s findings to sully the pride of the Army or harm Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. Still, Baker persists – and it is important to realize that as dogged as his pursuit of the truth was, he does not seek praise or self-aggrandizement for what he did, clearly believing that his in-depth exploration speaks for itself and was intended entirely to uncover the truth of what happened long ago in Brownsville.
Unfortunately – and this is a significant weakness of the book – he did not uncover what happened, only what did not happen. Baker could not find out just who did the shootings on August 13, 1906; and at this far-distant remove from the incident, information with that level of specificity may never be known. That is unfortunate. Some of the writing in the book is unfortunate as well: stylistically, it is easy to read, but the portion that re-creates the Brownsville Incident is filled with direct quotes that neither Baker nor anyone else could have known – an approach suitable to fiction or docudrama but not to a book whose entire purpose is to dig out facts and present truth. Nevertheless, despite its imperfections, The Brownsville Texas Incident of 1906 is an impressively detailed and generally well-presented work from a man who not only succeeded in reversing a long-ago miscarriage of justice but also, in the process, created his own legacy as both a pursuer and a teller of truth.
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 5 and 6 (arrangement of Violin Concerto); Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. Inon Barnatan, piano; Lydia Teuscher and Amy Lyddon, sopranos; Rosie Aldridge, mezzo-soprano; Toby Spence and Ben Bavan, tenors; Neal Davies, baritone; London Voices and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields conducted by Alan Gilbert. PentaTone. $24.99 (2 CDs).
It is a bit surprising that PentaTone chose to package Inon Barnatan’s Beethoven piano-concerto cycle as two separate releases separated by half a year, rather than as a single boxed offering; but listeners who were understandably enthusiastic about the first two-CD set (which included Concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 and the Triple Concerto) will be glad that the wait for the second dual-disc release is now over. The decision of what music to include in which release is a bit strange: this time, listeners get No. 2, the first-composed in the usual cycle of five (although earlier whole and partial concertos also exist); No. 5, the last-composed in the standard cycle; a very welcome performance of the composer’s infrequently heard arrangement of his Violin Concerto; and the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra (“Choral Fantasy”), which includes substantial material for the piano even though it is scarcely a traditional concerto (or, for that matter, a traditional anything-else: it is a work in genuinely original form). As in the earlier Barnatan release, the pianist plays, when appropriate, with care and transparency that recall Leon Fleisher’s justly renowned recordings from the mid-1960s. Also as before, Alan Gilbert conducts the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – which has never recorded a Beethoven concerto cycle before – with a welcome mixture of precision and balance.
Concerto No. 2 is closest in its effect to the works in the earlier Barnatan/Gilbert recording: poised, elegant, Mozartian in its mixture and balance of soloist and ensemble, and generally delicate despite some appropriately forceful passages. This is a performance that places Beethoven firmly in the Classical period but at the same time shows the ways in which he was moving beyond the Mozartian model. And Barnatan’s handling of the “Emperor” concerto shows that he and Gilbert know that lightness and delicacy have their limits – although clarity does not. The magisterial opening of Concerto No. 5 is certainly grand enough, and the music’s smooth flow after the initial flourishes is accentuated just strongly enough. The details of Barnatan’s playing – the clarity of trills, the carefully controlled use of rubato – successfully accentuate the strongly rhythmic elements of the first movement, nicely balancing its emphatic, “imperial” elements with its warmer, more-flowing ones. This manages to be a powerful, insistent opening movement without being one that overpowers the remainder of the concerto, despite being longer than the second and third movements combined. It is also a highly cooperative first movement: the care with which Barnatan and Gilbert intermingle is notable throughout. So matters also are in the second movement, whose opening theme is presented by the orchestra with all the beauty and grace needed to provide respite after the first movement’s bold conclusion. Barnatan picks up his part in the same spirit and delivers a performance whose pleasantly relaxing nature contrasts quite appropriately with the spirit of the first movement. And then comes a third-movement opening that instantly fires up the spirits – this is a bold, bright conclusion that stands as a worthy balance to the first movement despite being only half its length. Barnatan again recalls Fleisher in the dramatic contrast between his handling of the strongly accentuated portions of the piano part and the less-ebullient periods of relaxation. The momentum of this movement never flags, and Barnatan, ably abetted throughout by Gilbert, presents it with a level of jubilation underlined by seriousness of purpose that makes for a thoroughly involving listening experience.
Some of the special characteristics that Barnatan and Gilbert bring to the “Emperor” also appear in their handling of the arrangement of the Violin Concerto – another work whose first movement is longer and more elaborate than its second and third combined. Here, it is Barnatan’s poise that comes to the fore: this is a lovely, gently flowing interpretation that makes no attempt to be particularly virtuosic – which the piano part is not. There is a sylvan quality to Barnatan’s and Gilbert’s interpretation of this concerto, an idealized and idyllic bucolic expressiveness that allows the music to flow gently and pleasantly, without any of the intensity of the “Emperor.” Gilbert’s delicacy in the orchestral accompaniment is especially welcome here: the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has plenty of power when it is called for, but it excels in the quieter, warmer passages of the concerto. There is a companionable feeling to the music-making here, with Barnatan being more of a “first among equals” than a dominating soloist. This stance fits the music quite well. And when Barnatan does have a chance to get some front-and-center attention – notably in the first movement’s cadenza, whose memorable inclusion of timpani neatly recalls and expands upon the concerto’s unusual opening – he conveys a real sense of enjoyment of the music, playing with panache mixed with sheer joy that, unusually and memorably, brings out a sense of humor as well as virtuosity in the give-and-take. And then the quiet post-cadenza re-entry of the orchestra supplies a touch of magic. After this, the lilting and lovely second movement takes on the character of an intermezzo, while the finale has more of a celebratory air than it usually receives, with some of the playfulness of the first-movement cadenza returning – being particularly audible in the interplay of soloist and ensemble. In all, Barnatan and Gilbert make an exceptionally good case for regarding this arrangement as a genuine piano concerto with a character of its own – even though, musically speaking, it differs little (except in the cadenzas) from the violin work from which it is derived.
After all this, the Fantasia for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra makes a marvelous conclusion to an outstanding cycle. This fantasy was always intended as musical dessert of a sort: Beethoven already had on hand the orchestra, the chorus, and the pianist (himself) to present this work as the conclusion of a long-famous four-hour concert. So it is an occasional work – that is, written for a specific occasion – and has suffered considerable neglect over the years because it does not quite fit into any precise musical form and requires considerable performing forces for a brief time (the chorus sings for about three minutes out of 20). But the fantasy is highly innovative in many ways, not only as a way station on the road to the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony (whose last-movement theme is used in the fantasy and was previously used elsewhere by the composer, who obviously found it worth returning to again and again). And it is really a joy to hear when performed with enthusiasm and without the somewhat dour seriousness that tends to infect some performances of Beethoven’s music (definitely including the Ninth Symphony). The three-minute solo-piano opening – improvised by Beethoven at the fantasy’s first performance – is full of vigor and a kind of splendor as Barnatan presents it. Gilbert and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields present the orchestral material with bright insistence and provide Barnatan with the same pervasive sense of camaraderie that comes across again and again throughout this cycle. And although the words sung by members of the London Voices are scarcely great poetry, what matters is not the verse but what it celebrates: music and all the arts, and the way artists connect humans to a higher plane of existence. That is a hopeful and exhilarating thought more than 200 years after the fantasy was first performed. Whatever words may be used to express such a sentiment are worth hearing, and the performers here sing the material expressively and with heartfelt enthusiasm, producing a conclusion to the Barnatan/Gilbert cycle that honors the entire release and, more to the point, pays suitable tribute to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.