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American orchestral music -
reviewed by DAVID WILKINS

'... one work - the Gunther Schuller Symphony - receives a truly first-class performance ...'

American Orchestral Music (p) 2001 The Vox Music Group


If you forsake the musical equivalents of interstate highways (taking the turnpike from Charles Ives and cruise-controlling through to John Adams), there are myriad other pleasures to be discovered on a 'from sea to shining sea' journey through American music. This Vox compilation hardly takes you to unexplored backwaters, but it is an interesting and rewarding detour. Only one work -- the Gunther Schuller Symphony -- receives a truly first-class performance and there are some bumpy rides in terms of orchestral technique and constrained recorded sound along the way. But, 'heck' (as we might be forgiven for saying), that's all part of the adventure.

The first disc begins with the tunefully attractive, harmless rather than inspired, Suite that Virgil Thomson worked from his Louisiana Story film score. Like much film music denuded of its images, there is a tendency towards stop-start meandering but also any number of likeable moments. This 1948 Suite strikes me as having less intrinsic musical value than that from The Plough that Broke the Plains, but it gives a fair summary of his musical language -- simple, direct, something of a comfort-stop on the way to Copland's or Bernstein's more memorable achievements. Thomson's importance to American music was as much in his teaching and criticism as in his own compositions.

Ned Rorem (wonderfully scurrilous diarist as well as lyrically gifted composer) numbered Thomson among his teachers and, like the older man, was much influenced by his time and studies in Paris. His Symphony No 3 was premièred in 1959 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein (oft-times a riotous story-swapping and drinking companion to Rorem) conducting. You can hear what Lenny would have liked about this music : there's plenty of skill with orchestral colouring, much evidence of the genuine melodic talent that is apparent again and again in his better-known songs, a felicity with jazzy syncopation that recalls (but never achieves the glamour of) Bernstein's own [listen -- CD1 track 5, 1:30-2:40]. In the central Andante, there is a beguiling cor-anglais solo that is rather akin to the English Pastoral tradition with wind and string filigrees that might suggest the film music of Richard Rodney Bennett. The Utah Symphony Orchestra conducted by that oft-neglected champion of American music-making, Maurice Abravanel attack the work with obvious dedication. I think we can assume, though, that the NYPO première would have found out even more of its poetry and its exuberance.

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Copyright © 3 February 2002 David Wilkins, Eastbourne, Sussex, UK







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