More on American Classical Music

Last month, I began talking about modern American classical music. The impetus was the new releases in the stellar Naxos American Classics series, as well as some other new CDs of American music. As I said, I doubt that many readers will have heard of many of the composers. I spent most of the column on the reasons why: the consequences of what happened to music in the 20th century when it eviscerated tonality, and turned off audiences. That struggle is over; tonality has triumphed, and with it melody.
The great value of the Naxos series is its demonstration of this fact. Naxos is restoring our musical heritage to us. It may seem a bit odd that a German, Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos, is the one doing it, but bless him for it. In the American Classics Naxos catalogue, you will find some of the big names of American music — Samuel Barber, Paul Creston, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, William Schuman — in impeccable performances. I have covered many of these releases over the years; I only want to remind you that they are there (see These are the composers who did not cave in to the ideology of amnesia and were able to achieve some prominence despite it.
Three new releases remind me of the fairly recent history of how the recovery of music took place in part. What began emerging from under the rubble of twelve-tone music back in the 1960s was Minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. Minimalism represents a return to reality, but it is the reality of an emergency room attempting to stabilize the patient after a terrible beating. First, maintain and monitor the pulse; keep the breathing steady. Regularity and repetition are the keys to recovery. And that is what we hear — the steady, monotonous pulsing of the heart. Minimalism is music slowly, ever so slowly, coming out of a state of shock, as it patiently puts the elements of music back together. There is a certain zombie-like quality to it.
Ars Nova, distributed by Naxos, gives us a mesmerizing performance of Terry Riley’s In C, considered by some to be the Magna Carta of Minimalism. It is a somewhat in-your-face assertion of a single pitch, in C, against the pitchless music of the avant garde. This work from 1964, here performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble, under Paul Hillier, deploys 53 melodic patterns that can be played or sung in sequence by any number of singers or instruments. Hillier uses a vocal group and a percussion ensemble consisting of eight marimba players and a vibraphonist (who also doubles on Bali gong). A pattern can be repeated any number of times before proceeding to the next one — in other words, forever. You may be hypnotized or bored, depending on your tolerance for trances. In any case, it is essential listening for those who wish to understand how music made it back from the grave.
The two other leading Minimalists, Steve Reich (b. 1936) and Philip Glass (b. 1937), have also received new releases that illustrate Minimalism’s therapeutic value, if limited musical interest. Reich’s music on the CPO label (CPO 777 337-2) — Sextet, Eight Lines, and, especially, Piano Phases, with the London Steve Reich Ensemble — seems to keep getting “stuck” for long periods in order to dramatize the moment when it becomes unstuck. This works depending on how much patience you have. Reich breaks the monotony with syncopated rhythms, a sense of humor, and some fun. His music can be like a get-well balloon in the recovery room. The fun starts in the first movement of the Sextet with a locomotive imitation and continues with what sometimes sounds like a typewriter in the fourth.
Philip Glass shows what happens when you try to make something bigger out of the limited techniques Minimalism employs. I enjoyed some of Glass’s early works and found his opera on Akhnaten intriguing. However, his endless use of chugging ostinatos wore me out a long time ago. The new Naxos release (8.559325), featuring The Light andHeroes Symphony, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop, does not reconvert me. I find The Light light; pleasant, but nothing more. Glass keeps trying to write big-idea music that never seems to get out of the rehab ward.{mospagebreak}
The composer who broke out of Minimalism and promised a complete return to health is John Adams (b. 1947). A new Naxos CD (8.559285) brings his complete piano music together, with pianist Ralph van Raat, in beautiful, spirited performances. Even at his most Minimalist, Adams knew how to create lovely, even exhilarating music, as his early Phrygian Gates demonstrates. The much later Hallelujah Junction (1996) shows that he has never quite shaken his Minimalist roots or stopped aiming at the ecstatic. It was in orchestral music and opera, however, that Adams made his reputation. Through it, he became the most popular composer of his generation. I will never forget the impact of his Harmonielehre from the mid-1980s. Here was a huge orchestral work that showed that the recovery period of Minimalism was over, with all the resources of music triumphantly restored.
I have kept waiting for Adams to do it again. I suppose that is why I feel disappointment at his new release on Nonesuch (79857-2), which pretentiously places two works, The Dharma at Big Sur and My Father Knew Charles Ives, on two CDs, though they would
easily fit on one. Charles Ives (1874-1954) is surely the single most overrated American composer, and I am not attracted by the conceit that Adams’s father knew him. In the first movement of the Ives piece, Adams’s evocation of him borders on cliché, as it includes an imitation of two bands passing each other and the cacophony they produce — a signature experience in Ives’s life that led to his embrace of and delight in dissonance. Yes, I know dissonance can be fun but, please, it is time to move on. This not to say that some of Adams’s pastiche in this work is not fun; it is.
The Big Sur piece is a concerto for electric violin and orchestra, the second movement of which is a tribute to Terry Riley. Some of the sonorities are quite beautiful but, to me, the keening kind of sound made by the electric violin can come close to irritating and, worse, near to kitsch when it becomes syrupy, which it occasionally does here. I do not think there is enough spine in this work to keep it from being high-level mood music, although Adams achieves some real grip in the thrilling, almost overwhelming climax. If only the rest of the work deserved it. At O’Hare airport, I ventured into a music shop to kill some time. I was disturbed that classical music was lumped together in a bin labeled “classical and new age.” I am sorry to say that is where Adams’s new release belongs.
As I never tire of pointing out, there were some composers who never gave in to the prevailing amnesia, and who suffered crippling neglect because of it. In this category, Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) is Exhibit A. Flagello was an unadorned late Romantic, whose music surges with extraordinary intensity and dark passion. He is straight in the tradition of Rachmaninoff and, closer to home, Barber. Occasionally, his unsettling, melancholic sound is reminiscent of Bernard Hermann, but with a richer palette.
A new CD from Artek (AR-0036-2) continues the rescue effort led by music critic Walter Simmons, who produced this CD, to record Flagello’s music. The Symphonic Aria that begins the disc is an extraordinarily impassioned piece that serves as a perfect introduction to this composer’s world. The main work on the CD, the Violin Concerto, was not even orchestrated by Flagello because there was so little prospect of its being performed. How’s that for the effects of neglect? Anthony Sbordoni orchestrated it with panache. Violinist Elmar Oliveira plays it with verve and commitment under John McLaughlin Williams, who conducts the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. What an irony that this huge, rich, stirring concerto does not receive its premiere from an American orchestra. The CD also contains some gorgeous operatic interludes, arias, and songs.
Simmons scores again with a new Naxos American Classics CD (8.559347), featuring these same forces, with Flagello’s early work, Missa Sinfonica, paired with Arnold Rosner’s Symphony No. 5, Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina. The Missa is a purely symphonic work inspired by the ordinary of the Mass. Simmons writes that Flagello “considered all his compositions to be fundamentally spiritual in nature.” Without its title, I would never guess that it is based on the Mass. However, I do detect in this early work the salutary influences from Flagello’s studies in Rome with Ildebrando Pizzetti. I also hear traces of Respighi and Malipiero. Ironically, it is Rosner, a Jew, whose beautiful work sounds more properly liturgical than Flagello’s. I am happy to have Flagello’s Missa, but I would start with some of Simmons’s other Flagello discs, those containing the piano concertos and the First Symphony, also on Naxos.
Next month — more evidence of the American recovery of classical music in the new discs of beautiful works by Steven Gerber, Kenneth Fuchs, Peter Lieberson, Jon Bauman, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Morten Lauridsen, and others for whom I hope there will be room. Do you know who they are? You should, and will.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for E-mail him at [email protected].


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