New American Classical Music

As promised, I will end this trilogy on American classical music (see the previous January and February installments) by covering some of the recent releases of works by composers of whom you have probably never heard. I believe their music demonstrates what I have contended in my last two missives: that American music has recovered from a near-death experience and is now fully itself again. All this music needs to succeed is an audience; it will do the rest. It is time for the audience to return. These new CDs are the reason why.
One of the privileges of writing for Crisis magazine, and now InsideCatholic, for the past 14 years is that some of the composers whose works I have reviewed have contacted me as a result. (With one highly dyspeptic exception, it has always been a pleasure.) Early in the millennium, I wrote reviews of two CDs containing Steven Gerber’s Symphony No. 1, three of his concertos (violin, cello, and viola), and the Serenade for String Orchestra, all of which are close to heart-stoppingly beautiful (available on Koch and Chandos labels). As a consequence, Gerber began a conversation with me — I was the director of Voice of America at the time — that ended with my asking him to compose a Fanfare for the Voice of America on its 60th anniversary. The piece was duly premiered and broadcast worldwide, and most of it was incorporated into his Second Symphony. The Fanfare, re-orchestrated, is also going to be incorporated into Music in Dark Times, which the San Francisco Symphony will premiere next March under Vladimir Ashkenazy.
I was reminded of how very good Gerber’s music is when he invited me to a performance of his Symphony No. 1 in Washington, D.C., performed by the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic, conducted by Ulysses S. James, on February 17. Gerber won the Philharmonic’s composition competition in 2007, as a result of which his Symphony No. 2 will be played here in June. I had never been exposed to this semi-professional orchestra before and was astonished at the orchestral sheen it was able to achieve in its playing of Gerber’s work, which is so transparently scored and fluently written that it depends on a good deal of orchestral virtuosity for its impact.
Sometimes, when it might seem that there is not much going on in the music, Gerber is showing us the sheer beauty of the sonority he has created. He has a kind of elemental respect for the purity of sounds in the spirit of Max Picard or, in terms of contemporary composers, perhaps Arvo Pärt, though Gerber is no minimalist. The Philharmonic let us experience Gerber’s wonderful ear for string sonorities. It also captured the sense of looming danger and what Gerber himself called the “spookiness” in the middle section of the symphony. In an after-concert talk, Gerber admitted to “Copland and Shostakovich influences, and, yes, Britten too.” I would add Prokofiev.
All of which brings us to the new Arabesque Recordings CD (Z6803) of Gerber’s superb new Spirituals for String Orchestra (1999-2001), Clarinet Concerto (2000-2002), and the Serenade Concertante (1998). When I first listened to a preview copy of the CD, I told Steve that the concerto reminded me of Aaron Copland’s great Clarinet Concerto. He responded, “Copland is far and away my favorite American composer, and I am well aware of his influence on me, so I appreciate your comment all the more for that.” He added: “I love the Copland Concerto too, and I’m sure all that harp and strings at the beginning of my piece is what reminded you of it.”
The dreamy, languorous opening theme also struck me as Coplandesque, with more than a soupçon of Ravel, who could also capture this kind of magical languor in his music. Perky interchanges with the other winds and harp follow, accompanied by chordal interjections from the strings, which then lead toward a dazzling clarinet solo, played with great sensitivity by Jon Manasse, for whom the concerto was written. Toward the end of the movement, Gerber returns to the meltingly lovely opening theme.
The second movement has the moody element of spookiness mentioned in the First Symphony. The sense of unease and sadness becomes agitated before subsiding into a softer kind of melancholy. After a short clarinet solo, the music slowly builds again in a gathering sense of foreboding, brilliantly built, until the threat dissipates, if not disappears, when an ascending motive of three notes (actually, two up, one down), first sounds in the high strings against the vertiginous scalar descents of the clarinet, and isthen repeated by members of each section of the orchestra, with the last note held in valedictory fashion by brass and then strings.

It is an extraordinary, inspired maneuver, one reminiscent of Copland at his best. Gerber takes the doleful theme and transmutes it momentarily into something that shines through the gloom. The composer explained to me how it works: “These three notes are the same as the first three notes of both the passacaglia and the fugue in that movement, only the first note is an octave lower this time, so instead of going down a minor second and then down a major third, this motive goes up a major seventh and then down a major third. The motive in this form can first be heard as a counter-subject in the fugue, first by the bassoon after the English horn has entered, then in the English horn, etc.” It is a breathtaking moment and an illustration of the tremendous refinement with which Gerber writes. The spooky theme returns in the clarinet, supported by strings, but then the concerto closes by returning to the gorgeous, dreamy opening of the first movement. This concerto is a major addition to the repertory. {mospagebreak}
In the Spirituals, “ten pieces based on material from Negro spirituals,” Gerber gives us some achingly beautiful string music, touched with a sweet melancholia. The string writing here and in the Serenade Concertante is solidly in the Gould-Diamond-Copland vein, and adds to it beautifully. There is graciousness to all of it, with a delicious dreaminess in places. These should become repertory pieces. The St. Petersburg State Academic Symphony, under conductor Vladimir Lande, plays these works in a moving and beautiful way.
Another composer with whom I have been in touch is Kenneth Fuchs. It began with a Crisis review of his first Naxos CD, featuring his exhilarating An American Place (for Orchestra), brilliantly written to express the “brash optimism of the American spirit.”Fuchs contacted me to suggest that I listen to his string quartets on an Albany Records CD. I found them to be among the finest American quartets I have heard.
Like Gerber, Fuchs is an exemplar of the recovery of American music, and he speaks eloquently of his experiences through the period of recovery. After reading the first two installments of this series, he wrote to me:
It is amazing to see now, from the vantage of over 25 years, what was actually happening. We really were at the beginning of a movement. The whole generation before that was so musically dry and barren and acrid and arid. Thank God people had the courage of their convictions to write music invested with feeling and emotion! . . .
I remember all too well, as a student at Juilliard in the late 70s and early 80s, what that felt like. Even during those years, well after the shift had started, it was a very steep climb out of a trench. The Juilliard composition faculty at the time consisted of Babbitt, Carter, Diamond, Persichetti, and Sessions. Quite a group. Although none of them really ever pushed their own styles as dogma, it took a lot of courage in that heady environment to write truthful music in a style that would eventually become part of “the new Romanticism.”
A new Naxos CD (8.559335), featuring the London Symphony Orchestra (or its members) under conductor JoAnn Flalletta, provides an expanding picture of Fuchs’s talents. The CD begins with United Artists, a scintillating tribute to the London Symphony Orchestra, which Fuchs came to admire during its recording of his first Naxos CD. United Artists is five-minute fanfare that has something of the vivacious spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide or of one of Malcolm Arnold’s spirited confections. This is an excellent public celebration that lets the orchestra strut its stuff.
Quiet in the Land is as interior a piece as United Artists is an exterior one in spirit. This mixed quintet for strings and winds moves into Samuel Barber/Aaron Copland territory with its mellifluous melody and gentle, rippling beauty. Fuchs calls it “a sonic ode to the expansive landscapes and immense arching sky of the great Midwestern Plains.” As a Midwesterner, I can attest that this scenery evokes a deep sense of yearning and expectation. Fuchs captures these feelings with real poignancy. This twelve-minute piece is a reflective gem.
The next two pieces — Fire, Ice, and Summer Bronze for brass quintet, and Autumn Rhythm for wind quintet — derive their inspiration from paintings by, respectively, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock. I have never cared for the works of these artists but, if Fuchs can draw this kind of inspiration from them, I had better take another look, or at least try to see them through his music.
What continually impresses is the level of refinement in the writing. This man does not have to shout to make himself heard. As I have noticed in his work before, there is a sense of ease in his music. By this I do not mean easiness, but a calm confidence in what he is doing and in the quality of his material. Like Gerber, he is endowed with a major melodic gift. Additionally, he is not afraid to take the time to let things develop with a sense of natural growth. In Autumn Rhythm, he captures some of the insouciant breeziness that only a master like Malcolm Arnold could achieve in his wind writing. This is another exquisite gem.
The longest and last composition on the CD is Canticle to the Sun, a concerto for French horn and orchestra (2005).This work catches the kind of Celtic magic and orchestral glitter that I used to hear in the work of the late Welsh composer William Mathias. Fuchs makes a gloriously long-lined melody for the French horn out of the hymn tune to “All Creatures of our God and King.” This outwardly celebratory, declamatory work is infused with inner joy and spirit. Listen to it, or to any of these works, and you will know what Fuchs means when he says, “I make no apologies for writing from the heart.” No apologies needed; this is the vindication.
I have failed to fulfill my promise in my last article to cover the works of a number of other American composers whose works are also part of this vindication, likePeter Lieberson, Jon Bauman, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, and Morten Lauridsen. However, if you listen to these two CDs, you will trust me on the rest, and I do pledge to review them in future installments.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for Contact him at [email protected]

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Photo: Steven Gerber


  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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