Articles & Reviews

Unanswered Question | New Musical Venues for a New National Moment

New Musical Venues for a New National Moment

July 15, 2017 by Joe Horowitz

Photo: Behrouz Jamali 2017

With classical music under siege, many are rethinking audiences and venues. Here in Manhattan, Geffen Hall – previously Fisher Hall, and before that Philharmonic Hall – has never been an inviting place in which to hear music. The acoustics are defective, the ambience is nothing special. One cannot blame the hall for the New York Philharmonic’s disengaged audience – but it’s a factor. At Carnegie Hall, ten blocks downtown, a community of listeners is joined on special occasions by distinguished ghosts seduced by echoes of a hallowed past.

PostClassical Ensemble – the DC chamber orchestra I co-founded 14 years ago – has at all times been without a special home, even an adequate home. Our concerts are thematic and sui generis. We incorporate film, dance, or theater. We don’t fit comfortably in a concert hall.

Last season PCE was invited by the Washington National Cathedral to produce “The Trumpet Shall Sound” – a concert intermingling spirituals and religious arias, all sung by the inspirational bass-baritone Kevin Deas. The Cathedral Choir – a superb professional chorus – took part, as did dozens of DC high school choristers. The main nave – a towering, aspirant spiritual corridor — was full. The audience was inter-racial. The music impacted in ways no concert hall could possibly have fostered.

PCE was subsequently invited by Mike McCarthy, the Cathedral’s music director, to become an Ensemble-in-Residence. Mike is a man with a mission and it aligns with ours: to explore music as an instrument for human betterment. Addressing PCE’s new residency, he commented:

“Washington National Cathedral is one of the finest examples of devotional art in the world. It stands testament to mankind’s yearning to see the perfection of beauty on earth. It allows us to glimpse a portal through which we can experience the divine. In such an environment music plays a crucial role, amplified by inspirational surroundings. It is both a cultural legacy that we have inherited and cherish, and a means for responding to the world and its challenges.”

Our initial season of concerts at the National Cathedral comprises “Music in Wartime,” a Pearl Harbor Day commemoration; “Deep River – The Art of the Spiritual,” a Harry Burleigh celebration; and “Secret Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case,” a reconsideration of the CIA’s cultural Cold War.

The first of these events will begin with one of Hanns Eisler’s workers’ songs performed as a processional. The second will end with “Goin’ Home” as a spacial experience. The third will include an actor performing as John F. Kennedy. For 2018-19 we are planning a mega-event which will empty the nave of pews and incorporate lighting design. The Cathedral also offers a multitude of smaller spaces ideal for art installations, and for lectures and discussion.

At a national moment when art for art’s sake seems increasingly irrelevant, the Washington National Cathedral seems newly pertinent to art.

An Experimental orchestra finds a home at the National Cathedral | WashingtonPost

An Experimental orchestra finds a home at the National Cathedral

by Anne Midgette July 7, 2017 | The Washington Post

The PostClassical Ensemble announced Friday that after 14 itinerant seasons, it has found a stable home — at Washington National Cathedral. Starting next season, it will become the cathedral’s newest ensemble-in-residence.

This means that the ensemble, which calls itself “an experimental orchestral laboratory” and has performed in venues from the Indonesian Embassy to the Library of Congress, will present three of next season’s concerts at the cathedral, two of them in collaboration with the cathedral’s chorus. It will continue to perform in other locations around Washington as well.

The move also signals the cathedral’s desire to expand its footprint in the Washington arts scene.

The residency will officially begin with a commemoration of Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7 featuring musical responses to World War II by Hans Eisler, Dmitri Shostakovich and Arnold Schoenberg.

This new relationship was spurred by the PostClassical Ensemble’s February concert “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” an exploration of spirituals, presented at the cathedral with bass-baritone Kevin Deas and trumpeter Chris Gekker.

“It would have had half the impact or less if we had done it in a concert hall,” said Joseph Horowitz, who co-founded the PostClassical Ensemble with Angel Gil-Ordóñez in 2003. “We discovered — all of us, including the audience, which was huge and interracial — that the cathedral was a singular ambiance for presenting music in live performance.”

Michael McCarthy, the cathedral’s music director, had already worked with the PostClassical Ensemble on several earlier concerts.

“I loved their approach: a laboratory,” McCarthy said. “Music is being presented sometimes in conventional form but in unconventional ways. I found the juxtaposition of that and the cathedral, in terms of what the cathedral can do in terms of bringing people to it, very compelling.”

He added: “I have a vision for what the cathedral should be doing in terms of arts presenting. We present concerts, yes, but I think the building has more latitude to be able to bring programming here which is not just two-dimensional but multidimensional.”

The large, echoing cathedral and the scrappy ensemble are an unlikely fit at first glance. But both Horowitz and Gil-Ordóñez waxed enthusiastic about what McCarthy has shown them about the building’s possibilities. “Mike has wonderful ideas about the space that we can embrace,” said Gil-Ordóñez, citing the choir, the crypt and various areas of the nave as potential performance spaces, as well as exhibition and conference areas where they could host auxiliary events.

One model is the Park Avenue Armory in New York, a venue for cutting-edge performances in every imaginable configuration. “We have a similar opportunity,” Horowitz said, “although the cathedral of course has a much more specific ambiance.”

As for the acoustical challenges of the echoing space, which make a full orchestra sound muddy in symphonic music, both men say it has proved an unexpectedly good fit for their smaller-scale chamber orchestra performances — thanks not least to its sophisticated sound system. “From the perspective of the conductor,” Gil-Ordóñez said, “conducting there is one of the most beautiful acoustics in the whole area. I was completely surprised by that.”

“One of the other things that attracts us,” he said, “is the variety of the audience we are going to be able to attract.”

The PostClassical Ensemble joins the cathedral’s string-quartet-in-residence, the Diderot Quartet. These secular groups reflect McCarthy’s vision of a cathedral that embraces a civic as well as a religious role and reflects a wider range of cultural traditions — a vision he is starting to pursue more actively as the cathedral emerges from its prolonged financial struggles and, he says, “the shoots of recovery are clearly above the ground.”

“Cathedrals were the center of their community,” he said, speaking of the time when these massive Gothic buildings were first erected. “The discourse that was happening wasn’t all about the church. Civic engagement happened. That’s what I see as the cathedral music program: not a challenge to the Kennedy Center or Strathmore, but finding partners who look at the space and don’t say, ‘What am I supposed to do here?’ ”

This describes the PostClassical Ensemble well. “We’ve never done art for art’s sake,” Horowitz said. “All our programming is thematic. Most of it is about music as an instrument for mutual understanding and human betterment.”

“This is the first time we’ve found a plausible home in D.C.,” he added. “We’ve looked sporadically. There are times we haven’t looked, and thought we’d just be itinerant. And there were times we have looked, and nothing seemed quite right. But this is going to work. We all understand this is the right marriage.”

The PostClassical Ensemble will present “Music in Wartime: A Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration” on Dec. 7, a reprise of “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual” (which it co-presented with Washington Performing Arts in 2015) on Feb. 28 and “Secret Music Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case” on May 23.

PostClassical Ensemble in the New Yorker | Alex Ross reviews The Shostakovich-Weinberg Connection

An excerpt from Alex Ross’ column in the April 17 issue of The New Yorker, titled

A Gathering of Orchestras in D.C.

…the city [Washington] has long been a paradise for chamber music. I grew up there, and learned the chamber repertory in such intimate, welcoming venues as Dumbarton Oaks, the Library of Congress, and the Phillips Collection. A newer addition to the scene is the PostClassical Ensemble, which, since 2003, has been presenting thematic programs in halls around town. Before Shift began, I went to the Harman Center for the Arts to attend a PostClassical event entitled “Music Under Stalin: The Shostakovich-Weinberg Connection.” The group’s music director is Angel Gil-Ordóñez; its executive director is the scholar-impresario Joseph Horowitz, who, in the nineties, staged meaty festival weekends with the late, lamented Brooklyn Philharmonic.

PostClassical also experiments with alternative formats. “Music Under Stalin” included a “theatrical interlude” in which the actor Edward Gero delivered monologues that evoked scenes from Shostakovich’s tormented life. I found these unpersuasive: Gero failed to capture the composer’s skittish manner, and the texts came from “Testimony,” the memoir dubiously attributed to Shostakovich. Other Shostakovich items on the program were invigorating. Alexander Toradze cavorted thunderously through the First Piano Concerto, and Gil-Ordóñez led a vital rendition of the Eighth Quartet, in the string-orchestra arrangement by Rudolf Barshai.

Connoisseurs came mainly for music by Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish Jewish composer who fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and joined the circle around Shostakovich. When Weinberg died, in 1996, he received few obituaries in the West; in the past decade, though, his name has gained lustre, with his 1968 Holocaust opera, “The Passenger,” being accorded productions around the world. Much of his large-scale symphonic writing dwells in Shostakovich’s mournful-antic shadow, yet in chamber forms Weinberg assumes a distinctive profile, his melodic fluency underpinned by a flair for tension and surprise. His output has benefitted from the advocacy of the violinist Gidon Kremer, a determined foe of usual-suspects programming, whose two Weinberg recordings, on ECM, make for an excellent introduction.

Weinberg did not escape the terrors of the Stalin era, and was briefly imprisoned, in 1953. In the wake of the Khrushchev thaw, his writing became more adventurous. His Symphony No. 10, for string orchestra (1968), which capped PostClassical’s program, encroaches on avant-garde territory: there are nebulous twelve-tone passages, scouring cluster chords, and anarchic jam sessions in which solo instruments play independently of one another. Off-kilter Baroque stylings recall Stravinsky and anticipate the meta-musical games of Alfred Schnittke. With this jaggedly original work, the follower becomes the leader: Shostakovich echoes several of Weinberg’s effects in his Thirteenth Quartet and Fourteenth Symphony.

The spectre of contemporary politics hovered here as well. The question of how artists should respond to repression no longer seems as historical or as distant as it did even a few months ago: PostClassical recently held a discussion with the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman, entitled “Artist Dissidents and Culture in the Age of Trump.” In a program note, Horowitz criticized J.F.K. for saying that the arts can thrive only in a free republic. Indeed, Shostakovich and Weinberg provide a monumental counterexample. It is, however, not difficult to imagine a nominally free but radically unequal society in which market forces drive the arts to the edge of extinction. The new potentates in Washington may feel that the dream is within reach. ♦

Click here to read the full article

Antonio Muñoz Molina on PCE’s Redes

“Revueltas is one of those composers who for various accidental reasons — his disorderly life and premature death, the fact of his being Mexican – does not occupy the place that he should in a present-day musical culture that clings so tenaciously to the sclerotic. . . . His music, so powerful in itself, highlights the rich artistic crossroads of the thirties, the tensions between modernity and mass culture, between formal innovation and political activism.


PostClassical Ensemble enters into this realm with an effort not only to recover works now merely names, but to put that music and those names in the context of their own time, to illuminate connections with politics, with social and historical facts, with everything that surrounds and feeds the music. With his bow ties and jumping locks of hair, Angel Gil-Ordonez possesses a double worldliness as an orchestral conductor and a professor at a prestigious American university. On New York City’s Upper West Side, Joseph Horowitz is a classical-music anchorite of scholarship and demanding passion, but his knowledge extends with equal rigor to literature and cinema, to the history of culture through the great crises of the twentieth century. His book Artists in Exile, on the great European diaspora caused by Nazism and Communism, combines the aspirations of an historical chronicle and a tidal novel. . . .


Their latest great effort of rediscovery is the premiere recording of the complete score composed by Silvestre Revueltas for a legendary 1935 Mexican film, Redes, in collaboration with the photographer Paul Strand and exiled Austrian filmmaker Fred Zinnemann. It is hard to imagine a more complete conjunction of talent. . . .


In 1935 the best films still preserved the purity and expressive visual sophistication of silent cinema. In Redes, imagery and music combine so powerfully that the few spoken words are rather irrelevant. Revueltas’s love of Stravinsky and of the folk music of Mexico inspire a fiercely corporeal rhythmic sensibility applied to the collective choreography of fishermen. Almost twenty years later, in Hollywood, Fred Zinnemann would direct High Noon, in which we find a bedazzled white clarity of inflexible sunlight identical Redes. Now, with a restored print of Redes and Revueltas’ soundtrack newly recorded by PostClassical Ensemble, the beauty of image and of sound register as never before. As Joseph Horowitz says, it is like experiencing a masterpiece of painting cleaned of centuries of grime. The exhausted and disillusioned Silvestre Revueltas of his final years would never have imagined such posterity.”


— Antonio Munoz Molina, in El Pais (Madrid), May 28, 2016

More than Hitchcock’s Handmaiden

More Than Hitchcock’s Handmaiden

There’s more to Bernard Herrmann’s career than his celebrated scores for Hitchcock films.

Bernard Herrmann rehearsing a radio drama in 1941.
Bernard Herrmann rehearsing a radio drama in 1941. PHOTO: CBS VIA GETTY IMAGES


In many ways, it’s remarkable that the composer Bernard Herrmann, who died at age 64 in 1975, is as well known as he is. His scores to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) and “Psycho” (1960) remain inseparable from those seminal pictures. Yet a significant number of Herrmann aficionados feel such recognition is insufficient, that much of this composer’s music is not just neglected but sorely underappreciated. And a good many of them gathered here recently, at Georgetown University and the National Gallery of Art, to make their case in a series of programs that examined not just Herrmann’s well-established achievements (like his nine-film collaboration with Hitchcock), but also the radio dramas he scored during his 16-year association with the CBS Symphony Orchestra and the still largely ignored music he wrote for the concert hall.

Joseph Horowitz—an author, music educator and impresario—was the moving force behind this gathering, which convened from April 15 through 17 under the banner “Bernard Herrmann: Screen, Stage, and Radio.” The conference began at Georgetown with a live re-creation of the last of 22 radio programs Herrmann scored for Norman Corwin, who became a lifelong friend of the prickly composer. Corwin is little remembered today (despite an Oscar-winning documentary short about him released in 2005), but in the 1930s and ’40s he was a probing and respected writer and producer of programs for the then-dominant medium of radio. The drama, “Untitled” (1944), used student actors and musicians to impressive effect, amplifying the earnestness of the material, in which an unnamed solider is recalled by those who knew him, from his small-town birth to his battlefield death. Herrmann’s music—spare, ardent, edgy and elegiac—complemented Corwin’s plain-spoken but stirring prose. Portions of the score without text were repeated on the evening’s program, which also included lectures by Herrmann scholars on his film work and relationship with the forward-looking CBS Symphony.

Dorothy Herrmann, one of the composer’s daughters, spoke in between, injecting robust humor into her unvarnished reminiscences of life with father. She mentioned that he initially loathed “Psycho,” “until it became a cult classic. Then, he couldn’t say enough good things about it.” She also discussed his one opera, “Wuthering Heights,” a passion project that went unstaged in his lifetime and was recorded only at his own expense. (Its belated premiere came in 1982, in Portland, Ore.; its most recent U.S. revival was in 2011, in Minneapolis.)

The following day brought what turned out to be the gathering’s highlight, another live re-creation of a Corwin-Herrmann radio drama, this one titled “Whitman” (1944), reconstructed by Christopher Husted. The live music was provided by PostClassical Ensemble, a local group conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez and run by Mr. Horowitz. The original broadcast, in which Corwin repurposed portions of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as anti-Axis propaganda, featured Charles Laughton as the poet, but a winning young actor, Sean Craig, brought fresh ardor to the words, backed by a score for strings, piano, harp and percussion that effectively combined nostalgic American tropes with lilting Impressionist motifs and tumescent motoric cells.

PostClassical Ensemble’s Sunday-afternoon performances of Herrmann’s “Souvenirs de Voyage,” “Sinfonietta for Strings” and “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra” in the National Gallery’s sumptuous West Garden Court concluded the festivities on a purely musical note. The first piece, a clarinet quintet, is a charming work in the manner of Debussy and Ravel, albeit with more than a hint of Herrmann’s moody “Vertigo” score, but its 1967 composition date markedly distances it from contemporary works. Conversely, the 1935 “Sinfonietta” is very much in step with, if not somewhat ahead of, that era’s cutting-edge. And for all the attempts to distance Herrmann’s “Psycho” music from its inspiration, it’s next to impossible for anyone who knows the movie to suppress its images on hearing the violins’ stabbing attacks.

Some Herrmann partisans blanch at the thought that his fame rests on the film music alone—a sentiment that the notoriously restless composer himself shared. But why? His efforts were essential to these pictures’ success. What may be needed is a reminder that Herrmann produced great scores not just for Hitchcock, but also for other gifted directors. The movies—whether William Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), Joseph Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), Nicholas Ray’s “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) or Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976)—are out there. People just need to see and hear them.

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on classical music and film.

A fresh take on the rarely heard music of Charles Ives

November 23, 2015

Charles Ives — that brilliant, visionary, utterly original and perfectly down-to-earth composer — may have written some of the most astonishing American music of the 20th century, but with a reputation for being “difficult,” he still shows up far too rarely on concert programs.

Fortunately, Ives has the formidable Angel Gil-Ordóñez and Joseph Horowitz of the PostClassical Ensemble as his champions, and on Sunday evening, they teamed up with the Georgetown University Orchestra to present two of the composer’s most iconic works: the Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Massachusetts 1840-1860” and the Symphony No. 2.

The PostClassical Ensemble is known for its contextual performances — enhancing music with contemporary writings and art — and for Sunday’s concert, baritone William Sharp joined pianist Steven Mayer for a performance of the “Concord” sonata that alternated writings from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Ives himself with the four movements of the work.

It is an interesting approach, but Mayer’s playing was so riveting that you found yourself wishing that Sharp would maybe just stay quiet for a bit and let the music speak for itself. Steeped in the transcendental philosophy of 19th-century Concord, it is a work of immense scale and a kind of roaring, ecstatic spirituality — qualities Mayer brought out in a searching and extraordinarily powerful performance.

You have to hand it to Georgetown University; despite a minuscule music department, the school can field a presentable orchestra (made up entirely of students who are not music majors) and bring off works as ambitious as Ives’s Symphony No. 2 from 1909.

Under Gil-Ordóñez’s baton, the orchestra turned in a colorful and often spirited performance, with a luminous “Adagio cantabile” movement and an explosive close — a performance that, in its direct and unvarnished sincerity, Ives would surely have enjoyed.

Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times

The New York Times
Anthony Tommasini
February, 2007

NEVER in American history, many argue, have political parties and administrations been more brazen about image manipulation and message control than they are now. But recent examples—the “Mission Accomplished” carrier landing, the new Democratic leadership team’s victory lap packaged as a listening tour—seem hapless in comparison with “The Plow That Broke the Plains” and “The River,” two government-financed documentaries from the 1930s that were shameless propaganda efforts.

These historic, engrossing and artistically rich films, directed by Pare Lorentz with original scores by Virgil Thomson, can be seen in a new DVD release from Naxos. Together they tell a grim saga of unchecked development in the Great Plains and the Mississippi River network. New Deal programs are presented as noble ventures aimed at aiding refugee families devastated by floods, droughts and dust storms, and offering the only means to reclaim America’s natural resources and right the environmental damage.

“The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936) and “The River” (1937) will make die-hard liberals long for the time when the government really knew how to produce propaganda on behalf of worthy causes. For a brief while, to propagate its domestic programs, the Roosevelt administration went into the movie business.

Thomson’s scores were crucial elements of both films. Sound technology was still relatively new. Lugging recording equipment into the field to capture human voices and the sounds of natural disasters would have been almost impossible. So the documentaries were conceived as silent films, with grandly poetic voice-over narrations and near-continuous musical scores.

The scores were originally performed by a pickup orchestra of players from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Alexander Smallens. The narrator was Thomas Chalmers, a Met baritone with a mellifluously oratorical speaking voice.

But the sound quality on the original prints is thin and crackly. So for this DVD, produced by the critic and concert impresario Joseph Horowitz, Naxos recruited the conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez to record the scores freshly with the Post-Classical Ensemble. The performances are lively and stylish. Floyd King makes an aptly oratorical narrator. Extra features include interviews that shed light on the improbable geneses of these films.

At the time Mr Lorentz, who died in 1992, was a noted young film critic and an avowed supporter of the New Deal. Though he had never directed a film, he had collected raw material for one, including photographs of dust storms—caused, in part, by the overplowing of the Plains—bread lines and migrant workers. He found a sympathetic government official in Rexford Guy Tugwell, the director of the Resettlement Administration, a division of the Department of Agriculture. Mr Tugwell backed “The Plow” and allotted Mr Lorentz a budget of $6,000. Mr Lorentz wound up spending more than $19,000.

Thomson, who died in 1989, loved to tell how he had been selected to work on “The Plow.” Mr Lorentz had previously talked with Roy Harris and Aaron Copland but hadn’t hit it off with either. He approached Thomson on the recommendation of a mutual friend, the director John Houseman.

When Mr Lorentz described the project, Thomson immediately asked, “How much money have you got?” Mr Lorentz said he could offer a composer no more than $500. Thomson, as he related in his 1966 autobiography, told Mr Lorentz: “I can’t take from any man more than he’s got, though if you did have more I would ask for it.” Thomson added: “My answer delighted him. ‘All those high-flyers,’ he said, ‘talk about nothing but aesthetics. You talk about money; you’re a professional.’ ”

Thomson was affected by the richly textured images of wheat fields, dust storms, arid lands, struggling settlers and impoverished migrant workers that Mr Lorentz’s top-flight, left-leaning cameramen had taken. In truth, some crucial scenes of struggling farmers had been filmed with actors. Thomson and Mr Lorentz agreed that the landscape should be rendered through the music of its people.

In an interview recorded in 1979 by the Yale Oral History Project and excerpted as a feature here, Thomson explains his approach to “The Plow.” The best way to elicit the intended emotional response from an audience, he says, is through “source music,” not abstract “emotion music, which is corny to start with.”

Thomson pored over collections of cowboy songs and settler folklore. Working under pressure, he produced 25 minutes of music in less than a week. The score uses familiar tunes, like “Laredo” and “Git Along, Little Dogies,” sometimes straightforwardly, sometimes as themes for contrapuntal development. The soundtrack is a patchwork of dances, hymns, neo-medieval counterpoint and, to evoke the Great Plains, choralelike passages with wide-spaced harmonies (a style that would soon influence Copland, then still in his thorny modernist phase).

Sometimes Thomson uses music to provoke a playful reaction. During a 1918 war sequence, for example, when the narrator explains that farmers were being pressed to turn grazing lands into wheat fields, we see a phalanx of tractors coming over a hill, like a battalion of tanks on a battlefield. Thomson accompanies this scene with a rousing orchestral rendition of “Mademoiselle From Armentières,” the marching song of American troops during World War I.

For the final segment Thomson makes a counterintuitive choice. In the spirit of an evangelical peroration “The Plow” ends with the narrator calling for action on behalf of desperate displaced farmers, some 50,000 a month, who ask only for “a chance to start over,” a chance “for their children to eat, to have medical care, to have homes again.” It concludes, “The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.”

Thomson accompanies the segment with, of all things, a tango. Yet somehow it works. The dance is rousing and confident. If the music seems incongruous, perhaps Thomson was subliminally signaling audiences that of course they were being manipulated, but toward a good end.

In any event, the major Hollywood studios, fearing controversy, at first refused to screen “The Plow” in theaters. But the film’s notoriety created a public demand, and it played as a 30-minute short along with feature films in theaters across America, mostly to cheering audiences and glowing reviews. “What the government has been saying about dust storms in the newspaper was said here in 30 minutes of unforgettable pictures,” the critic for The Nation wrote. Exactly so.

The DVD includes a fascinating interview with the filmmaker George Stoney. Born in 1916, Mr Stoney was a first-hand witness to the phenomenon of “The Plow” and “The River.” Both films, he explains, are like sermons. Man is placed by God in Eden; but man sins, so we recognize our flaws, repent and achieve salvation. How? Why, through the Tennessee Valley Authority and other Roosevelt programs.

The texts have a poetic character that recalls biblical passages invoking names and places. In “The River” the narrator, describing the destruction of primeval forests, intones, “Black spruce and Norway pine, Douglas fir and red cedar; scarlet oak and shagbark hickory: we built a hundred cities and a thousand towns, but at what cost?”

Yet as Mr Stoney comments, if these documentaries exhibit New Deal fervor, they also reveal New Deal hubris. The answer to flood control and sensible development was that a mighty river had to be “locked, dammed, regulated and controlled,” he says. We now know better. Hurricane Katrina was a tragic lesson in the limits of our ability to manage nature.

Mr Stoney also points out that to win support for his domestic programs, Prersident Franklin D. Roosevelt had to make a silent pact with Southern Democrats and mostly look the other way about race issues and segregation. “The Plow” acknowledges as much in a few fleeting scenes. At one point, describing the settlement of the Great Plains, the narrator says, “And they brought their blacks, their plows and their cotton.”

During a segment that touches on the Civil War, the film shows the final paragraphs of the text for the farewell speech of Robert E. Lee, the defeated Confederate general. Mr Stoney says that during screenings, audiences in the South would stand up as these sacred words scrolled by, accompanied by Thomson’s reflective music.

On the success of “The Plow” and “The River,” Roosevelt was so impressed with the communicative potential of documentaries that he financed the United States Film Service. But Congress, rightly viewing the program as a propaganda machine, scuttled its budget.

Corporate America had no such reticence. A decade later Thomson composed a score for Robert J. Flaherty’s film “Louisiana Story.” Officially the film is a drama with actors and a script telling the story of a Cajun boy in the Bayou who rafts through alligator-infested marshes and inky rivers and speaks French at home with his parents. The boy watches with awestruck wariness as industry arrives in the form of oil rigs and massive derricks.

But the film, produced by Standard Oil of New Jersey, becomes a reassuring tale of how industry and nature can live in harmony. Though “Louisiana Story” is a cinematically stunning and artistically distinguished work (it’s available on a Home Vision DVD), it is also a piece of absolute propaganda.

An orchestral suite from Thomson’s score for “Louisiana Story” earned him the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1949, still the only film music to be so honored. The paradox about Thomson’s involvement in propagandistic films is that he always claimed to have no interest in political ideology. As Mr Lorentz figured out, Thomson was a professional. A professional for hire of course.

Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post

Washington Post
Philip Kennicott
February 2007

At the 1938 Venice Film Festival, Pare Lorentz’s “The River” won best documentary for his New Deal film about the flooding and “taming” of the Mississippi River, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s far more ambitious “Olympia,” a visual symphony shot at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl’s celebration of athletic competition had strong Nazi undertones, but it was Lorentz’s Mississippi film that was the more forthright exercise in propaganda. It was bought and paid for by the U.S. government, an effort to convince the public that Roosevelt-era projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, would make the United States a more fair, livable and humane society.

It is such good propaganda that watching it 70 years later on a new Naxos DVD feels a little creepy.

“The River” was one of two major projects that Lorentz filmed with music commissioned from composer and famous music critic Virgil Thomson, and the DVD includes vibrant new recordings of the soundtracks by the D.C.-based Post-Classical Ensemble. Thomson’s music, combined with the Whitmanesque torrents of poetry in Lorentz’s script and powerful images of natural grandeur and squalid poverty, makes “The River” and the earlier “The Plow That Broke the Plains” disturbing examples of what a full-fledged American propaganda machine might produce. There are moments, especially involving tractors (the great fetish object of 20th-century propagandists), when you are certain that this film could have been produced in one of the political film mills of the totalitarian states of Europe.

The music draws on Thomson’s study and appreciation of cowboy ditties, church hymns and other folk melodies, all of which have such deep and far-reaching associations that few Americans will fail to find something that is both familiar and unconsciously haunting. Lorentz was smart enough to recognize great music when he heard it, and he cut his films to fit Thomson’s scores when necessary. The result is a quasi-operatic film that comes as close as anything this country produced to the great collaborations between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Prokofiev in the Soviet Union.

Although Thomson recycled his music into popular concert suites, hearing it in its original context is revelatory. He was taking film music in a very different direction from the composers who took root in Hollywood in the mid-1930s (Max Steiner, Franz Waxman), who were working in a lush, heavily orchestrated, post-Wagnerian vein. Often described as “deceptively simple,” Thomson’s music was leaner and more transparent, but filled with little flourishes, such as fugal passages, that set it far above the hackwork that accompanied so many commercial films. He followed the progress of the film’s editing closely, and his music is always in subtle dialogue with what one sees on-screen.

Given the state of camera technology at the time, it was prohibitively expensive, and unwieldy, to film outdoors with sound for a low-budget documentary. So Lorentz’s original soundtrack was made mostly in the studio, with Thomson’s music, a Voice of God narration and the occasional bit of “diegetic” sound (whistles, explosions, etc.) added when the visuals demanded it. That made it easy to rerecord the entire soundtrack from scratch for the DVD — which puts these often difficult-to-find films into general circulation again. The DVD also includes an option to play the film with the original, rather tinny sound, but most viewers will be far more satisfied with the new version, including the voice-over (by Shakespeare Theatre favorite Floyd King) that miraculously captures the orotund and overheated rhetorical style of the original.

The DVD also includes commentary from George Stoney, who showed “The River” often while he worked at the Farm Security Administration. Stoney’s observation that the film is structured like “an evangelical sermon” nails it. Both films build from a loving description of the landscape and then introduce the depredations of man into this state of innocence. The land is overtaxed, man has squandered his inheritance, nature takes its revenge. But through the benign grace of your government, help is on the way. If you’ve never teared up at the sight of a reforestation project or a new hydroelectric dam, well, maybe you haven’t seen Lorentz’s work.

Perhaps the most haunting images here are flooding scenes on the Mississippi. As Lorentz was finishing up “The River,” a huge flood overwhelmed the vast Mississippi system — and Lorentz sent his cameramen to capture the devastation. The film offers the hope that the river might one day be tamed, from the Gulf of Mexico to its farthest reaches into the continent. That was a false hope and now, after Hurricane Katrina, we know just how false. But the power of propaganda overwhelms any nagging questions raised by our sense of historical hindsight. Even if the idea of the government’s funding these films is abhorrent to you, even if the message they offer was premised on questionable land management ideas, cinematically they still work.

The propaganda impulse would move, in the 1940s, to Hollywood, as the major studios got behind the war effort. But mostly, American artists have shunned the idea of “Show Business for Uncle Sam,” as Thomson titled the chapter in his biography that covered his work with Lorentz. That doesn’t mean we don’t get plenty of propaganda — presidential photo ops, “video news releases” that masquerade as local television reporting — but we have not, very often, had propaganda of this quality and mastery and detail. These films are a lot of fun, but you’ll leave relieved there weren’t more of them.

PostClassical Ensemble traces influences in packed Iberian concert

Washington Post
Anne Midgette
March 11, 2015

In the classical music field, “multimedia” has become a tired buzzword for something purportedly unconventional, usually involving video projections. But the PostClassical Ensemble really did offer multimedia in its long, packed, content-rich concert as part of the Kennedy Center’s “Iberian Suite” festival Tuesday night.

It’s not just that the artists offered projections of images and videos, along with the relevant texts, on the back wall as an attractive accompaniment to the performances. It’s that they offered so many different kinds of performance, at a consistently high level.

The program was called “Iberian Mystics: The Confluence of Faiths,” and it set out to explore the effects of Christian, Jewish and Muslim influences on Spanish music and culture — a program ambitious enough to constitute a whole festival in itself. But concerns that this was going to be too much like a college lecture — given the slides and the presence of a narrator (Clark Young) — were mostly allayed by the performances, starting with members of Cathedra, the Washington National Cathedral’s resident professional chorus, singing motets by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

In the course of the evening, the audience also got a trio playing folk Sephardic songs on period instruments, an Arabic music ensemble with a tabla player who almost stole the show, emotive readings of texts by everyone from Teresa of Avila to Rumi, Cervantes to Lorca, and even a flamenco dancer. It was an impressive array, and, as far as presenting a wide cross-section of work in meaningful short excerpts, it pretty much blew the festival’s opening-night presentation last week out of the water. (Okay, it’s not a competition.)

All of the color and variety slightly overshadowed the performances by the PostClassical Ensemble itself, although the group sounded in fine form under its engaging music director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and offered satisfying chunks of straight-up classical music to show, more or less, how composers have tried to assimilate all this local color.

The second, slow movement of Manuel de Falla’s Keyboard Concerto, with Pedro Carboné as soloist, didn’t quite live up to its billing as, in Ravel’s words, “the greatest chamber music of the 20th century,” with its strummed, emphatic statements from keys and strings.

The Trio Sefardi (Susan Gaeta on vocals, Tina Chancey on strings and Howard Bass on lute) gave such lovely and luminous performances of folk songs that the ensuing orchestrations of “Six Sephardic Songs” by the 20th-century­ composer Joaquin Nin-Culmell were slightly anticlimactic. The soprano Mariana Mihai-Zoeter had a hard-edged, slightly strident voice that didn’t engage as much as Gaeta’s compelling, soft-grained one (although her gown was as beautiful as those in the festival fashion display in the Kennedy Center lobby).

And the first flamenco dance, executed by Sonía Olla with foot-stamping abandon backed up by the guitar and vocals of a trio of flamenco musicians, was so intense and earthy and real that adding dance to the Falla excerpts that followed seemed like gilding the lily, or watering down the experience, fine though the orchestra’s playing was.

Indeed, one of the evening’s inadvertent messages was that folk and spiritual influences are so powerful on their own that mixing them into classical composition can groom some of the spark right out of them. That’s not exactly news.

All the more credit, though, to the PostClassical Ensemble for presenting the original influences in such a way that the power still came through, and the audience could experience some of the process for themselves.

If you wanted one evening that summed up some of the scope and ambition of this festival, this was probably it.

Images and sounds in the service of FDR

Le Monde
Renaud Machart
March 2011

The reforms initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1938 as a result of the Great American Depression were accompanied by strong information campaigns. How to develop the vast inhospitable plain that crosses the country, from the Canadian border to Texas? How create colossal hydraulic constructions on the Mississippi? How convince workers to leave the destitute industrial cities and towns to reach the semi-urban communities built in the late 1930s?

Three documentaries were commissioned from 1936 to 1939 to illustrate the role of the New Deal in the redevelopment of the US. They have just been published for the first time on DVD, by the Naxos label.

The Plow That Broke the Plains (27 minutes, 1936) and The River (31 minutes, 1937) were written by Pare Lorentz. A film critic in Hollywood, he had never shot film but had devoted a book to the first year of the Roosevelt presidency. This led to a generous budget. He announced that he was concerned that the literary and musical dimension parallel the images (very inventive) . . .

Scandalous creation

Lorentz undertook to write voiceovers, whose emphasis and patriotic lyricism were inspired by the great American bard Walt Whitman.

The music for the two films was from commissioned Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). This Francophile composer and avant-gardist was the author, with Gertrude Stein, of Four Saints in Three Acts (1927-1933), the memory of which was still bright. The music of this opera was inspired by Erik Satie and French music from the 1920s, but also by the musical roots of the Missouri native Thomson. So the economy of his film scores opposes the flamboyant style of Hollywood composers Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. . . .

In 1939 there followed the film The City, a 43-minute documentary on urban planning, directed by Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke under the supervision of Pare Lorentz. Aaron Copland was engaged to write the score. Like Thomson, he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; his music is influenced by the rhythms of jazz, the frenzy of cities and machines. . . .

Copland follows the Thomson method he admired, and composed music for The City whose credo is defined by the composer André Previn “. Fewer notes” This approach would have limited influence in Hollywood, but David Raksin, the composer of the music of Laura (1944) and the great Bernard Herrmann, who composed for Alfred Hitchcock, would follow a related aesthetic.

The reissue of these documentaries is embellished with superb restorations of the films and newly recorded music tracks. Exciting interviews complete these DVDs, which remember the times of hope and social progress that were the Roosevelt years.

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