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STORM WARNINGS: The Future of Orchestras

STORM WARNINGS: THE FUTURE OF ORCHESTRAS

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I recently spent the three consecutive weekends speaking at conferences pertinent to the fate of America’s orchestras.

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

Washington

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.

PCE’s 2015-16 Season: American Music – An Alternative Narrative

AMERICAN MUSIC – AN ALTERNATIVE NARRATIVE
PostClassical Ensemble’s 2015-16 Season

The Standard Narrative for American concert music starts with Aaron Copland after World War I. It presumes that Copland and others of his generation were the first to create an “American style” based on American songs, American rhythms, American energies. Such populist Copland scores as Billy the Kid (1938) and Appalachian Spring (1944) are seen as seminal. At the same time, these composers are observed engaged in the project of creating an American symphonic canon, hot in pursuit of the Great American Symphony.

Part two of the same narrative, post-World War II, observed a mass migration to non-tonal styles, Copland included. This music (a product of Cold War times) was not remotely “populist.” In fact, it forged a schism between composer and audience.

In my Classical Music in America: A History (2005), I propose that in fact there are multiple American musical narratives, none of which take precedence over the others. I call these “musical streams, all of which achieved substantial results and none of which reached fruition.” In particular, I dispute the assumption that there was no American, American-sounding concert music of great merit before Copland.

The biggest flaw in the Standard Narrative is that, having been constructed beginning in the thirties, it fails to account for the genius of Charles Ives – whose music was not yet generally known. It is now evident that Ives composed Great American Symphonies some time before the interwar composers took up that cause: both his Symphony No. 2 (1907-1909) and Symphony No. 4 (1912-1925) are supreme achievements, mating American vernacular sounds and images with a hallowed European template.

And there are others. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, back in the 1850s, used black Creole tunes from his native New Orleans to fashion a captivating American idiom – music that didn’t re-enter the repertoire until the 1950s. In Boston, George Chadwick (dismissed by Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein in their influential versions of the Standard Narrative) created Jubilee (1895) and other salty American cameos that our orchestras have yet to discover. In New York, Antonin Dvorak turned himself into an American, creating an 1890s New World style inspired by “Negro melodies.”

And there is a “maverick” American tradition defined by such idiosyncratic, self-made Americans as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. Beginning with stray car parts, they collaboratively created the percussion ensemble as a musical genre. They also prophetically merged Western and Eastern musical styles. Harrison (1917-2003), in particular, was an American master who had no use for the Standard Narrative. He heralded today’s pervasive “postclassical” music, a post-modern phenomenon that chucks every assumption that “classical music” on the European model retains priority as the highest possible realm of musical experience.

Finally, there is a tradition of “interlopers” who have blended American popular and classical styles. Here the seminal figure is George Gershwin – once widely dismissed (as was Ives) as a dilettante. If we can admit film music to this “musical stream,” the towering figure is Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), best-remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on such films as Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Herrmann was ignored by the established non-tonal composers of his day. Now is the time to discover his concert works – of which the Clarinet Quintet (1967) is an American masterpiece somewhat in the style of Vertigo. As a leading radio conductor, Herrmann was an early champion of Charles Ives (as was Lou Harrison).

PostClassical Ensemble’s 2015-16 season explores alternatives to the Standard Narrative. From the fecund pre-World War I period, we celebrate Dvorak’s assistant Harry Burleigh (1866-1949), who was instrumental in transplanting spirituals into the concert hall. In fact, such pivotal Burleigh arrangements as “Deep River” are as much compositions as transcriptions – an observation we’ll explore in “Deep River” – The Art of the Spiritual.

Coming next, chronically, is Charles Ives, whose Second Symphony (belatedly premiered by Leonard Bernstein in 1951) has yet to attain the canonic status it obviously deserves. PCE’s Angel Gil-Ordonez conducts the Georgetown University in this American masterpiece – part of a PCE-produced Ives weekend also including two peerless Ives advocates: baritone William Sharp and pianist Steven Mayer.

Bernard Herrmann – Screen, Stage, and Radio is a multi-week immersion experience advocating the versatility and ingenuity of a leading American musician still incompletely known. Our series of screenings and concerts includes world-premiere restorations of two classic Norman Corwin radio dramas (music by Herrmann) in live performance, as well as a one-hour exploration of The Music of Psycho.

Lou Harrison – The Indonesian Connection illuminates Harrison’s groundbreaking percussion compositions, alongside Cowell and Cage, as well as his mature gamelan-inspired idiom. (PCE will also record a Harrison CD for Naxos.)

Finally, our “Schnyderfest” explores the musical world of the Swiss-American composer Daniel Schnyder (b. 1961) – an emblematic postclassical musician who delves deeply into jazz (he is a gifted saxophonist), and also mines the musics of Africa and Asia. With California’s Pacific Symphony, PCE has commissioned a Schnyder Pipa Concerto for the pipa genius Min Xiao-fen – to be premiered at the National Gallery of Art May 1. Our Schnyder weekend also includes Schnyder’s takes on George Gershwin and on Kurt Weill (a key post-Gershwin “interloper”), as well as F.W. Murnau’s silent cinema classic Faust (1926) with Schnyder’s film-score performed live.

I write in Classical Music in America:

In 1965 Elliott Carter lamented “the tendency for each generation in America to wipe away the memory of the previous one, and the general neglect of our own recent past, which we treat as a curiosity useful for young scholars in exercising their research techniques – so characteristic of American treatment of the work of its important artists.”

Carter’s plaint applies to . . . the streams of American classical music, each of which so little interacted with any other. It points to a pervasive fragmentation, to an absence of lineage and continuity complicated by a late start and a heterogeneous population, by two world wars and the confusing influx of powerful refugees. But this same fragmentation may be read as a protean variety: of composers who imitated Europe or rejected it; who preferred German music or French; who viewed the popular arts as a threat or as a point of departure. To a surprising degree – surprising because American institutions of performance have understood so little – American composers have partaken in the diversity of American music as a whole. It is, in the aggregate, a defining attribute.

–Joseph Horowitz
Executive Director, PostClassical Ensemble

Joe Horowitz on why you should not miss “Deep River” – The Art of the Spiritual on November 7

“American Music” (2014)

In 2005, Naxos released a highly praised DVD of two classic Pare Lorentz documentaries, The River (1936) and The Plow that Broke the Plains (1937), with new recordings of their legendary Virgil Thomson scores. The creative forces responsible for this venture—Joseph Horowitz, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and the Post-Classical Ensemble—have now turned their attention to Aaron Copland’s music for the 1939 film The City. Once again they have transformed the viewer’s experience of an aged film by replacing the monaural soundtrack with new narration and a high-quality stereo recording of the music.

There are numerous excellent justifications for such an undertaking. First, there is no modern recording of this important Copland score. Joseph Horowitz, who is one of the United States’ leading cultural historians, describes the score in his liner notes as “arguably, Copland’s highest achievement as a film composer, but far from his best-known.” The City marked Copland’s first foray into film music, giving him, as he wrote in his autobiography, “the credit I needed to approach Hollywood again.”1 Meanwhile the film itself, which examines the social implications of town planning, is widely considered one of the finest early documentaries: it “tells its story without wasting a shot,” as Time magazine put it back in 1939.

Beyond its attraction for Copland scholars and documentary specialists, this DVD offers an array of possibilities for classes on film music and American music history. For example, it would provide an excellent starting point for discussions of Depression-era politics and their impact on the arts. Produced for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, The City brought together a team of leading left-wing artists and thinkers from New York: cinematographers Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke; city planner Lewis Mumford, who wrote the script; Henwar Rodakiewicz, who created the scenario; actor Morris Carnovsky, who was the narrator; and, of course, Aaron Copland. Howard Pollack describes the film, which offers a vision for a better model for living and working in the United States, as an embodiment of the progressive socialist ideals and attitudes that these men shared.3 The City juxtaposes the countryside, a place rich in quality of life but poor in opportunity, with the urban center, its opposite. Mumford’s script proposes the union of the strengths of each lifestyle in new planned communities, which would offer a higher standard of living for American workers. In this context, Copland’s pared down and approachable score for The City serves as the musical expression of this quest for a more humane society, typical of his efforts to attract a broader public during the 1930s.

The three-part structure of the film—countryside, city, new planned city—meanwhile offers an excellent mechanism to compare and contrast Copland’s rural and urban musical tropes and thereby explore the nature of his musical Americanism. These tropes can be found across Copland’s output during this period but their straightforward juxtaposition here will aid in-class presentation. The alternately disturbing and humorous features of city life are especially elegantly depicted in this score.

The newly recorded soundtrack is largely excellent, with the Post-Classical Ensemble exemplifying the understated, light, and precise style of playing needed for Copland’s music. The striking saxophone solos are particularly evocative and compare very favorably to their counterparts on the original recording. (Such comparisons are easily made, since the DVD also includes the entire film with the original soundtrack as a bonus feature.)

A striking element of the new soundtrack—in marked contrast to the original—is the reduced volume of the narration in relation to the music. In his liner notes to the DVD, Horowitz explains that this approach is modeled on Virgil Thomson’s film music philosophy, which asserts that narration should be no louder than is required for it to be understood. The result is that the music of The City is much more noticeable than is conventional, thus going against common practice in Hollywood. Overall this approach poses few problems in The City because narration and music mostly alternate. In the brief moments where they overlap, however, it can be a little more difficult to understand Francis Guinan’s fine new narration. Nevertheless, the decision seems entirely justified given that Copland’s music serves such a crucial role in expressing the message of this dialogue- and sound effects–free film.

The DVD comes with three fascinating bonus features that offer additional teaching-related opportunities: The entire film with the original soundtrack (mentioned above); a documentary about the town of Greenbelt, Maryland, where the final section of the film was shot; and a conversation between Joseph Horowitz and George Stoney, a documentary filmmaker and a historian of the genre. Stoney’s conversation with Horowitz will be useful for students of both film and music history. Particularly interesting is Stoney’s discussion of the role of music in the early documentary. In The City, he says, music serves both to emphasize the film’s political message and to provide relief from its weightiness. Elsewhere Horowitz assesses the influence of Thomson’s film music on Copland  Multimedia Review 537 and describes the nature of their combined contribution to the genre. Together, he says, they crafted uniquely “American” soundtracks that differed markedly from the European-influenced Hollywood model, creating a leaner style with “fewer notes” that others would soon emulate.

Emily Ansari

University of Western Ontario

The City. Lewis Mumford, script. Ralph Steiner and Willard von Dyke, cinematography. Aaron Copland, music. 1939. Soundtrack recreated by Post-Classical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, music director, Joseph Horowitz, artistic director. 2009. Distributed by Naxos. New soundtrack (music and narration) recorded in Dolby Digital / DTS Surround. 132 minutes including bonus features.

Ansari review of The City PDF

PCE’s Dvórak and America CD named one of 2014’s Top Ten Most-Coveted!

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“Dvorak and America,” featuring the Hiawatha Melodrama, is CD OF THE WEEK!

SAMPLE the HIAWATHA MELODRAMA!

PCE’s recent CD release, Dvorak and America, has just been named Album of the Week by New York’s Classical Music Radio Station, WQXR and Minnesota Public Radio!

Dvorak and America cover

ABOUT THIS RECORDING…

At the center of this ambitious recording is the premiere of a work for actor and orchestra called Hiawatha Melodrama. It was conceived and assembled by the author and music entrepreneur Joseph Horowitz, with contributions from NYU musicologist Michael Beckerman. The piece consists of the narration of a condensed version of Longfellow’s 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha” flavored with a score drawn largely from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. The idea is to draw links between a poem that had been hugely popular when Dvorak arrived in America, and the composer’s Symphony, which captured some of the soulfulness of black spirituals. Baritone Kevin Deas is the fiery and affecting narrator here.

The recording also features examples of Dvorak’s American-influenced compositions such as the Violin Sonatina in G, his Humoresques, Op. 101 for piano, his American Suite, Op. 98, plus three works by American composer and Native American music scholar Arthur Farwell. The fine Benjamin Pasternack is the soloist on the piano works.

Dvorak and America back

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING…

“This compendium of music and words provides a genuinely interesting and difficult-to-describe musical experience that provides considerable insight into the ways in which America influenced Dvořák and the way the great Czech composer returned the favor.”  – Mark Estren, infodad.com

CLICK HERE to read more

An excerpt from the Hiawatha Melodrama:

To read about the Hiawatha Melodrama and the “Dvorak and America” CD:
Dvorak’s “Hiawatha” Symphony
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PostClassical Ensemble launches CD on Naxos label: Dvorák and America

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The centrepiece of this programme is the first ever recording of the Hiawatha Melodrama, a concert work for narrator and orchestra designed to show the kinship between Dvořák’s New World Symphony and Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvořák said had inspired him in the symphony. It takes music from the symphony, as well as passages from the American Suite and Violin Sonatina, and fuses them with the poem, which is recited by a bass-baritone. Also included is music by Arthur Farwell, who was influenced by Dvořák, and was a proponent of Native American music. This recording thus celebrates the crosscurrent of influences between the Czech composer and American music and culture.

Read more here…

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Anton Seidl’s “Good Night:” A World Premiere Recording

In the 1890s, when Wagnerism was at its height, Wagner’s American disciple Anton Seidl (1850-1898) would lead concerts fourteen times a week at Coney Island. He mainly conducted Wagner. The concerts, at the seaside Brighton Beach Music Pavilion (capacity 3,000), included children’s programs and the Seidl Society children’s chorus. Seidl himself composed a work for the children, “Good Night,” the manuscript of which resides at the Seidl Archives at Columbia University.

“Good Night” received its first performance since 1898 in February, 2014, as part of “Scenes from Childhood,” a concert presented by PostClassical Ensemble  at DC’s Dumbarton Church. The chorus was Washington National Cathedral Choir of Boys and Girls (Michael McCarthy, conductor), conducted on this occasion by PCE Music Director Angel Gil-Ordonez.

The story of the Seidl Society is one of the strangest and most stirring in the history of classical music in America. It was a singular Brooklyn women’s club, founded by Laura Langford. In summer, the Society presented Seidl and his orchestra at Brighton Beach. In winter, the Society’s Seidl concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music were more numerous than those of the New York Philharmonic, also conducted by Seidl, across the river. Propagating Wagner as a spiritual therapy, the Society hosted working women and African-American orphans, presented lectures on social and spiritual betterment, reserved special railroad cars so unescorted women could attend the Brighton Beach concerts; its goal — aborted by Seidl’s death — was a Brooklyn Bayreuth.

Seidl had aspirations to compose, and was working on a Hiawatha opera when he died. Though he produced numerous transcriptions for orchestra, he left only a single composition of note: “Good Night,” composed and premiered in 1895. I discovered the score when researching my book Wagner Nights: An American History at Columbia University’s Seidl Archive. (I’ve also written about Seidl and Langford in Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle). The text, a poem by Edna Dean Proctor, reads:

Good-night! Good-night! The morn will light
The east before the dawn,
And stars arise to gem the skies
When these have westward gone.
Good-night! And sweet be thy repose
Through all their shining way,
Till darkness goes, and bird and rose,
With rapture greet the day, –
Good-night!

“Good Night” was last performed on May 2, 1898 — the Seidl Society’s memorial concert for Anton Seidl. Emil Fischer, a much-loved bass in his final American performance, sang Wotan’s Farwell. The program also included the Dream Music from Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, Liszt’s Les preludes and Concerto pathetique (arranged for piano and orchestra), and, to close, Siegfried’s Funeral Music, for which the audience was asked to stand. Langford rose to explain that, as Fischer was sailing for Europe that very day, Wotan’s Farewell would be repositioned near the beginning of the evening. This short speech effectively ended Laura Langford’s public career. A Seidl monument at Brighton Beach was advocated by the Eagle; none was erected. The Seidl Society ceased to exist.

For the PostClassical Ensemble performance, the piano accompaniment for “Good Night” was transcribed (and performed) for solo harp by Jacqueline Pollauf.

PCE’s Angel spends Cinco de Mayo with President Obama

President Barack Obama joins members of the Georgetown University Orchestra for a group photo in the Red Room before a Cinco de Mayo reception in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2014.  (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy) This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

President Barack Obama joins members of the Georgetown University Orchestra for a group photo in the Red Room before a Cinco de Mayo reception in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

 

PostClassical’s music director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, was invited to participate in the Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House and brought members of the Georgetown University Orchestra with him to perform.

 

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