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“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
Part 1

Part 2

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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.

 

Joe Horowitz’s blog in Arts Journal online about neglected Mexican composer Revueltas

PCE Executive Director, Joe Horowitz, has just published a blog entry in Arts Journal online, in which he discusses PostClassical Ensemble’s recent Mexican Revolution festival, whose attention focused on Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.  
Redes 2

PCE, in this week’s New Yorker magazine!

Writer Joan Acocella, dance and book critic for The New Yorker, has written an article which is running in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine.  The article is entitled “Country Strong: Manuel de Falla and the struggle to define Spanish dance;” click here to read the entire article.

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One PostClassical Fan Made a Difference… How You Can Help Her Do More

Dear Music Lover,

The thing is I’m no heiress. I haven’t married a hedge fund manager… and I spend more time writing about macroeconomics for The Daily Reckoning than I do making investments. I’m just 31 years old.

I hope you don’t think me crass, but I’d like to show you something personal. It is money… my money… at least it’s mine for the next few minutes.
Here’s what it looks like…

It’s my annual Christmas bonus. Now, I know what you’re thinking. And I agree with you… it’s not much. (Especially after I’ve paid out my taxes and other deductions.)

But let me ask you this: you could still do something pretty nice with $646.45… couldn’t you?

Because that’s what I hope to do too — “something nice.”  I’m about to take my Christmas bonus — every penny of it —and sign it over to PostClassical Ensemble.

Now let me tell you why I’m doing it…

I have served on the Board here at PostClassical since 2010, I reverse-commute to D.C. from Baltimore for meetings and to spend whole weekends at the National Gallery of Art… Dumbarton Church… Strathmore… or Clarice Smith to attend EVERY event that PCE puts on.

I love what they’re doing just that much. Plus, there’s more to do in 2014!

Why Give? 5 Reasons

  • PostClassical’s 10th Anniversary season — We need to celebrate our growth and expand further
  • Mexican Revolution Festival — Cementing the ties connecting two great nations with the music of Revueltas and the film Redes… with fabulous songstress Eugenia León and other surprise guests
  • Britten@100 — the PCE Way — with Ben Capps on cello — Having heard Joe’s newest discovery play at board member Liz Cullen’s house on the Potomac, right across from George’s Mt. Vernon, I say: we’ve got to record this promising talent on his cello named Duchess!
  • Uniting the Two Cultural Hotbeds: Baltimore and D.C. — We’re looking to bring every PCE show to a new city — Baltimore — and expand our vision for inclusive programming… working with schools like Peabody and Baltimore School for the Arts. This will take more funds, but I hope you agree it’s well worth it to create the next generation of PostClassical fans and performers.
  • Our Partnership with Duke Ellington School of the Arts — Last year, I heard our conductor Angel lead these talented young students in a challenging program including Dvorák’s New World Symphony and was blown away by the results… and I look forward to more in the coming years!

And I’ll let you in on a little secretif you have not given recently to PCE and you give over $500, you will receive an immediate invitation from the Ambassador of Mexico to our 2014 Mexican Revolution Gala on May 8th at the Mexican Cultural Institute. It’s our first-ever gala event… and I know you’d enjoy meeting the Ensemble, hearing them play and enjoying the Tempranillo in the company of our other esteemed PCE supporters and friends. We’ve got an impressive ten years to celebrate!

Okay, there’s one more little reason I’m hoping you’ll join me and give. 
See, I have another check coming to me this year too. Possibly a big one, in the $8,000 range. This one’s for my share of my company’s profits in 2013.
And I promised conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez that I would sign that entire check over to PostClassical too… but if and ONLY IF you and your fellow donors and friends of the Ensemble can come up with 15 more donation checks, also filled out for at least $500 each. 
In other words, if you and 14 friends each donate $500 to the group… I’ll sign over my entire other bonus check too.
It’s like “matching” on steroids. And I’m happy to do it.

By joining me, you’ll be helping too: To support the group. To spread the music. And to help guarantee another exceptional ten years.

I hope you’ll agree to join me, with whatever amount you can give.

I’m not the wealthiest philanthropist, but this is so important that I’m giving at least this much, guaranteed…

And quite possibly, quite a bit more.

And remember, if you give at least $500, you’ll get personally invited to our first-ever gala by the Mexican Ambassador.

To donate, please go to our website at postclassical.com. Or call Mary Marron: 301-651-9794 to use a credit card. Checks can be sent to: PCE, 5104 44th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20016

On behalf PostClassical Ensemble and all the performers, thank you in advance for anything you can give. I hope you’ll come to our gala so I can thank you in person, too. 

Either way, let us hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

Samantha Buker
Board Member, PostClassical Ensemble since 2010

P.S. The next time you come to a PostClassical Ensemble concert, be sure to bring a friend too. I hope to hear from you soon! You are the future of PostClassical. You are the future of classical music in America.

PostClassical’s next on WETA’s “Front Row Washington”

Listen in to WETA’s “Front Row Washington” program on Monday, Novermber 11 at 9pm, for a broadcast of a performance, part of Post Classical Ensemble’s multi-week “Interpreting Shostakovich” festival last November, which was awarded the Musical Event of the Year from Radio Liberty/Free Europe. This National Gallery of Art performance by Post Classical Ensemble features two chamber symphonies plus solo piano works played by George Vatchnadze.  Recorded November 4, 2012 in the National Gallery of Art’s West Garden Court by John Conway.

PostClassical Ensemble
Angel Gil-Ordóñez, Music Director
Joseph Horowitz, Artistic Director
George Vatchnadze, pianist

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH:  Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor, Op. 110 a (Transcribed by Rudolf Barshai from String Quartet No. 8, Op. 110)

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Preludes and Fugues for Solo Piano from Op. 87
Prelude in C Major (as recorded by the composer)
Prelude and Fugue in C Major
Prelude and Fugue in G Minor
George Vatchnadze, pianist

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH: Chamber Symphony for Strings in A-flat Major, Op. 118a  (Transcribed by Rudolf Barshai from String Quartet no. 10, Op. 118)

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