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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.

A fresh take on the rarely heard music of Charles Ives


November 23, 2015
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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.

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

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.

Aaron Copland’s legacy intact

The Washington Post
Patrick Rucker
July 10, 2015

A composer’s posthumous reputation is nothing if not uncertain. Take Stephen Foster, who died destitute in a Bowery hotel in 1864 but whose songs, now familiar to everyone, encapsulate an era. Or Foster’s contemporary, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose success both in Europe and throughout the Americas was like no one else’s before him but whose music, when heard today, sounds maudlin to our ears.

Thursday night the PostClassical Ensemble collaborated with The Phillips Collection to offer a glimpse of the posthumous reputation of the “Dean of American Composers,” Aaron Copland, who died 25 years ago. Titled “Copland and the City,” the program amounted almost to a career retrospective, albeit a succinct one focused on the first 40 years of Copland’s life.

With New York his lifelong center of operations, Copland is as entitled as anyone to be considered an urban composer. Paintings on urban themes from the collection, by Hopper, Hirsch, Marin, Davis and others, were specially hung on the walls of the Phillips music room.

Lura Johnson opened the program with a powerful performance of “Piano Variations” from 1930, Copland’s seminal work for the instrument. Her performance emphasized the audacity of Copland’s ultra-modernist style before he evolved a more populist voice.

Next, PostClassical’s artistic director, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conducted an 11-piece chamber ensemble in “Quiet City,” a 1940 score that originated as music to a now forgotten play by Irwin Shaw. Atmospheric solos for English horn and trumpet, beautifully played by Fatma Daglar and Tim White, rose to the level of expressive dialogue.

Then Lewis Mumford’s documentary “The City,” created for the 1939 World’s Fair, with a score by Copland, was shown. In 1990 the film was re-released by Naxos, with a newly recorded soundtrack by Gil-Ordóñez and the PostClassical Ensemble.

The film depicts a bucolic America lost to urban blight and industrialization while advocating smaller, planned communities as more suitable for healthy families. Copland’s score sounded as fresh as the day it was written.

Afterward, PostClassical’s executive director, Joseph Horowitz, who provided thoughtful commentary throughout the evening, was joined by Johnson, Gil-Ordóñez, architect Thomas Krähenbühl and Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott in a discussion.

The evening proved a rare instance of unqualifiedly successful cross-disciplinary programming, with music, film, painting and architecture playing mutually supportive roles. It almost seemed as if Copland’s benevolent spirit was present, presiding over everything.

With scores like “Appalachian Spring,” “Rodeo,” “Lincoln Portrait, and “Fanfare for the Common Man” now subsumed into the bedrock of the American consciousness, Copland’s iconic status as musical elder statesman is secure. As Thursday night amply demonstrated, each new exposure to Copland’s music is a reminder of how direct, apt and powerful it remains.

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