Photo by Jim ArndtFinished Symphonies
Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, on at the Hollywood Bowl last week, was the most significant out-of-the-way music in this summer’s Bowl programming. It dates from a time when the notion of the Great American Symphony was taken as a cultural imperative: the triumphant assertion of this country’s ordained place in the cultural firmament. Never mind that an American cultural identity had by 1945 already nailed down its place in that firmament, and Copland had done his part along with others — Gershwin, Thomson, Ellington, you-name-’em — in inventing a serious musical language. Still, there was something magic about “symphony”; it implied the privilege of sitting with the grownups, membership in an international club. And so we got symphonies: grandiose extended works by America’s first symphonic generation. Roy Harris, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, David Diamond, Walter Piston and their lesser colleagues wrote symphonies by the basketful. Conductors of the day, most of all Boston’s eager-eyed Serge Koussevitzky and his acolyte Leonard Bernstein, introduced each work as “the greatest since Brahms.” Copland had the good sense to stop at No. 3. (His first two, actually, came early in his career, his lively experimental days; he really only contributed the one to the basket.)While it might be taken as bad manners to generalize over so considerable an output of music that has kept so many orchestral musicians employed and recorded over half a century — and enabled minor figures like Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz to carve a niche for themselves as champions of America’s symphonic glory — I am obliged to insert my own small voice right about here and suggest that the Great American Symphony still remains uncomposed, and rightly so. Do we live in hope? I don’t see why we should; there are better ways for today’s composers to occupy themselves than engaging the symphonic chimera, and better names for the results. (In case anyone asks, I consider the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions the least disastrous American symphony so far.)The Copland Third received a strong performance under the Eugene Symphony’s Giancarlo Guerrero. From his credentials I gather that he devotes a fair amount of time in Eugene to new American music, and the more power to him. But the Copland is, to me, beyond salvation. Its first two movements force bland, formulaic music into “symphonic” attitudes they do not fit: development, variation, repetition. The second movement has some of Copland’s fine jiggety-jog, but again forced into repetitive symphonic patterns; a few cowboys or Appalachian settlers whoopin’ across the stage would help. The slow movement is deadly dull and morose, and the finale gains somewhat by its inclusion of the famous “Fanfare for the Common Man,” although the peroration strikes me as cheap. Overall, I cannot see Copland’s motivation for cantilevering any of this material out to symphonic length. The symphony runs nearly 45 minutes, the longest of his orchestral works and the most diffuse. The two by Tchaikovsky that began the program — the Romeo and Juliet, and the Rococo Variations with the young Johannes Moser, the mettlesome cello soloist — made their musical points far more tidily than the lumbering behemoth of a pseudosymphony that ensued.Mom, Pop, Uncle George and Bill
Bridge Records is a small mom-’n’-pop company up the Hudson from New York, run by guitarist David Starobin and wife Becky, and one of its missions is to create a complete recording of the music of grand old George Crumb. The ninth disc, now at hand, includes music that stood as a landmark — in my generation at least and, I’m sure, others — for its revelation of the far boundaries of “classical” music, and for how little those boundaries really mattered anymore. Ancient Voices of Children was a piece like no other, drawing on known poetic sources (the dark lyrics of Garcia Lorca) but set, with remarkable freedom, to musical resources beyond definition: a boy soprano, a percussionist using tuned stones, a musical saw. Its time was the start of the Solid ’70s, but here was music beyond time, existing untethered in pure air, and even beckoning to us to join. On the original LP with Jan DeGaetani among the singers, the work turned the Nonesuch label into a generational imperative. I had smoked my first joint shortly before Ancient Voices came around. The disc has made it possible to repeat the experience anytime, straight. It was the first head music respectable enough to appear on a concert stage. (Crumb’s Black Angels, from the same era, was the second.)The new recording comes 35 years too late to revisit upon civilization exactly the same impact, but the music is there still, and the aura remains as well. Tony Arnold is the soprano, Justin Murray the boy soprano; David Colson leads the marvelously heterogeneous ensemble. There are further treasures: four sets of Garcia Lorca settings (Madrigals) for soprano and ensemble, and, I happily report, the EineKleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music), Crumb’s extended set of the “ruminations” — not quite improv, in other words — on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” that we heard during last season’s Pacific Symphony Crumbfest in Costa Mesa.William Bolcom has seven symphonies to his name, but the world knows him better
for his vocal music — the operas, which have triumphed at the Chicago Lyric and
Met, and the great cycle of William Blake poems Songs of Innocence and of Experience,
which the Pacific Symphony gave us two years ago and which has now been recorded
on Naxos. Now, again on Naxos, there is a glorious collection of solo songs: pieces
from his off-Broadway musicals, children’s songs and a cycle of American women’s
poems. As with the Blake cycle, the amazement here is in the variety of Bolcom’s
music, from the most endearing childlike charm to a song called “The Last Days
of Mankind” wherein you’d swear that the ghosts of Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht
were again abroad in the land with heavy tread. The powerhouse singer is Carole
Farley, whom I have admired as Berg’s Lulu; Bolcom himself takes charge of his
complex, nicely shaded piano collaborations. The disc begins with a lumbar-leveling
scream, and goes onward and upward from there.

LA Weekly