Charles Ives: Three Places in New England
Adolf Weiss: American Life
Carl Ruggles: Men and Mountains
Henry Cowell: Synchrony
Amadeo Roldan: La Rebambaramba
American Composers Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies (conductor)
With the possible exception of Oscar Levant, the most entertaining gadfly on the classical music scene during the last century was Nicolas Slonimsky. Pianist, composer, conductor, author, lexicographer and raconteur, Slonimsky, like Churchill, never cared much about what history books would say about him since “…I write most of them anyway”. Perhaps best known as the editor of Thompson’s and later Baker’s (a kind of Grove’s with the rectal stick removed), Slonimsky described himself in his entry in the biographical dictionary of musicians as “a failed wunderkind”. Bouncing around the fringes of the avant-garde in the second quarter of the century, he was responsible for several extremely important concerts which introduced the world to the music of American geniuses whose lights were buried under thousands of snobbish European bushels. In 1931, Slonimsky conducted significant performances in Paris, Berlin and Budapest and this afternoon the American Composers Orchestra recreated one of these revolutionary events for a still amazed public.
Earlier in that year, Slonimsky, then assistant to Serge Koussevitsky in Boston, presented the world premiere of one of the most significant masterpieces of the twentieth century, Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England. He introduced this titan of composition to Europe during his tour, prompting Arnold Schoenberg to write glowingly of Ives’ abilities not only as a revolutionary composer but also as a uniquely gifted communicator of the true sounds of the New World. The piece as a whole is richly complex, but the Putnam’s Camp section is possibly the most difficult to perform in the entire orchestral literature (rivaled only by Schoenberg’s own Variations). This may sound paradoxical, but in order to communicate a sterling performance of the piece, the sonorities must be both muddy and clear at the same time, that is, even in the midst of engineered cacophony, each melodic and harmonic line must be audible. No mean task and often flubbed by major symphonic organizations, this afternoon’s reading was incredible, exciting and robust, murky and crystalline, truly revolutionary. The orchestra is an inspiration of passion over practicality, the individual members there not for the money but rather the joy of communicating the masterworks of the previous century. Many of the names on the ensemble’s roster are familiar as dedicated personnel of other New York orchestras. On Sundays, they do it for sheer love.
Henry Cowell was equally innovative and even more misunderstood than Ives. Ironically, he lived in the country to which Benjamin Britten escaped to avoid persecution for both his pacifism and homosexuality, and yet Cowell ended up in prison for exactly these reasons (the report of the conversation between Ives and Cowell in the visiting room remarkably similar to that of Emerson and Thoreau during a different century). Synchrony was previously given its world premiere by Slonimsky and represents another form of shocking originality. The opening, seemingly off-stage, trumpet call reminds of Ives’ profound Unanswered Question and Cowell forms a fine series of interwoven musings on the original idea. Again the performance was superb.
Although he did not conduct the first performance of Men and Mountains, Slonimsky did mount the world premiere of Carl Ruggles’ Sun-Treader in 1932. The present work is powerfully eloquent and always makes me regret the infinitesimal output of the composer. Never have I heard the mountains’ majesty so powerfully portrayed.
Adolf Weiss was a bassoonist under Mahler at the New York Philharmonic and a minor figure of contemporary composition who studied his craft with Schoenberg. Like his teacher, he emigrated to Hollywood and helped to superimpose the Central European consciousness on future generations of moviegoers. The piece presented today was meant to be a jazz suite, emphasizing the tawdry side. Sounding strangely like the music accompanying Jimmy Stewart’s stumble through Potterville, it certainly helped to foster the stereotype of Americans then rampaging over the Continent.
One of Slonimsky’s most important works was his Music of Latin America, the first and still the best study of the sounds of this region as serious and important art rather than as simply an aspect of “local color”. He was a champion of the genre and programmed Mexican and Cuban compositions for his European tour. Amadeo Roldan was a mulatto who fused the rhythms of Afro-Cuba with the orchestrations of middle Europe. Slonimsky relates with glee how much fun the Berlin Philharmonic had with this piece, particularly the opportunity to play with so many gourd-like instruments. I’m sure that they did and that the audience was suitably impressed, however, musically this work is little more than a high school band style of arrangement. Having said that, however, the ACO played it extremely spiritedly.
This is the last season for Dennis Russell Davies at the helm of the American Composer’s Orchestra (he moves on to the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz next year). He has done a masterful job of presenting modern music and molding a professional sound from part-time players. It was truly a shame that there were so few people in attendance this day. Carnegie Hall deserves much credit for giving these wonderful waifs a home, but even severely reduced ticket prices don’t seem to lure in the fans. It was ever so; it has always been difficult to fill the house for music which possesses, in Liszt’s words, “…the grave defect of being contemporary.”
Frederick L. Kirshnit