Monday, December 18, 2006

Our Quotient Of Christmas Music Has Been Satisfied

Joshua and I have now had our quotient of Christmas music for the year, and both of us are now ready to move on to other things. In the last three weeks or so, we have listened to a disc of contemporary American choral music for Christmas, a disc of carols arranged for brass, "Amahl And The Night Visitors", the complete "The Nutcracker" and "The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Christmas Album". This has been quite enough for us for one Christmas season.

Happily, when we will all be together for the holidays, no one will want to listen to music. My brothers will want to keep ESPN on the television round-the-clock, and my parents will be so intently focused on their grandson that listening to music will be the last thing on their minds.

Josh and I put two discs into the disc player tonight to occupy us for the next three nights, before we decamp and move over to my parents' house. Josh picked the discs, and he chose two discs of American music, one of which is American music for brass ensemble. Josh, a former trumpet player, loves music for brass ensemble, and so do I.

One disc is titled "An American Tapestry", on the Dorian label, and it features the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. The disc includes William Schuman's "New England Triptych", Charles Tomlinson Griffes' "The White Peacock", Charles Ives' "Three Places In New England", Hovhaness' Symphony No. 2 and Piston's "The Incredible Flutist" Suite.

The Dallas Symphony is one of America's very finest orchestras, but few persons in the U.S. seem to know this fact because the orchestra very seldom appears in New York City. It plays in the finest concert hall in America, bar none, and few persons seem to know this fact, either. The management of the orchestra does not seem to find it vital to publicize the orchestra or the hall beyond the confines of the city. Wise or not, this is a conscious decision on the part of the Board Of Directors, which believes that it is more important for the orchestra to appear in Europe on a routine basis than for the orchestra to appear in New York with any frequency. Consequently, Dallas is that rare U.S. orchestral phenomenon, better known to European audiences than to audiences on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

The most powerful and influential person on the Dallas Symphony Board Of Directors is a man of the most extraordinary erudition, but also a man of firm opinions that not everyone else shares. Consequently, Dallas maintains more of an arm's-length relationship with America's New York-based musical establishment than most other American orchestras, which is all to the good in many respects--but this does not help the orchestra in gaining its rightful due within that same musical establishment. How many readers of "The New York Times" are aware that the Dallas orchestra is vastly superior to the orchestras in Atlanta, Los Angeles or San Francisco, all of which are routinely extolled in that newspaper's pages? Not too many, I fear.

This disc features exceptional playing and exceptional recording technology. It is a great disc. The performance of the "New England Triptych" is the best I have ever heard, and I think I have heard them all (and I think I own them all). It is the only recording that makes this piece truly sound like a genuinely great piece of music. The other works on the disc are just as finely played, although not all of these pieces are great pieces, to be sure. I have never cared for the Piston and, after hearing this performance, I still do not. The Griffes is too short a composition to make much of an impression--it is only half as long as Debussy's "Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun", with which it bears some similarity--and the Ives , like most of Ives, is too full of ideas and too lacking in skill and craftsmanship to realize those ideas ("genius without talent", as the saying goes). The Hovhaness is a very, very fine performance, perhaps as fine as the classic Reiner version. I have never cared for Hovhaness' music, but I can understand why some people respond to this particular symphony, as it has a certain beauty about it. This happens to be the second Hovhaness symphony that Josh and I have listened to in the last few weeks, and we have liked them both. Goodness!

It will be interesting to see who the Dallas Symphony selects to replace Andrew Litton. Many informed persons believe that Claus Peter Flor is the perfect conductor for the position, and Flor has given many supurb, even memorable, performances with the orchestra over the last several years. However, knowledgeable insiders say that Flor is being passed over. Whether Dallas selects Flor or someone else, it is time for Flor to lead an American orchestra that needs an injection of musianship. Among orchestras currently looking, Flor would seem to be ideal for Detroit, after years and years and years under the facile Neeme Jarvi, or Washington, in need of someone with a penetrating musical mind and a command of the Central European repertory after an unfortunate decade under Leonard Slatkin.

The other disc is titled "From The Steeples And The Mountains". It is on the Hyperion label and offers performances by the London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble under Christopher Larkin. Music of Ives, Ruggles, Harris, Cowell, Thomson, Barber, Carter and Glass is on the disc.

The music is quite interesting. The finest piece is probably Barber's "Mutations From Bach"; none of the other pieces is on quite so high a level. However, all of the compositions offer something worthwhile and intriguing to listen to, and this is all any listener requires.

The Philip Glass piece is entirely atypical of Glass. It is a brass sextet, completed in 1964, before Glass began pursuing the practice of minimalism. The piece is obviously written by someone very familiar with the music of Copland--and, for a young American composer in 1964, how could that be otherwise?--and no one today would ever be able to guess that it was a composition by Glass. The brass sextet no longer appears on Glass's official work list, but it was published in Great Britain in the 1960's, which accounts for its current availability. It would be a great "stump the panel" composition!

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