Exuberant performances of irrepressibly melodic, profoundly delightful music
Lukas Foss died on February 1 of this year at the age of 86. Composer, conductor, orchestra builder, virtuoso pianist, and respected teacher, Foss wore many hats after he made his first big splash with this audacious song of praise to the American spirit. He had been composing since age seven, but it was Robert Shaw’s 1944 premiere of this work that brought him to the attention of the musical world. The Prairie was enthusiastically programmed by orchestras and choral societies throughout the country, and won the 1945 New York Music Critics’ Circle Award.
The booklet informs us, ‘Lukas Foss, b. 1922’, but sadly, Foss passed away on February 1st of this year. So, a release which surely would have brought renewed attention to a worthwhile American composer now also must serve as a memorial.
The enterprising new label BMOP/sound has another winner in their disk of music of clarinetist, composer, and jazz/rock musician Derek Bermel. The four works show his interest in various folk influences (including Bulgarian folk music), jazz and depicting the human voice instrumentally. Dust Dances resulted from a 4-month visit to Northwest Ghana where Bermel learned to play the Dargara gyil, a 14-key xylophone related to the marimba; in this 9-minute work he attempts to turn the symphony orchestra into a gigantic gyil.
Here are some classical records that have been exciting us recently. Some are brand-new, some have been on the site for awhile, but we stand 100 percent behind all of them, and we hope you love them as much as we do.
BMOP and Bermel get busy with several generations and cultures’ worth of music:
John Harbison’s music is so ubiquitous here that you might think there was nothing more to discover. Yet until Friday, Boston had never heard Winter’s Tale, the Shakespeare-based opera he composed in the 1970s. The ever-intrepid Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s concert performance took place, ironically, on the first day of spring.
The destructive power of jealousy makes a good subject for opera. One of Shakespeare’s plays about this most irrational emotion, the tragedy Othello, has been turned into a very good opera by Rossini and a great one by Verdi and his best librettist, Arrigo Boito.
About a year and half ago, we did a NewMusicBox cover on David Rakowski, in preparation for which I studied his then 80 solo piano etudes and became a hardcore devotee. These quirky pieces are a rare breed—they’re pithy and some are even hysterically funny, no small feat to accomplish in the abstract, non-representational medium of music. As a result, pianists flock to them, and they are fast becoming staples of the contemporary solo piano repertoire. But all through our talk, David insisted that he’s more than “the piano etude guy”.
In listening to this magnificent collection of orchestral pieces by the Brooklyn composer and clarinetist Derek Bermel, it’s difficult to know whether to be more knocked out by his stylistic versatility or his technical prowess. I’ll settle for both. Bermel’s music is intricate, witty, clear-spoken, tender and extraordinarily beautiful. It also covers an amazing amount of ground, from the West African rhythms of Dust Dances to the Bulgarian folk strains of Thracian Echoes to the shimmering harmonic splendor of Elixir.
I find it astonishing that this delicious oratorio hasn’t been performed or recorded much. It’s every bit a crowd-pleasure and very much in the tradition of middle-American composers of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, such as Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, and Aaron Copland. Lukas Foss was born in Berlin in 1923, then moved to Philadelphia as omens of war threatened Europe. He moved to American and studied with Sergei Koussevitzky for several years before attending Yale, where he studied with Paul Hindemith.
The German-born, American composer Lukas Foss passed away several weeks ago after a long and distinguished career. Here is a recent recording of WWII-era work that is accessible yet complex, a delightful piece that truly deserves this high quality digital recording. I am glad to be back: enjoy.
To count up the musical influences in the works on Derek Bermel’s new album, Voices, featuring the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, would prove impossible. He is a composer as comfortable mixing jazzy trombone riffs with plunky, Asian harp-piano duets, as with combining eerie portamento violins and Stravinsky-like primitive rhythms. To say that Bermel’s music is adventurous would be an understatement.
Lukas Foss’ 1944 oratorio The Prairie, based on a poem by Carl Sandburg, easily falls into the same category as extended American vernacular vocal works such as Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley (1948) and Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land (1954). However, unlike these other pieces, The Prairie – which went a large way toward making the reputation of its composer -- was forgotten.
Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln comes this ambitious opera from American composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw. This is courtesy of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an exciting program of releases focusing on modern American music.
These two orchestral works by Charles Fussell are new to me, as is his music in general. Wilde, Symphony for Baritone and Orchestra, was runner-up for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize, a surprise not because of its merits or lack thereof, but because the style is not typical of most contenders from that era. Since the track record of Pulitzer decisions is decidedly mixed, runner-up status is considered a badge of honor among some new music aficionados.
In Fanfare (31:2), I reviewed a Naxos release of chamber music by Robert Erickson (1917-1997), a California-based avant-garde composer and respected teacher. I found the music on that disc uncompelling, with the glowing exception of a late work for piano and chamber ensemble, Recent Impressions. In it, Erickson’s obsessions with sonority, Asian music, Schoenbergian Klangfarbenmelodie, and Cage-like purity came together to produce something quite individual.
What might seem the most innocuous music is often the most avant garde, the most challenging, the spark that forces us to question the boundaries of what we might call jazz. Gunther Schuller’s Journey Into Jazz, composed in 1962, is just that: a children’s narrative, telling the story of one Eddie Jackson, “a boy who learned about jazz,” a communal mode of music-making that is free, ostensibly, of all the restraints that come with genre labels.
The Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra prove the point that jazz and straight music don’t mix!
New England composer Charles Fussell has specialized largely in symphonic and chamber music that features voices, and he writes for the voice comfortably and idiomatically. He has an authentic gift for text setting, and his vocal lines are unabashedly lyrical and expressive. Idiomatically, Fussell’s music is eclectic, incorporating folk song as easily as serial techniques. His Wilde, symphony for baritone and orchestra, was conceived as a sketch for an opera about the British author, with a text by Will Graham.
That rather gaudy sign in Jordan Hall reading “New England Conservatory” is intended to remind audiences of the institution where this acoustic jewel is located. Rarely is its presence so apt as during the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s annual “Boston ConNECtion” concert, recognizing the ongoing relationship between the ensemble and the school. The 11th such performance, on Saturday, was a typically substantial affair, dexterously played by the ensemble and conducted with authority by Gil Rose.