CASCARINO Pygmalion. Portrait of Galatea. Blades of Grass.1 Prospice. Meditation and Elegy. The Acadian Land • JoAnn Falletta, cond; Geoffrey Deemer (Eh); Philadelphia Philharmonia • NAXOS 8.559266 (76:02)
Here we go again. A good man spends his life writing music for the love of it, putting bread on the table by teaching harmony and counterpoint at a small local institution. During his lifetime, he gets a few performances, writes a bassoon sonataRead more that’s a modest hit among bassoonists, and then spends 25 years writing an opera, which gets two performances. The good man dies at 80, unknown outside of local musical circles. A few years after his death, his music is finally recorded.
Romeo Cascarino was a fine but almost completely unknown midcentury American composer in the great Copland-Barber-Bernstein tradition who wrote delicious music obviously meant to be enjoyed rather than edified. His inspirations may be a little musty (Greek mythology, 19th-century romantic poetry) but they provide ample raw material for rich music that runs the emotional gamut from, say, C to V. (The wildest extremes are absent from his gracious music.) He’s not Beethoven, but by not trying to be profound, he manages to avoid writing the kind of pedantic, grey music that makes the music of many midcentury Americans more dutiful than beautiful. The music on this CD is beautiful from beginning to end, some of it exceptionally so. Its clarity, wit, and unabashed lyricism put me in mind of Francis Poulenc, although the sound is more 1950s Leonard Bernstein (including the more symphonic theater music), with a splash of the more overt populism of some Copland or, say, Morton Gould. Some of it is so tasty I found myself listening to it two or three times in one sitting.
Tom DiNardo’s brisk, informative notes include a rather concise biography of Cascarino in which even the high points are modest. Born in Philadelphia (in the venerable Italian community of “South Philly”), he was an autodidact. At 17, he “was invited to Tanglewood after Aaron Copland looked at some of his early works.” (Just looked at? This is where the standard issue composer bio says “was impressed by.”) In 1945, while still in the army, he won a prize in the George Gershwin Memorial Contest. (I assume that had it been first prize, it would have been so mentioned.) This was a small contest sponsored by two Jewish organizations, although later winners included Peter Mennin and Harold Shapero. A 1947 Bassoon Sonata for (hometown) Philadelphia Orchestra bassoonist Sol Schoenbach once circulated on a Columbia recording, and he received two Guggenheim Fellowships. He refused commercial music work, and remained loyal to a low-paying local college despite having better offers. His first orchestral score, the ballet Prospice—which, along with everything else on this CD except for Pygmalion, is recorded here for the first time—was only ever performed in a two-piano arrangement. The later Pygmalion was “intended” for a ballet, with a libretto that “would appeal to a choreographer like Anthony Tudor, whom [Cascarino] greatly admired.” This reads like a composer whose dreams exceeded his grasp. Cascarino was evidently not naive about this, however; as DiNardo points out, Cascarino described himself as “an idealist, which for me is a realist who’s learned what to live for.” But the whole story seems rather sad.
Well, happily both pieces are much, much better works than their performance history intimates. Why any conductor who saw this appealing, lively, vividly drawn, and wonderfully scored music would not want to perform it is beyond me. Pygmalion is, indeed, the pick of the litter, as its prior recording suggests, although it appears to have been an extremely modest recording from the 1950s or 1960s, based on a fuzzy photo of its cover that I found somewhere in the musty corners of the Internet. No performers were indicated. The rich harmony, tidy orchestration, and stateliness of this music remind me of a John Ireland work. Portrait of Galatea is intended to be more impressionistic, and it is more loosely constructed and not as memorable. Prospice is based on a stiffly proud Browning poem, and is appropriately inspirational.
Cascarino was also commissioned by what DiNardo terms the “Benjamin Tranquil Music Project” which elsewhere is termed the Benjamin Award for Tranquil Music. In either version, it sounds like a parody, but the resulting work, The Acadian Land (based on Longfellow) is, for me, the other high point of this CD. It holds up well after many playings.
Alas, there’s nothing from Cascarino’s magnum opus, the opera William Penn, based on the life of the Quaker statesman who established Pennsylvania and founded Philadelphia. Cascarino worked on this from 1950 until 1975, and it was finally staged for two performances at the venerable Academy of Music, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Tom DiNardo (who doesn’t credit himself in his booklet notes). Evidently, this CD, too, owes its existence in part to DiNardo’s efforts. (Listed as executive producer, he’s also the music critic for Philly’s “second” newspaper, which doesn’t give him as much space as he deserves.)
This CD makes me want to hear more of Cascarino’s music. According to DiNardo, the composer’s output is small. His dates are 1922–2002, but the music on this CD is mainly for orchestra or chamber orchestra, and spans the years 1945–1960. (The Meditation and Elegy was written for piano in his teens and transcribed for string orchestra in 2000 by one of his pupils.) Did he write any other orchestral music after 1960, or did the opera take up all his energy? Did he write anything after completing the opera in 1975? Is there any chamber music besides the Bassoon Sonata? I wish the booklet notes provided more information. And there’s no further information online. I guess I’ll just have to check out Cascarino’s childhood haunt (and mine), the music division of the Free Library of Philadelphia, whose Fleisher Collection is the world’s largest orchestral lending library and holds Cascarino’s scores. Regional orchestra conductors: hint hint.
It remains only to praise enterprising conductor JoAnn Falletta for shaping immaculate performances. The orchestra of record is the “Philadelphia Philharmonia” which, as a lifelong Philadelphian, I’d never heard of until I read the note in the booklet that reveals its secret identity as the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, a venerable local organization not to be confused with the Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra (which also has done a couple of CDs for Naxos) or the late Philadelphia Chamber Symphony (which did some lovely LPs for RCA in the 1960s). Even though it’s a major part of Philadelphia’s musical life, the COP has evidently never recorded under its own name. Why they didn’t take credit for this CD is beyond me. Except for a couple of minor trumpet slips, the playing is quite fine. The recorded sound is decent, with good orchestral balances. And thank you to Naxos for making it possible for this lovely music to be heard by millions worldwide, even if the composer didn’t live to see it happen.
Glorious Music!September 13, 2013By E. Thomas (Blue Bell, PA)See All My Reviews"I have long been an admirer of Romeo Cascarino's work. But this past week I was reminded again, when Blades of Grass was aired on WRTI, that we are hardly ever treated to his music. The lushness and beauty and intelligence with which Cascarino constructs his orchestral works penetrate deep into the soul. Much of it is haunting - and all of it is beautiful. This overlooked artist's music should be given much more attention. Here's hoping Yanik Nezet-Seguin will see fit to organize a resurrection as soon as possible!"Report Abuse
Rapturous Music. Cascarino is a geniusJanuary 14, 2013By James Gall See All My Reviews"The most moving and deep music to enrapture my living soul. Where is the rest of his. Music. Forget Copeland, Barber, etc. this man is one of the greatest composers ever to walk on our planet. Controlled and binding, this album moved me like only Rachmaninoff and Frank Bridge (British Composer) can. Sensational music composition."Report Abuse
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