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Converse: American Sketches / Lockhart, BBC Concert Orchestra

Converse / Bbc Concert Orch / Lockhart
Release Date: 01/10/2012 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7278  
Composer:  Frederick S. Converse
Conductor:  Keith Lockhart
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Concert Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CONVERSE Song of the Sea. Festival of Pan. American Sketches Keith Lockhart, cond; BBC Concert O DUTTON EPOCH CDLX 7278 (63: 00)

An oft-cited benefit enjoyed by all Fanfare critics is the opportunity to become acquainted with the unfamiliar, and, for me, the music of Frederick Shepherd Converse (1871–1940) is about as unfamiliar as it comes. But even those who may be more conversant with Converse than I am will find everything on this disc new to them, Read more for all three works are claimed by Dutton to be world premiere recordings.

Converse fits comfortably into a circle of late 19th- to early 20th-century American composers centered in New England, all of whom shared close musical if not personal ties. Horatio Parker (1863–1919), Edward MacDowell (1860–1908), Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884–1920), and Daniel Gregory Mason (1873–1953) were part of this circle and certain common denominators crop up in their biographies. Converse, Parker, and Mason studied under George Chadwick at the New England Conservatory, and all of the above-named composers traveled abroad, mostly to Germany, to finish their studies under Rheinberger (Converse and Parker), Raff (MacDowell), or Humperdinck (Griffes). Mason seems to have been the maverick of the group, studying first under John Knowles Paine at Harvard and then under Vincent d’Indy in Paris. Upon returning home, they all brought with them a thorough grounding in a late Romantic, essentially German style, though some of the works they would go on to write reflect influences of French Impressionism and the English pastoralist school.

Song of the Sea , completed in 1923, is Converse’s contribution to music’s oceanic literature. Inspired by the verses of Walt Whitman’s On the Beach at Night , Converse’s tone poem begins in dark, troubled waters—brooding, mysterious, and menacing. Sea birds cry out over turbulent waves, warning of the approaching storm. The tempest comes and goes, the clouds disappear over the horizon, and a triumphant coda proclaims the universe’s immortality.

Unless you knew this in advance of hearing the piece, I’m not sure you’d necessarily associate it with a sea picture. With its highly chromatic harmony, heavy orchestration, thick textures, and angst-ridden gestural language, the piece is closer in style to something like Webern’s Im Sommerwind of 1904 or a Strauss tone poem than it is to Debussy’s La Mer of a year later. Listen, for example, to the soaring passage beginning at 4:45 that shouts “Strauss.”

Given Converse’s German grooming—he completed Rheinberger’s course in 1898—it’s hardly surprising that his score should reflect the influences of Mahler, Strauss, Zemlinsky, and the early Webern/Schoenberg orbit. Song of the Sea , which was premiered in 1924 by Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is nothing if not a magnificent orchestral canvas that can hold its own against similar tone poems by more famous composers. It’s a work deserving much wider exposure. Why, I wonder, has its recorded premiere fallen to a British orchestra instead of an American one? This is the sort of thing, I should think, that would be right up JoAnn Falletta’s alley with her Buffalo Philharmonic.

Festival of Pan is a much earlier work, completed in 1899. It’s the first of twinned tone poems—Converse called them romances—based on scenes from John Keats’s Endymion . Like Song of the Sea, Pan too was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; its first performance took place in 1900 under the baton of Wilhelm Gericke. Four years later, it was led by Henry Wood at the Queens Hall Proms.

It’s understandable that the piece would be taken up by one of England’s leading conductors of the time. No offense to our good friends across the Pond, but this is the sort of music that would have had strong appeal to the Brits of the day, for the influence here is more that of the English pastoralists than it is of the German late- and post-Romantics. The setting here is the pastures and pipes of Pan, god of shepherds, protector of their flocks, and lover of nymphs. But there’s no mistaking Converse’s Pan for “cowpat” music, for the piece is writ large in 24-point font and bold typeface, with many climactic moments having an almost Elgarian breadth and sweep to them. Pan shares with Song of the Sea scoring for a large orchestra, which to the standard complement of instruments Converse adds piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, and harp. Here then is another masterly symphonic score that warrants attention.

American Sketches is the latest composed work on the disc, completed just days before the great stock market crash of 1929. There’s no telling how that event might have affected the outcome of the piece if Converse had written it any later. As it stands, the work is the composer’s attempt at forging a uniquely identifiable American style, each of its four movements—“Manhattan,” “The Father of Waters,” “Chicken Reel,” and “Bright Angel Trail”—meant to depict American landscapes and/or aspects of American culture.

In its use of harmony, dissonance, rhythm, and instrumental effects, Sketches is more modernistic than either of the two earlier works on the disc, but again, as with Song of the Sea , if you had no program note to tell you that “Bright Angel Trail” was cognate to Ferde Grofé’s almost exactly contemporaneous Grand Canyon Suite , you wouldn’t know it from Converse’s music, for this is not the sort of Americana we hear in Ives, Gershwin, Copland, and others. In fact, for the most part, Sketches doesn’t seem to be descriptive of much of anything and could easily be heard as a well-ordered, very well-crafted, abstract four-movement symphony. Indeed, each of the movements is designated with tempo markings that suggest a formal symphonic work.

The BBC Concert Orchestra is the house orchestra for the BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night Is Music Night program. Keith Lockhart became the principal conductor in 2010, and this Dutton recording was made in 2011. With music this engrossing and this well played, this CD should go a long way in elevating the standing of Frederick Converse, a greatly underrated and underrepresented American composer. Strongest recommendation to all.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Song of the Sea by Frederick S. Converse
Conductor:  Keith Lockhart
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Concert Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923 
Festival of Pan, Op. 9 by Frederick S. Converse
Conductor:  Keith Lockhart
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Concert Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1899 
American Sketches by Frederick S. Converse
Conductor:  Keith Lockhart
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Concert Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929 

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