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American Spirit: Roots & Transformations

American Spirit: Roots & Transformations / Various
Release Date: 10/30/2012 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8505233  
Composer:  Charles IvesVincent PersichettiRoy HarrisErnst Bacon,   ... 
Performer:  Barry ScottSharon MabryRoger WiesmeyerAnthony LaMarchina,   ... 
Conductor:  Leonard SlatkinAngel Gil-OrdóñezThomas WilkinsPeter Boyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony OrchestraNashville Symphony ChorusPost-Classical Ensemble,   ... 
Number of Discs: 5 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:

Abraham Lincoln Portraits

According to the program notes, the eight works on this two-CD set were selected from some 90 compositions written in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln. Presumably these were the ones that offered the most musical interest, but I remain curious about the others—partly because I found most of these eight to be somewhat disappointing. Each attempts to balance patriotic concerns with musical ones, with varying degrees of success.

The longest piece of music is Ernst Bacon’s Ford’s Theatre , a 30-minute suite of 12 short pieces Read more originally conceived as incidental music to a play by Paul Horgan called Death, Mr. President . Evidently the play was not a success. Each of the pieces is suggested by an incident that took place during the week preceding Lincoln’s assassination. Ernst Bacon (1898–1970) was not only a composer but also a conductor, a painter, and a collector of folk songs. Other compositions of his have left me with the impression that his work warrants more attention than it receives these days. However, this suite, composed during the 1940s, does not make a convincing case for that contention. One movement, entitled “The River Queen,” has some lovely moments; and the music is pleasant enough on the whole, but it offers little of compelling interest.

This is the problem with several of the selections: pleasant enough, but not really compelling as music. George Frederick McKay (1899–1970) was the Eastman School’s first composition graduate (in 1923, before Howard Hanson’s arrival there), and spent 40 years on the faculty of the University of Washington. To a Liberator was composed in 1940, and uses Lincoln as a symbol of democracy during the period of aggressive fascism in Europe. His piece purports to be an expression of his personal feelings while contemplating Lincoln. It is pleasant, euphonious music, but leaves little lasting impression. Similarly, Variations on an American Song by composer-critic Paul Turok (b. 1929), focuses on a simple ditty, Lincoln and Liberty , based originally on an Irish tune. His variations, which utilize only the notes that appear in the original song, are very artfully elaborated, but do not compel interest.

I am one of those who feel that the importance of Charles Ives has been greatly overstated by those commentators who assert that he successfully fills the role of “America’s first truly original composer.” Yes, that would make for a nice, orderly account of American musical history—except that after many decades of listening I remain unconvinced of the outstanding merit of Ives’s music. Lincoln, the Great Commoner , touted by Henry Cowell as “one of the most unusual and exciting works in choral literature,” is to my ears just another congested potpourri of American song fragments.

A little more interesting than the Bacon, McKay, and Turok is Morton Gould’s Lincoln Legend. Gould (1913–1996) was a very active figure in American musical life from the late 1930s up through the 1950s, when his name was a household word, although his reputation was based largely on his work in the area of commercial/popular music and light classics. But he also wrote symphonies and other more ambitious works, which were performed in some of the most auspicious venues. For example, the 1942 premiere of Lincoln Legend was conducted by Toscanini. Gould displayed an extraordinary technical sophistication that was not matched by expressive content of comparable depth. An unabashed musical nationalist, he admitted freely that virtually all his music, regardless of its aspirations as “serious” work, drew upon vernacular musical material. In his more ambitious efforts, he would typically subject this material to complex developmental procedures that often seemed disproportionately overwrought relative to the composition’s actual aesthetic, emotional, and psychological weight. Lincoln Legend is a 17-minute symphonic poem in several sections of contrasting moods and dynamics. Through it are interwoven various American songs, most notably The Old Grey Mare and The Battle Hymn of the Republic . As clever as its workmanship may be, the ultimate impact is vacuous. In a sense, Gould was a slick, less pretentious variant of Ives, although this comparison will probably infuriate proponents of both composers. Maybe it’s a weakness on my part, but hearing The Old Grey Mare treated symphonically does not get my pulse racing.

Roy Harris’s reputation has plummeted dramatically since the days when he was touted as one of America’s greats—a fall from grace quite justified by the overall quality of his work. As is well known, Harris attempted to fabricate and exploit a personal connection to Lincoln, claiming to have been born in a log cabin on February 12 in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. However, his 1953 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight , scored for mezzo-soprano and piano trio, manages to avoid many of his most annoying mannerisms, and is actually one of the more interesting pieces on this program, with some arresting moments. But it is no masterpiece, lacking any sense of dramatic contour; it just seems to keep going until it stops, which is, of course, the problem with his symphonic works. This weakness is not overcome by mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry, who, despite a lovely voice and excellent intonation, delivers the music in a monotonous fashion, which only accentuates the monotony of the music.

The story behind Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address is, I’m afraid, more interesting than the piece itself, resulting in a front-page story in the New York Times. For those readers not old enough to remember, here is the story in a nutshell: in late 1971, in preparation for the activities surrounding Richard Nixon’s second inauguration as president, Persichetti had been selected by the inaugural committee to write a work for the occasion, to be performed at the Kennedy Center by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was to be a work with spoken text, and Persichetti was asked to include excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Persichetti agreed and set to work, although he was given little time to produce the composition. However, what with the controversial war in Vietnam still raging, along with intense anti-war protests, the committee began to have second thoughts about Lincoln’s address, which included comments about “the scourge of war,” which, they felt, might embarrass Nixon under the current circumstances. So they began to request deletions from the text. At first, Persichetti—a gentle, conciliatory fellow—went along with these requests, at which point he had only three weeks to complete the work. Working quickly, he finished the piece by the deadline. But now more deletions were requested. At this point Persichetti refused. So the inaugural committee took the piece off the program. This was front-page news: the work’s non-performance drew more attention to the composer than any performance of his music ever had. And, of course, the piece was promptly played by orchestras all over the country. However, given the time pressure under which he was working, what Persichetti had done was to take portions of his Symphony No. 7, “Liturgical,” and insert the Lincoln excerpts at appropriate points. Music being highly susceptible to the power of suggestion, the result fit the text just fine. But the music—as in its original symphonic context—is rather cold and impersonal; it is not Persichetti at his best. However, the performance offered here is extremely flattering to the work. Barry Scott offers a fine reading of Lincoln’s words, and Leonard Slatkin, one of today’s most sympathetic and effective advocates for the American symphonic school, leads a sensitive performance that makes one long for him to take on the Symphony No. 7 itself. He might be just the conductor to bring this work to life.

And this brings us to the one well-known work on the program, Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait . Longtime Fanfare readers may be aware that my reactions often go against the grain of received opinion. However, there is no getting around the fact that Copland’s work simply dwarfs everything else offered on these two CDs. Many people have an aversion to works with narrators, and I count myself among them. But there are exceptions, and A Lincoln Portrait is one of them. By now, I have heard this work at least 100 times, and it still moves me deeply—the text, the music, the whole thing. Like the Gould work, this piece weaves American folk tunes into the symphonic fabric. But it works because Copland does not twist them out of their natural settings; the context in which he places them is in keeping with their characters. Again Barry Scott provides an excellent rendition of the text, and Slatkin leads one of the most well-shaped performances of the work I have ever heard. He and the Nashville Symphony are excellent throughout these recordings, but this is most noticeable to me in the two works I know best. I am not privy to the machinations behind the scenes concerning Slatkin, the Nashville Symphony, and Naxos, but while the other record companies ignore the American symphonic repertoire, Naxos is bringing this music much-deserved attention. Like Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, Slatkin and Nashville are a winning combination.

FANFARE: Walter Simmons

The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River
Pare Lorentz’s documentaries, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, are considered to be some of the best ever made. Dismissed by some as government propaganda they draw their strength from the filmmaker’s unwavering support for Roosevelt’s New Deal and the belief that farmers in the drought-stricken ‘dust bowls’ were entitled to federal support. Commissioned by the US Government the films highlight the very real dangers of farming in the Great Plains – then in the grip of a terrible drought – and the need for flood prevention along the Mississippi.

Thanks to Naxos and Angel Gil-Ordóñez and his Washington-based Post-Classical Ensemble we now have Thomson’s complete scores on CD at last. Yes, there is something of the plain-spoken style one associates with Copland – who admired The Plow for its ‘frankness and openness of feeling’ – but the ‘voice’ is unmistakably his own.

And despite the biblical proportions of this tragedy Thomson eschews the epic approach in favour of something much plainer, more intimate. The gentle Pastorale (Grass) certainly recalls Copland at his open-hearted best. This is a vision of Eden, of grasslands as yet unspoilt, and Thomson manages to suggest both this happy state and a sense of wide open spaces with a remarkable economy of style. Beneath the music’s often naïve charm the timps beat, portents of the destruction to come, yet for all that Thomson never allows the music to become portentous. Indeed, Lorentz’s script may seem a little too poetic for modern ears but there is no doubting the filmmaker’s sincerity, a quality that Thomson complements so well.

Some of the most winning music in this score can be found in the dance-like rhythms of Cattle. There’s no crude musical onomatopoeia – though there is a Grofé-like imitation of hooves at one point – and in The Homesteaders Thomson mixes the martial trumpets and drums with snatches of banjo and catchy folk tunes. There is a sense of ease and contentment here which – to use a Hollywood analogy – is more George Stevens than John Ford or Howard Hawks. But even though this is not a hard landscape the timps remind us that with no rivers and little rainfall the settlers farm here ‘at their peril’.

The repeated trumpet calls and jaunty march rhythms of Warning and War and the Tractor are a reminder of conflicts past and present, not to mention the advancing legions of machines that ‘break’ the land. Judicious as always Thomson never resorts to musical histrionics, even at moments of high drama; just sample the wistful, bluesy sax in Speculation, whose growing dissonance dissolves into the strange empty harmonies of Drought. This pared-down approach is equally effective in Wind and Dust, with its swirling figures and distressed trumpets.

The earlier folk-like melodies resurface in Devastation but this time there is a hollow ring to the once reassuring tunes. Lorentz’s script is bleak indeed, describing the farmers and their families fleeing the dust bowls, with ‘no place to go and no place to stop’. This almost biblical exodus was to dominate John Ford’s equally bleak 1940 film of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Not surprisingly both films have been deposited in the US National Film Archive.

Lorentz made The River a year later, in 1937. The film, which showcases the dam-building and flood-prevention efforts of the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a much simpler, more direct narrative. That said, Thomson provides a stream of good tunes, with a thrusting Prelude and some lovely solo writing in First Forest and A Big River, depicting the mighty Mississippi. The music has an easy flow to it, the timps this time underlining the steady building work on the dams and levées.

The film doesn’t seem to have the dramatic subtext of The Plow, and Thomson’s approach here is best described as straight pictorialism. That said, he has an Ivesian knack for quoting popular tunes that would surely resonate with US audiences of the time. Sample the rollicking Cotton Pickers with its evocative banjo melody and distant trumpets, the latter a reference to the Civil War. And then there’s that sad little melody of the old plantations in Ruins.

In keeping with the film’s spirit of public information Logging and Coal offer an opportunity to trumpet the virtues of enterprise and hard work, essential to getting America back on its feet. Thomson uses snare drums to remarkable effect, depicting rafts of logs rolling down the river. He also quotes the jaunty tune ‘There’ll Be A Hot Time in Town Tonight’, very much as Ives might have done.

Yet even this simple narrative has a sting in the tail, with disaster in the form of Flooding. That Mississippi solo we heard earlier now sounds mournfully over a pulsing drum, a marvellous evocation of a drowned landscape. The futile efforts to hold back the waters are depicted in repeated, pounding rhythms, the skeletal unison writing of Requiem a grim postlude.

Unlike the first film The River ends on a more positive note, the waters finally ‘locked and dammed’. Thomson reflects this new optimism in music that flows freely and broadens into a simple yet spacious climax. This isn’t as much of a ‘melodrama of nature’ as The Plow, but at worst Thomson’s music is robust and workmanlike, at best highly accomplished and very evocative.

These films are now available on DVD (Naxos 2.110521) with an up-to-date soundtrack by the Post-Classical Ensemble. I have to say hearing this score has tempted me to go out and buy a copy. But if you just want the music –– this disc is as authoritative as it gets. With a warm, detailed recording and informative notes by Joseph Horowitz this is a very desirable issue indeed.

-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International

Dear Mrs Parks
This is a major release no matter what the colour, creed, nationality, race or gender of the composer. I repeat: this is a major release.

Born in Texas, Lokumbe is a composer and a jazz trumpeter who has worked with Gil Evans, Roland Kirk and the Jazz Composers Orchestra amongst others. Dear Mrs Parks was premièred in February 2005, by many of the performers here. That performance was broadcast nationwide and on the net. I recorded it and thus have heard the work several times prior to receiving this new CD.

The story of Rosa Parks is well enough known, I think, but for anyone who doesn’t know it, briefly: on 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger. This action sparked the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott. Because of her actions, Rosa Parks became an important figure in the modern Civil Rights movement. She has been called “The Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement”. She died a few months after the première of this work, which she attended.

What we have here is a celebration of Rosa Parks, using jazz, blues, funk and classical elements all fused together with great skill. Nowhere is one conscious of the change from one style to the other simply because the work is written in only one style – that of Hannibal Lokumbe. This is the work of an obviously very talented, and gifted, composer which makes it all the more confusing that it’s the only work of his I have ever heard.

As a composition it has arias, choruses, orchestral movements; everything you’d expect from an oratorio – drama, release, praise. This is a very fine piece indeed. It is full of good things. The orchestration is brilliantly colourful. Lashings of percussion drive the dance music, which is truly joyous. The arias are ecstatic declamatory utterances, and the choruses are full-blooded.

The performance is totally committed, but be warned both Janice Chandler-Eteme and Kevin Deas employ a very fast vibrato which becomes tiring on the ear. Otherwise I have no worries about this disk whatsoever.

As a new look at oratorio it is vibrant and totally compelling. I hope that this piece will make many friends. Here is an important composer who has something to say and knows how to say it. Good notes and a full text are included in the booklet. Perhaps I should point out that the language is easily understood: it’s tonal and approachable.

Don’t miss this. It’s as important a choral work as Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast or David Blake’s Lumina.

-- Bob Briggs, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Lincoln, the Great Commoner by Charles Ives
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra,  Nashville Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: ?1913; USA 
A Lincoln Address, Op. 124 by Vincent Persichetti
Performer:  Barry Scott (Narrator)
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1972 
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight by Roy Harris
Performer:  Sharon Mabry (Mezzo Soprano), Roger Wiesmeyer (Piano), Anthony LaMarchina (Cello),
Mary Kathryn Van Osdale (Violin)
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1953 
Ford's Theater by Ernst Bacon
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Lincoln Legend by Morton Gould
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942 
To a Liberator by George McKay
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra,  Nashville Symphony Chorus
Variations on an American Song, Op. 20 " Aspects of Lincoln and Liberty" by Paul Turok
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland
Performer:  Barry Scott (Narrator)
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Nashville Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 
The Plow that Broke the Plains by Virgil Thomson
Conductor:  Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Post-Classical Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; France 
Date of Recording: 06/2005 
Venue:  Omega Studios, Rockville, Maryland 
Length: 26 Minutes 55 Secs. 
The River by Virgil Thomson
Conductor:  Angel Gil-Ordóñez
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Post-Classical Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937; France 
Date of Recording: 06/2005 
Venue:  Omega Studios, Rockville, Maryland 
Length: 28 Minutes 43 Secs. 
Dear Mrs. Parks by Hannibal Lokumbe
Performer:  Kevin Deas (Bass Baritone), Jevetta Steele (Voice), Janice Chandler-eteme (Soprano),
Taylor Gardner (Treble)
Conductor:  Thomas Wilkins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra,  Rackham Symphony Choir,  Brazael Dennard Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Ellis Island "The Dream of America" by Peter Boyer
Performer:  Barry Bostwick (Spoken Vocals), Blair Brown (Spoken Vocals), Olympia Dukakis (Spoken Vocals),
Anne Jackson (Spoken Vocals), Bebe Neuwirth (Spoken Vocals), Eli Wallach (Spoken Vocals),
Louis Zorich (Spoken Vocals)
Conductor:  Peter Boyer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Length: 43 Minutes 31 Secs. 
Language: English 

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