Three American Composers
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Perhaps Leonard Bernstein's numero uno talent was for making friends. Among the many friends of his who were musicians, there seems to have been a special category of friends who were composers. Now SONY has released the works of three of those composers in three spectacular albums, all conducted by their mutual friend Leonard Bernstein, leading the New York Philharmonic.
Aaron Copland, who could be called Bernstein's composing mentor, is represented on SMK 63155 with "Symphony No. 3" and "Symphony for Organ and Orchestra."
William Schuman, an esteemed music education colleague and a lifelong source of valuable advice, is represented on SMK 63163 with "Symphony No. 3," "Symphony for Strings," and "Symphony No. 8."
Lukas Foss, a fellow student of Bernstein's at Tanglewood, and still a close family friend to the Bernsteins, is represented on SMK 63164 with "Time Cycle," "Phorion," and "Song of Songs."
Many of these works appear now for the first time on CD. These three albums are part of a vast project by SONY called "The Bernstein Century." The word "century" is well-chosen, since it refers both to the number 100 (there are one hundred different CD releases planned for this project) and to the close of the current era, in which Bernstein and American music flourished.
There were many other colleagues writing serious music, and as Mr. Bernstein ascended the national stage with the directorship of the New York Philharmonic, he was able to tap into his network of friends and give them first-rate performances of their best works. In so doing, he also fostered the development of their musical thinking, by providing the place in our culture for the large symphonic essay as well as for the shorter experimental piece. SONY's recordings of this period can rightfully be called national treasures.
"Symphony No. 3" by Aaron Copland is one of those works that makes you glad to be alive. It is immediately lovable, full of outgoing tunes and dance rhythms, but it's also like a sorrowful friend, introspective and melancholy. Bernstein's association with this work dates back to Copland's writing of it. The two of them sat at a piano one summer, playing (and singing with made-up words stolen from cowboy ballads) through virtually all this music. In fact, Bernstein's familiarity with the structure of this work was so intimate that when he first conducted it he cut a short section in the last movement, telling Copland only after the performance. It's a testament to their trusting friendship that Copland hedged only briefly, chastising Bernstein for making a brief cut without first asking, but later admitted that the change was an improvement.
Just listen to how the tempo changes in the second movement, straight from the composer's brain to the conductor's baton. The Philharmonic jumps right in, game for anything in this piece, playing their hearts out. Has the brass in the "Fanfare for the Common Man" (the fourth movement) ever sounded as uncommonly virtuous, as noble, as in this recording?
"Crackerjack" used to be the adjective to describe excellence ("def" might hit the mark today), and it's an apt description of the string section of the Philharmonic in the 1960's. The precision of their playing will snap you to attention. You can actually hear other sections of the orchestra respond to that def level of musicianship in these recordings.
In William Schuman's "Symphony No. 3" the brass and percussion answer the strings like partners in ballet. The "Symphony for Strings" is as assured and sophisticated as American music can get. The skill in this writing is matched by astonishing beauty from the New York Philharmonic. This is a salute to Schuman as much as it is to Bernstein. The Schuman Symphonies are like carefully prepared meals made up of the freshest ingredients; they leave you feeling healthy and robustly optimistic.
The music of Lukas Foss ranges farther, but always remains accessible even to the casual listener. Foss not only exults in pure musical thinking, he lifts the listener one level closer to the realm of thinking completely in abstract ideas. Time is an idea that all musicians struggle with or against. The most obvious contention is with a live performance, which exists only in a specific time period. But Foss has more to say on time than that. "Time Cycle" benefits from repeated listening, establishing its points in the listener over time.
Meanwhile, "Phorion" will be the quickest ten minutes you've ever spent listening to anything! It's like your very first ice cream cone: instantly delicious, funny and familiar, and strange as a half-remembered dream. Then it's gone in a flash. Play this recording unannounced for friends and you'll be swamped with questions.
A strong point for owning these CD's and playing them again and again is that these works are the source of much of the music we now hear every day. When I was lucky enough to go to the movies (or very rarely watch tv) with Leonard Bernstein, I got a first-hand lesson about the soundtrack. Hardly a single musical idea could go by without a comment on its Coplandesque outline or brassy Schuman fugato character. Movies, television docu-dramas and news programs, public ceremonies...whenever music is called on to focus our attention or heighten our emotions, what we hear today is more often than not rooted in the language of the American classics of the 20th Century.
We can be grateful that what Leonard Bernstein once was able to share only with the Philharmonic's audience, SONY is now sharing with the world at large.