in: Reviews

July 28, 2018

American Voices

by

Michael Gandolfi (file photo)

Something magical happened in Ozawa Hall Monday when the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra delivered a spectacular concert of music by Bernstein and Copland, with a world première of music by Gandolfi. You should have been there.

Leonard Bernstein composed Facsimile, Choreographic Essay for Orchestra in late summer (post-Tanglewood season) 1946, initially to accompany an American Ballet Theater piece by Jerome Robbins. Before that year ended Bernstein reworked it into this concert version. While the dancing tells a modernist tale of love unfulfilled and revolves around three characters, the music paints a richer canvas. Here the influences of Copland are manifest, but also intimations of Halsey Stevens: lush, American neo-romanticism plays with urban modernism and pronounced dance rhythms. At times the cinematic scope of the music recalls Korngold’s Hollywood compositions. At the same time, we hear Bernstein playing with voicing and orchestration, exploring delightful combinations; this is exuberantly youthful, and full of the excitement of discovery. The violin solo foreshadows the composer’s later Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium) for solo violin, harp, string orchestra, and percussion (1954). Emily Switzer dispatched the violin solo handily; the woodwinds, especially flute and oboe, played with assurance and clear tone. Each string section brought a wealth of expression, notably the cellos ably led by Jakyoung Olivia Huh. Throughout we heard sensitive and nuanced playing, and the challenges of this score were dispatched with panache. TMC Fellow and conductor Yu An Chang (who will be assistant conductor of the BSO starting with the upcoming 2018-19 season) brought a masterful command to a complex, polyrhythmic work.

Michael Gandolfi’s In America (2018), a far more substantial piece than I expected, provided a stunning and spectacular highlight to the evening in this, its world premiere. The Tanglewood Music Center commissioned it with the generous support of the Harriet Eckstein New Commissions Fund, suggesting that Gandolfi write for voices and orchestra, and respond to Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest (1976). While Bernstein’s Bicentennial work is optimistic in word and in note, even as it enriches the corpus of American voices who speak to us as a collective nation [HERE], Gandolfi focuses on our collective struggles. In the composer’s own words:

[America’s] pluralistic culture compels debate, disagreement, and compromise. Throughout our history we have endured periods of extreme unrest and strife. But it is precisely these periods that propel us to action, compelling us to participate in our democratic process. We voice what we believe to be right, yet knowing that we are living with fellow citizens who may stand strongly in favor of an opposing view.

Composed in three “panels,” In America has 15 sections and is performed without pause, lasting some 33 minutes. Part I, “Whither the Phrase” sets words of Mark Twain and H. L. Menken, collective American idioms, Robert Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s imperfect recitation from memory of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Walt Whitman. Part II, “Illumination,” offers words from César Chavez and Brenda Hillman (honoring Amiri Baraka), Alexander Posey and Claude McKay. Part III, “Voices of Strength,” give us short and empowering words from Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk, and Emma Gonzalez. [TMC program HERE] Fronting the orchestra are six vocalists: soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass. Like Songfest, Gandolfi’s writing has us sing America.

In America opens with an intensity of sound and a richness of musical lines. This soundworld recalls video game music (is this the curse of contemporary compositions?) when it turns panoramic, expansive and surveying the horizons as it crafts its space, its titular nation-state here rendered in music. The vista clears and an open arpeggiated theme brings calm before the vocal entrances. The words underscore the plethora of opening musical lines: “Each must speak” (Twain, from Papers from the Adams Family). As the music continues to unfurl I realize there is another influence here: this is Virgil Thomson, but from a leftist, fully liberal perspective where there is no cultish infatuation with strong men or heroic Great Men. Gandolfi nods to Thomson’s American idiom, but focuses on the quotidian acts of democracy, of democratic struggle. This aspirational vision yields to clear-eyed, pragmatic language of opposition, of criticism, when we get to H. L. Mencken’s 26 July 1920 pronouncement in the Baltimore Evening Sun: “On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Allegiances made clear, depressing truths become fodder for a creative exploration of American resistance. In “My Friends” the words of César Chavez meld with Gandolfi’s music to voice anger at our nation’s legacy of failed democratic ideals, at the class warfare that long existed before that phrase became code for those who oppose any reduction in their own privilege. This carries over into Hillman’s “A Short Rhyme for Amiri Baraka” especially the plosively powerful repeated syllables in “check-check-check.” But it is not all anger; a wind blows away the storm and we re-set the music in Posey’s “A Vision of Rest” and McKay’s “America.” Sadness and melancholy are heard. The anthemic third panel, “Voices of Strength” returns us to an aspirational model of America, as the quieter conclusion mourns the injustices traversed.

The TMC Orchestra gave a powerful reading of this première. The vocalists stood and delivered—strongly, passionately, musically. Elena Villalón (soprano), Katherine Beck (mezzo-soprano), Olivia Cosio (mezzo-soprano), Chance Jonas-O’Toole (tenor), Edward Vogel (baritone), and William Socolof (bass-baritone) brought this music to life, in solo passages and in ensemble. Each listener will gravitate towards a different part of In America, and perhaps that just proves Gandolfi’s point about the inherent struggle in pluralistic society; for my part, Cosio’s rendition of “A Short Rhyme for Amiri Baraka” stays in mind because of the astute delivery of this powerful setting composed in a style unique and uniquely fitting. TMC Fellow Gemma New masterfully conducted this new work with distinction, gracefully bringing voice to this monumental work. The music and the performance gave me sore-needed hope; may it be programmed more early and more often than denizens of my home state are instructed to vote.

Stefan Asbury (file photo)

But wait, there’s more: following intermission the orchestra, now conducted by Stefan Asbury, returned to perform Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony (1944-46). This was a delicate, nuanced, and powerful presentation of this now-iconic work, opening with a heart-wrenching sense of yearning before the open harmonic intervals. Asbury brought out the criticism of American limitations, not often heard here; the shocking newness of dissonances, to which we are now acclimatized in our shared musical language, were marked. In the Allegro molto the biting sarcasm, in a very Shostakovich vein, came to the fore. Asbury’s simultaneous poise and energy translated directly to the whole orchestra. The focused attention on moments of musical transition demonstrated the expected clear leading from the podium, but more than that they took on an intelligence often missing in such crucially important liminal sections. Thus did a monumental and rousing concert conclude in a victory.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra

2 Comments

  1. Even after a week since the TCM concert in Ozawa Hall, the sonic memories of Gandolfi’s ” In America “, still reverberates. Having attended many TCM concerts in that venue over the years, this one will always have a very special place.The reviewer nicely covered both the musical and performance aspects of the spectacular world premiere of the new work,to which I can only add that I found some echoes of the music of the 20th century British composer, Ralph Vaughn-Williams, in terms of the style and treatment of the vocal soloist (i.e.,” Serenade To Music”) and powerful orchestral passages,even though Gandolfi’s score stands alone as a singular and unique musical statement in 21rst century music.
    If ever a piece of new music deserves to have a wider distribution via a CD recording, Gandolfi’s: “In America”, is certainly that piece of music.(Both the Gandolfi piece and Asbury and the TCM orchestra unbelievably powerful performance of the Copland 3rd Symphony should be considered for release on the BSO’S own label).

    Comment by Ron Barnell — July 30, 2018 at 2:06 pm

  2. Hello! I wanted to clarify that Katherine Beck was the soloist for the text setting of “A Short Rhyme for Amiri Baraka.” Olivia Cosio sang the Claude McKay section. Both are mezzo sopranos, hence the confusion.

    Thank you for your time, your attendance, and your appreciation! This was an exciting evening indeed.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 1, 2018 at 5:59 pm

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