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Composers, Teachers, and New York

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

This concert is exemplary of the original and ongoing mission of the ASO. The four composers on the program are all American, and they represent a thirty-year period, from Pearl Harbor to the Vietnam War, that witnessed unprecedented growth in the concert and classical music world of this country. These composers enjoyed enormous recognition and success in their lifetimes.

With the passage of time, however, memories fade and tastes change. Major figures are remembered largely as names in history books, and perhaps then only with a passing mention or a footnote. Their music is now more widely recorded and low resolution postings of performances can be found on the internet. Such a legacy, however, becomes academic, literally and figuratively.

Live performances of the music of the once central figures who have passed into history become rare, and not because the music falls short. Books can be reissued and paintings from the past taken out of storage and sold, downloaded, and hung in public gallery spaces more easily than music, especially music written for large forces, can be put on the stage. And music must be heard live and with an audience to be realized.

Music in the classical field deals with its history as if it were a winner-take-all proposition. But this is wrong because it distorts history and we rarely get the chance to change our minds. This concert of music by Mann, Fine, Druckman, and Schuman could catch someone’s eye because of the name Schuman, only to realize that it is not Robert, nor spelled the same way. The remaining three are not well enough known to be recognized by the audience we should be reaching. The ASO fights against these trends. We are determined to advocate for the unfairly neglected from the past and to push against the winds of fashion.

All these composers overlapped with one another and knew one another. They were centered, for a great part of their careers, in New York City, although some, like Fine, migrated to New York. And all of them taught. They were profoundly influential. Vivian Fine was a legend at Bennington. She, like Schuman, was a tireless organizer and performer in New York. This concert is a journey to our own past, to a different time, with different cultural ambitions and conflicts, and a time of great excitement, energy, confidence, growth, and faith in future generations of musicians and listeners.

It is a particular honor to perform a work by the late Robert Mann, the legendary violinist, quartet leader, and teacher. He was a fine composer and a great advocate of the new music of his time. Dimitri Mitropoulos, the fabulous conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic, and also a partisan of the new, was himself a composer. Earlier this month I had the privilege of conducting the first performance of a new edition of a Concerto Grosso by Mitropoulos in Athens. Mitropoulos recognized Mann’s gifts and premiered his Fantasy for Orchestra, which opens tonight’s concert. Years ago Mann mentioned the work to me, in passing and all too modestly. The ASO dedicates this performance to Robert Mann’s memory. I would like to think he would be pleased to see the work revived and performed again in Carnegie Hall.

William Schuman is the best-known composer on this program, and his Symphony No. 3 is the one work being performed tonight to approximate a repertory staple. This symphony is a contender for the status of one of the major American symphonies of the twentieth century. We hope that it is brought back regularly, and that more of Schuman’s music gets played. Schuman, like his contemporary Leonard Bernstein, was a man of many talents. He was, like Fine, a terrific organizer and institutional leader, somewhat in the mold of musicians who devoted their time and energy to creating and leading institutions designed to sustain music. He headed Juilliard and Lincoln Center. If Rimsky-Korsakov and Gabriel Fauré could manage it, why not William Schuman?

Jacob Druckman was a widely admired composer until his untimely death in 1996. He taught for many years at Bard and two of his students later became famous as members of Steely Dan. He then moved to Juilliard, where he remained. In his lifetime he won many prizes and was noted for the subtlety, refinement, and distinctiveness of his structures and sonorities.

Vivian Fine was not only a great teacher and an avid performer, but mentor to many generations of American composers. She exemplifies the spirit of this program: a conviction in the potential of new music in America, great craft and ambition, a determination to reach the public, and an abiding belief in how important musical culture is to this city and the nation.

Robert Mann, Fantasy for Orchestra

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 19, 1920, in Portland, Oregon
Died January 1, 2018, in New York City
Composed in 1957
Premiered on February 23, 1957 at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Performance Time: Approximately 13 minutes

A celebrated violinist who died last year at 97, Robert Mann was an outsize figure in the world of chamber music performance. He spent more than 50 years, from 1946 to 1997, as the renowned Juilliard String Quartet’s founding first violinist. By the time Mann’s Fantasy for Orchestra appeared on a New York Philharmonic program in 1957, he was a composer of some note. The Fantasy came about because Dimitri Mitropoulos, the orchestra’s music director, caught wind of some of Mann’s music and asked him for an orchestral work.

The New York Philharmonic never again performed the Fantasy after its premiere—or any of Mann’s other works, for that matter. Nor are commercial recordings available. But program notes for the premiere highlighted the straightforward multipartite structure of this single-movement work; it begins with “a slow introduction, in a somewhat reflective vein,” followed by a fast, bustling section, a return of the introduction’s sensibility, and, finally, “a brief allusion” at the work’s conclusion to the faster material.

Even if the Fantasy faded from view after its premiere, Mann’s stature as a musician in New York certainly lent weight to the event; Harold C. Schonberg, in his review in The New York Times, wrote that Mann “blossomed out as a composer” with the work, which was dedicated to the memory of the distinguished patron Alma Morgenthau (1887–1953). Although Schonberg found the Fantasy to be more of a technical than a “personal” expression, he praised Mann’s orchestration, linked its “rhythmic devices” to American compositional trends, and offered an (admittedly backhanded) compliment about its cinematic quality (“One could easily imagine it as the background music of a very expensive grade A film”). In calling it “an elaborate mood piece with, possibly, a hidden program,” Schonberg hinted at the work’s potential to move audiences with its stirring soundscapes, characterized by what the critic described as pervasive dissonance.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.

Vivian Fine, Concertante for Piano and Orchestra

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born September 28, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois
Died March 20, 2000, in Bennington, Vermont
Composed in 1943–44
Premiered in 1944
Performance Time: Approximately 17 minutes

Vivian Fine’s multifaceted output as a composer included vocal, chamber, orchestral, and theater works. Fine was also a highly regarded pianist, and her Concertante reflects her deep attachment to the keyboard. The work is readily connected to neoclassicism—a term that suggests a strong interest in forms and styles of the baroque and classical periods. A number of significant twentieth-century musical figures were associated with neoclassicism, including Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. Both Copland and Stravinsky wrote piano concertos, but Fine’s term “concertante” suggests something subtly different: it points to the work’s heritage in compositions that featured multiple soloists. In Fine’s piece, the piano is obviously the highlighted soloist, complete with a cadenza in the second (and final) movement. But the title “concertante” invites us to hear the piano and orchestra as existing on a more equal footing than they might in a typical classical or romantic concerto. In fact, Fine said that the work was “modeled after the concerti grossi” of baroque composers. Following the spirit of such works, Fine’s Concertante eschews extended passages for the soloist in favor of a more extensive interplay among instrumental forces.

For Fine, its heritage in baroque music meant that the musical language of the Concertante was tonal—“deliberately” so, as Fine said, “while most of my other pieces, while not atonal, are freely atonal and freely tonal at the same time.” The Concertante begins with a study of contrasts: forceful, declamatory orchestral declarations yield to songlike piano passages. This alternation quickly gives way to a more fluid interaction between soloist and orchestra, but the basic sense of division—sometimes jarring and sudden—between sweeping and delicate melodies, on the one hand, and gritty, even strident passages, on the other, characterize the wide-ranging and dramatic opening movement. A faster and more playful second movement rounds out the work. Here, rhythmic energy and verve suggest a swirling dance between piano and orchestra. One highlight, though, is a brief, tender woodwind passage that temporarily interrupts the movement’s defining buoyancy. A lively piano cadenza flows into a jovial conclusion for piano and orchestra.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.

Jacob Druckman, Prism

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born June 26, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died May 24, 1996, in New Haven, Connecticut
Composed in 1979–80
Premiered on May 21, 1980 in Baltimore, with the Baltimore Symphony, conducted by Sergiu Comissiona
Performance Time: Approximately 22 minutes

Jacob Druckman’s Prism is perhaps best understood, at first, through the lens of a work Druckman admired: the Italian composer Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968), which Druckman called “a masterful example of the general tendency to reach backwards and forwards simultaneously.” The third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia employs the scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s (1860–1911) Second Symphony as the backdrop for a dizzying array of sonic explorations. Composed twelve years after the Sinfonia, Prism, like its predecessor, carries its own blend of reminiscence and innovation. In Druckman’s case, the “backwards” is not just the operatic work of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century composers he quotes—Marc-Antoine Charpentier (Médée), Francesco Cavalli (Il Giasone), and Luigi Cherubini (Médée)—but the ancient myth of Jason and Medea, the subject of those operas. The “forwards” is in Druckman’s inventive use of the orchestra, what Bernard Holland in a New York Times review described as “timbral devices” that “whirl around us in Cineramic brilliance.” It is also, to some extent, in the idea of splicing together a composition out of old masterpieces, fascinating effects, and surprising juxtapositions, allowing Druckman to capture not the myth itself but what he called “the many-layered quality of the telling and re-telling of the story. It is a reflection on the persistent re-emergence of the myth that lies at the center of the new work.”

Far from another retelling of the myth, then, Druckman’s Prism views the myth, and the operas that use it as the subject, through a kind of musical prism. Prism also hints at a narrative shape of its own through a fairly straightforward, even conventional, three-movement format. In the introductory first (and shortest) movement, what Druckman called Charpentier’s “pageantry”—complete with regal brass motifs—emerges from and recedes behind a dissonant, mysterious orchestral wash. The mostly slow and atmospheric but also whimsical second movement follows Cavalli’s interpretation of the myth “as a tender and comic love story.” The pace quickens in the finale, which takes as its starting point the way Cherubini “drives relentlessly toward [the myth’s] tragic conclusion.”

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.

William Schuman, Symphony No. 3

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 4, 1910, in New York City
Died February 15, 1992, in New York City
Composed in 1941
Premiered on October 17, 1941, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky
Performance Time: Approximately 31 minutes

When William Schuman completed his Symphony No. 3 in 1941, he had an illustrious advocate: Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Serge Koussevitzky, an active supporter of American music. It was Koussevitzky who led the premiere of Symphony No. 3; he had already performed Schuman’s Symphony No. 2, and Schuman would go on to write his Symphony for Strings (1943) as a commission for the Koussevitzky Music Foundation.

Schuman shaped his Symphony No. 3 into two parts, each divided into two contrasting subsections and named for baroque precedents. The first section of Part 1, “Passacaglia,” refers to a slow work in the mold of a theme and variations, with an illustrious heritage in the finale of Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Schuman’s similarly solemn movement builds gradually from a lone viola to the entire string section to the winds and brass, and it follows Brahms’ example in its fiery contrasts of mood and sensibility, ranging from delicate melodic wanderings to sturdy climaxes. This leads seamlessly into the next section of Part I—the spiky, colorful “Fugue.” Especially exhilarating, early on in the section, is a stretto—a series of melodic imitations in quick successions—in the trumpets that serves as a rousing fanfare before a calmer pastoral passage for winds. Schuman’s textures accumulate quickly, with focuses on single instruments and sections giving way to full-bodied orchestral outpourings; one such accumulation gives way to a brief unaccompanied timpani solo with a response in the French horns and, soon after, an amassing of forces.

Part II returns to the passacaglia’s musical world, with an opening section (“Chorale”) that begins with another pensive string passage; wind instruments are invited in, starting with a languid trumpet solo over a hazy string accompaniment, and followed by a flute. Despite its similarities to Part I, the “Chorale” lacks the polyphonic mayhem of Part I. It leads to the animated “Toccata”—a term that suggests spontaneity and virtuosity. Schuman makes a special point to highlight percussion in this movement, particularly in the opening (in which a snare drum engages with various wind instruments) and in the electrifying finish.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.