Summary for the Busy Executive: Modern music without tears.
Musical histories of the postwar era tend to give you the impression that Schoenberg and his disciples swept away the neoclassicism that formerly ruled. Whether they realize it or not, these writers simply continue the polemics of a long-gone turf war. That is, not everybody switched to serialism and the Darmstadt avant-garde, and some of those who did not continued to receive commissions and to produce very good scores. The return of the "new tonality" and Neoromanticism really wasn't a return after an absence, but a stepping forward into better light. In turn, it didn't invalidate the "hard" music that came before or, for that matter, continues today. Turf wars still happen due to the scarce resources – orchestras, money, venues – but the competition has become more nakedly political, without the fig leaf of Principles of Beauty. All sorts of music co-exist, and a good thing, too.
A pupil of Hindemith, Norman Dello Joio wore the mantle of Bright Young Hope, winning several prizes, including a Pulitzer. The music scene passed him by, unfortunately, but a few works, mostly for amateurs, keep his name alive. Hindemith made sure his students had solid craft and encouraged them to meet their public, at least occasionally, as well as to write for the desk drawer. Dello Joio proved one of Hindemith's outstanding pupils. Outside of a few early works, unlike many of his fellows, he didn't merely imitate Hindemith, but shaped a memorable personal style, distinguished by a certain lyricism, slightly reminiscent of Forties pop.
Dello Joio wrote a number of scores for television documentaries, The Louvre of 1965 one of them. Originally for orchestra, Dello Joio reworked the music for band. It has become one of his most popular pieces – ironic, since it little resembles what he usually writes. To some extent, the basic musical material – Renaissance instrumental dances by French composers like Gervaise – determined the idiom. Unlike Stravinsky and "Pergolesi" in Pulcinella or Poulenc in the Suite française, Dello Joio doesn't impress his personality on the music. Rather, he lets the music speak for itself, albeit with modern forces. The result is a bright, winning score.
Known for many years as a superb trumpet soloist and principal in several orchestras here and abroad, Anthony Plog branched out into composing. He has composed in several genres, but I've heard mainly his brass pieces. Clarity and athletic counterpoint mark his music. The Concerto for Two Trumpets has as its inspiration, but not as its model, Vivaldi's concerto for two trumpets, RV537. Plog exploits the soloists' antiphony and their ability to hold interest even when no one else plays, as well as their breaking up, almost arbitrarily, a single musical line between them. In the second movement, this turns into one virtuosic hairpin tradeoff after another. The movements run fast-slow-fast, filled with neoclassical tropes. The final movement runs headlong from first bar to last. Afterwards, I let go a mental "whew!"
Joseph Turrin studied at Eastman, among other places, and has received many high-profile commissions. The Concertino for 11 Instruments and Wind Ensemble comes across as an ambitious work, aiming to exploit not only the concertante-ripieno aspects of the concerto grosso, but to highlight each soloist at least briefly. In one large movement, it consists of three subsections: an allegro, a slow movement which teeters between languor and unease, and a furious, driving finale which strenuously tests the ensemble's sharpness of rhythm. Many ideas, complexly varied, show up in all three sections. Very tight work.
Eric Ewazen went to Eastman and to Juilliard, where he worked with a wide array of teachers, including Samuel Adler, Milton Babbitt, Gunther Schuller, and Joseph Schwantner. He currently serves on the Juilliard faculty. With such a motley upbringing, you would predict music with nothing notable about it, like a dish to which too much has been added, so that it actually loses its distinctive taste. Nevertheless, Ewazen has sidestepped that pitfall, producing music of great originality. I've heard only a few pieces, however, and nothing I'd call major, so I can't comment on his range.
Inspired by four pictures by Western photographer Edward Curtis, Shadowcatcher, a concerto for brass quintet and orchestra, evokes Native American life. Normally, musical works with Native American themes make me cringe, since they seem clichéd, echoes of Saturday afternoon shoot-'em-ups. That Ewazen never strays onto such an easy path strikes me as a near-miracle. However, the piece, outside of a wonderful first movement full of surprise, doesn't keep my attention. I sense too much of a strain toward Nobility. For me, Ewazen's personality – again, based on the pieces I've heard – seems modestly lyrical, with a characteristic piece something like his Classical Concerto for tenor sax (Albany TROY477).
The ensembles and soloists come mainly from West Chester University, outside Philadelphia. West Chester was, I believe, Samuel Barber's home town. I hadn't heard of the university before, but there are many great schools I haven't heard of. Furthermore, Curtis Institute takes attention away from other music schools in the area. Some of West Chester's music faculty also belong to the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the level of their playing on the CD is all you'd expect from such a stellar group. The students are so good, you often can't distinguish them from their teachers. The performances crackle. The players' loss of energy in the Ewazen I think due to the score itself. However, I once made a bad judgment, so I'm not infallible. The other pieces justify the price of this disc. Mostly quite enjoyable.
Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz