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CD Review

Dance Mix

  • Leonard Bernstein: "Mambo" from West Side Story
  • John Adams: The Chairman Dances
  • Aaron Jay Kernis: New Era Dance
  • David Schiff: Stomp
  • Libby Larsen: Collage - Boogie
  • John Harbison: Remembering Gatsby
  • Michael Torke: Charcoal
  • Robert Moran: Points of Departure
  • Dominick Argento: Tango
  • Michael Daugherty: Desi
  • Christopher Rouse: Bonham
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/David Zinman
Argo 444454-2 DDD 70:42
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People who disparage contemporary music tend to complain of its sameness, but really this kind of hegemony hasn't been around for at least twenty years. Granted, certain prizes and academic perks (like tenure) find themselves in the hands of die-hard defenders of a battlefield from which opposing armies have left as irrelevant – sort of like fortifying Disneyland. Even at its peak, one found this dominance confined to certain universities or geographic areas. But not all music is written in New York or San Francisco and not all music written at Yale is the same. Number of recordings indicates that the so-called International Style (post-Webernian serialism, aleatorics) is pretty much going unheard in the general marketplace. It's far more accurate to speak of contemporary musics, and styles range pretty widely. Man, if ever you harbor doubts about the health of contemporary music, this disc should dispel them. Almost all the work is based on popular dance forms, and I found it impossible to sit still in my chair. I had to get up and start flinging myself around the room (once my wife had left the house, of course). Much of my excitement arises from Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony's electrifying accounts. They swing like the Basie band. Their attack hits like a trip-hammer. They got rhythm.

Some complain about compilations, but I love them. They allow me to listen intently to people I haven't heard and give me ideas about whose work to buy next. This CD introduced me to Aaron Jay Kernis and Robert Moran. I could die fulfilled without hearing Moran's work again (minimalism beautifully scored, reminding me mostly of orchestration texts I've read), but the Kernis represents a major find.

I might as well name my personal misfires first. Michael Torke's "Charcoal," from Color Music is attractive, but ultimately nothing special. Argento's "Tango" (from an opera in progress on Valentino) lacks the sensuous sparks of the genuine article. Worse, it's not especially dramatic. But that's about it, and, of course, others will disagree. Still, the play list should win over the average demented classical music lover without an ax to grind.

The program opens with the roar of Bernstein's "Mambo" from West Side Story. Granted, this isn't, strictly speaking, contemporary music, but Bernstein was, in his musical omnivorousness and his love of vernacular idiom, ahead of his time, even when certain members and hangers-on of the musical Bauhaus sneered at his eclecticism and allegiance to the old-fashioned Stravinsky of the 1930s. As it happens, their heads were stuck even further back in the 1920s, but that's another story. Bernstein's music has such a strong profile that I worried putting it first in the program would wash out the other works.

To some extent, this happened with Adams's "The Chairman Dances." However, a couple of listens to this work alone confirmed Adams as a composer of real individuality. I've always felt Adams mislabeled as a "minimalist" (I also don't find the term appropriate to Steve Reich). So much goes on in this piece: a bit of jazz, a hint of Gershwin, some Broadway, a little Ives, perhaps some of Creston's cross-rhythms, as well as the usual learning about orchestration from Stravinsky and the French and an idiosyncratic humor (particularly in the "wind-down" ending). To me, Adams has a questing mind – anyone who holds Meister Eckhart, Schoenberg, *and* Quackie in his head all at the same time has my vote for Culture Hero – also evidenced by the increased breadth and depth of his music over the years. Considering the Jungian world-view behind most minimalism – a kind of faceless gallery of universals – it surprises me a little how specifically American Adams's music sounds, particularly the continual quick pulses and off-center jabs in the music. It reminds me of a busy freeway – lots of action, an occasional beep or two, and everything moving.

I get the same impulse in Kernis's "New Era Dance," although it's definitely "maximal" music. The rhythms are almost always contrapuntally (sometimes even canonically) generated and you can look high and low for any repetition. Latin, heavy metal, and hard bop among other things sail in and out in a whirl of highly imaginative scoring. On the strength of this one piece, I ordered another Kernis CD. Zinman and his troops not only get through this rather complex piece, they do so with enthusiasm, down to the shouted chants and stamps specified by the composer.

David Schiff's "Stomp," with an interesting note from the composer in which he acknowledges the inspiration of The Hardest Working Man in Show Business and Godfather of Soul, never quite takes off for me, despite its obvious expertise. Nevertheless, Schiff has other wonderful work. I recommend especially the "Divertimento from Gimpel the Fool" (available on Delos DE 3058), one of the great postwar chamber pieces.

I know Libby Larsen only through her music, and everything I've heard points to an artist who delights in her surroundings. "Collage: Boogie" abstracts certain patterns of boogie-woogie left hand, without (interestingly enough) falling into the general boogie-woogie rhythm – a real tour-de-force. Significantly, the composer locates her attraction to this music in its optimism and vitality, two concise characterizations of her own work. "Boogie" exemplifies big-city Romanticism as well as the poetry and excitement of the neon strip. The piece, I believe, requires of the listener a certain innocence: a willingness to both gawk and be thrilled by being part of everything going on. If your heart does not leap up when you behold a Dairy Queen or a gaudy marquee, you may have trouble with this work. I'm a fan.

John Harbison's catalogue demonstrates an enormous range of expression, as well as a strong communicative thrust to the listener. According to the liner notes, "Remembering Gatsby" is an instrumental interlude in a projected opera on the Fitzgerald novel. The music begins with near-Wagnerian yearning, but soon settles into a delightful 1920s-style fox trot and, for me, very powerful variations thereon, interrupted by the opening cry. Harbison penetrates not only to the heart of Twenties musical idiom (including a typical "song-plugger" B section) but to the void in Gatsby himself. I can't wait to hear the opera.

On such a strong program, Michael Daugherty's glittering, gaudy "Desi" stands out. Daugherty draws on the detritus of pop culture (his "Metropolis" Symphony evokes the Superman saga, for example), and in so doing, proves no material is intrinsically impure. Here, we have a super-conga, inspired by – you guessed it – Desi Arnaz. Unlike Larsen or Harbison or even Kernis, Daugherty doesn't distance himself with a classical gesture, just to prove he's serious. "Desi" is pop raised to art by pure genius, like Lorenz Hart or E. Y. Harburg or Ira Gershwin, making the vernacular speak pure poetry.

Christopher Rouse's "Bonham" does roughly the same, in a 6-minute percussion ensemble jam that summons up the Led Zeppelin drummer. I'd kill for the score. Most classical composers haven't a clue as to what goes into jazz or rock drumming (Bonham dips into both). Consequently, we have another tour-de-force, and it could serve as a textbook.

One of the best in Argo's on-going series of contemporary American music.

Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz