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CD Review

Robert Russell Bennett

  • A Commemorative Symphony to Stephen Foster *
  • A Symphonic Story of Jerome Kern
* Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg
Everest SDBR-3063
Find it at Amazon

This is a really fun program. While both pieces are attributed to the composers they salute, I have decided that this is more Bennett than Foster or Kern, although all the tunes remain intact. These performances are the world première recordings of each work, and indeed have a special sense of occasion. Luckily for us, Countdown Media has brought this back to the market, either as an Amazon CD or as an iTunes download. If you have any interest in Americana, this is a must.

William Steinberg's tenure in Pittsburgh was a highly successful one, and only some really distasteful record politics stopped him from being a star in Boston. Steinberg conducted an appreciably wide range of repertoire throughout his career, and he and his players certainly sound like they enjoyed working with these playful and wholly approachable scores. The Foster is a hoot. It's a treat to hear the full orchestra wail away at "Camptown Races", and to encounter "Oh, Susanna" later on. The Pittsburgh forces are admittedly miles away from the powerhouse orchestra they would later become, but close milking clearly shows more than adequate results from all involved. The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh makes an unexpected appearance – they show up in small print within the original liner notes – in the final movement, and sing various Foster tunes heartily, if with the same lack of polish as the orchestral contributions. Still, a little rough and ready playing only enhances the appeal of these creative arrangements.

The Symphonic Story of Jerome Kern is even better. For starters, I find the playing to be more generally assured. Secondly, since Bennett gives a clear outline of Kern's lifetime from a musical perspective, the work tells a clearer story and seems a bit more cogent. Just like in the work based on Foster tunes, Bennett really gives audiences something to cherish with his innovative spins on classic songs. While not the last word in polish, the Pittsburgh Symphony again plays with distinction. And really, is this music about polish? These aren't masterpieces; they're just enjoyable pieces of music. Grab it while you can.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman