MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Robert Carl: White Heron

My review of this marvelous BMOP anthology of Robert Carl’s music for Gramophone has now been posted here.

Aficionados of contemporary music will already be familiar with the name Robert Carl as a writer. He has authored extensive reviews for Fanfare and a recent, thought-provoking collection of essays on the challenges faced by 21st-century composers…

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Filed under: American music, CD review, Gramophone

Multi-cultural Odes: Jessie Montgomery in Profile

Here’s my latest story for Strings magazine:

An unmistakable harmony holds sway in Jessie Montgomery’s creative work. Her attunement to larger cultural contexts is eloquent and persuasive. Take Banner, Montgomery’s contribution to the tributes marking the U.S. National Anthem’s bicentennial in 2014. A compact, powerful piece for string quartet and string (or chamber) orchestra, Banner confronts what she calls “the contradictions, leaps and bounds, and milestones that allow us to celebrate and maintain the tradition of our ideals”…

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Filed under: American music, Strings

Damien Geter’s Cantata for A More Hopeful Tomorrow

Following the premiere of Damian Geter‘s short film Cantata for A More Hopeful Tomorrow last November, The Washington Chorus has now made the audio recording available to download and/or stream via multiple platforms. 

The Washington Chorus is among the first choirs in the country to release a recording that was produced 100% remotely – all choral singers along with guest soloists Aundi Marie Moore (soprano) and Seth Parker Woods (cello) recorded their parts from home during the pandemic. Complete list of streaming platforms.

Influenced by stories of hope and the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the Black community, The Washington Chorus and Artistic Director Dr. Eugene Rogers commissioned composer Damien Geter and Emmy award-winning filmmaker Bob Berg both from Portland, Oregon, to produce a short music film that premiered in November 2020. The work features soprano Aundi Marie Moore, cellist Seth Parker Woods, and over 100 singers of The Washington Chorus.

“It was important for The Washington Chorus to step forward with musical space for reflection, healing, and hope amidst the COVID-19 global health pandemic and America’s long overdue reckoning with historic racial injustices,” says Stephen Beaudoin, TWC Executive Director.

Filed under: American music, choral music

Aaron Copland: American Populist

This new film from PostClassical Ensemble’s More than Music Project explores Aaron Copland’s far left activism — including a rare performance of his prize-winning workers’ song “Into the Streets, May First,” with its call “Up with the sickle and the hammer!”

Notes Joseph Horowitz of PCE, “It’s all eerily pertinent today, this saga of an iconic American composer jostled by Populist currents on the far left, then the far right – and finally retreating from the fray.”

Among the film’s participants are the American historians: Michael Kazin (on populism) and Joseph McCartin (on the Red Scare). The soundtrack includes excerpts from PCE’s Naxos DVD of The City (1939), which Horowitz regards as “Copland’s highest achievement as a film composer, and the least-known consequential music that he composed.”

Aaron Copland, he concludes, “somewhat resembles ‘a cork in a stream,’ buffeted by political and social currents — a saga that raises many questions, including: What is the fate of the arts in the United States?”

An index to the 75-minute film:

10:14 – Copland on that Communist picnic

11:48 – Copland on workers’ songs

12:34 – “Into the Streets, May First” sung by Lisa Vroman and William Sharp

16:37 – Copland on Hollywood film music (with some Korngold to listen to)

20:00 – Excerpts from The City

39:20 – Joseph McCartin on the Red Scare

44:34 – Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn grill Copland

58:25 – Music historian Beth Levy on Copland’s quest for musical identity

1:04:32 – Michael Kazin on Copland and the Popular Front

1:06:30 – Horowitz’s summing up — a “cork in a stream” – with comparisons to Charles Ives and George Gershwin: composers with deeper roots

1:12:54 – The last word goes to pianist Benjamin Pasternack, recalling an illuminating meeting with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. 

Filed under: Aaron Copland, American music, PostClassical Ensemble

Inauguration Fanfares

Let the music begin.

On Tuesday 19 January at 12pm EST, the Hope & Harmony Ensemble will give a livestream performance in honor of the upcoming Inauguration. Led by Marin Alsop, they will play Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman*.

The Hope & Harmony Ensemble brings together 14 brass and percussion players from all around the United States: one musician each from the Atlanta Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Pacific Symphony, Peabody Institute, South Asian Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, and Utah Symphony.

This tribute is the brainchild of Neeta Helms, founder and president of the DC area-based tour company Classical Movements. Helms conceived the idea over a dozen years ago and sees it as an offering to unite a bitterly divided country through the power of music. The Hope & Harmony Ensemble was chosen to reflect the diversity of the American people.

“I am elated to be able to finally celebrate our first female Vice President. I am deeply inspired by Kamala Harris – and as an Indian-born American, I feel particular personal pride that her mother was Indian and in her archetypically American background,” says Neeta Helms. “In this time of difficulty and hardship, it is also fitting that we celebrate Joe Biden, an example to us all for his ideals of decency and hope and his perseverance in the face of hardship and tragedy. Filling a unique and vital role in the music industry that has been hit so hard by the pandemic, it was essential to us to create an ensemble that represented and celebrated our nation’s diversity, featuring women and men equally.”

In addition to footage of each musician, recorded in their homes and on site across the country, the presentation incorporates photographs and video illustrating “America the Beautiful” and the context of the struggle for civil rights and equality for women in the United States. Classical Movements has partnered with video and sound engineers Arts Laureate to produce these videos.

You can watch the presentation on Classical Movements’ YouTube channel and Facebook page.

*My profile of Joan Tower starts on p. 27 here. And here’s a little background I wrote on Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 1:

Tower alludes in several ways to Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man, which had been commissioned as one of a series of fanfares to support the Allied struggle in World War Two. Tower similarly scores for a brass and percussion ensemble but uses a much more extended array of percussion instruments. With its mix of tuned and untuned instruments, this section actually resembles a miniature orchestra of its own. Tower also packs a greater variety of thematic material and textural contrast into her fanfare. 

Filed under: American music, Joan Tower, music news

Bernard Herrmann’s Whitman

aThe latest production from PostClassical Ensemble explores a side of Bernard Herrmann that is scarcely acknowledged today. Herrmann is best known for his chilling score to Psycho and six other Alfred Hitchcock films, as well as his collaborations with Orson Welles. But he started out as a conductor at CBS, becoming music director of the pioneering  Columbia Workshop.

As a significant contributor to the medium of radio drama, Herrmann in 1944 composed music for Whitman, a drama focusing on Leaves of Grass. The half-hour show was produced by Norman Corwin with a contemporary aim: to boost morale back at home during the Second World War. Those were the days when millions of Americans tuned in to radio drama — in this case, a drama about a poet, with a first-rate, fresh score as accompaniment.

Angel Gil-Ordonez conducts the ensemble and William Sharp as the poet in this newly restored version of Whitman released on Naxos. In conjunction with the release, PCE has also produced the documentary Beyond Psycho– The Musical Genius of Bernard Herrmann. The film features commentary by Joseph Horowitz (who regards Hermann as “the most underrated 20th-century American composer”), Gil-Ordonez, Karen Karbiener (a Whitman scholar), Murray Horwitz (an expert on radio drama), Dorothy Herrmann (the composer’s daughter), and Alex Ross. 

Filed under: American music, PostClassical Ensemble, radio drama

Inside the George Walker Cello Sonata with CelloChat

Panelists Astrid Schween, Emmanuel Feldman, Owen Young, and Seth Parker Woods will discuss George Walker’s three-movement Cello Sonata from 1957 in this two-part offering from CelloBello.

Part 1: Saturday, 19 September at 12:00 pm EDT

Part 2: Saturday, 26 September at 12:00 pm EDT

For my Strings magazine profile of George Walker in 2017, Seth Parker Woods shared the following remarks about the Cello Sonata: “In playing [this piece], you’re engulfed in a state of beauty and episodic turmoil. One of the things I love is that its amazing melodic lines fit perfectly in the hand, as if they were molded all along for a cellist. It’s a brilliant work that I really would love to see more and more younger and older cellists performing. George Walker’s music is of monumental status and importance.” 

Filed under: American music, cello, George Walker, Seth Parker Woods

When the Federal Government Was Serious about Arts Funding

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the Zoom panel talk referenced below.

The Great Depression has been repeatedly invoked of late as we try to gauge the enormous impact of the current pandemic and the related economic crisis. But in the 1930s, Americans had a government in place that recognized the importance of the arts through the Works Progress Administration. These programs employed massive numbers of artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, and photographers.

On 5 July, together with Naxos and The American Interest, PostClassical Ensemble (PCE) presents the next installment in its More than Music series: Behrouz Jamali’s documentary on The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), which focuses on the Dust Bowl, and The River (1938), a modern ode to the role played by the Mississippi River. With scores by Virgil Thomson, both were the first-ever films created by the federal government for commercial release (i.e., not merely informational or educational films). Both champion a distinctly anti-Hollywood aesthetic.

There will be a follow-up Zoom chat on 9 July at 3pm EST. A panel will explore government funding for the arts during the pandemic: conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez, PCE Executive Producer Joseph Horowitz, historian David Woolner, and film historians Neil Lerner and George Stoney. Also on the agenda is a discussion of how Roosevelt’s New Deal addressed issues of race in the era of Jim Crow. To register, click here.

See also Joseph Horowitz’s blog post “The New Deal, the Arts, and Race — and Today”.

Filed under: American music, history, PostClassical Ensemble, social justice

Happy Birthday to George Walker

In honor of George Walker’s birthday — he would have turned 98 on Saturday — here’s my profile for the New York Times published last year, ahead of the posthumous premiere of his Sinfonia No. 5.

Deeply entrenched racism drove Walker away from his career as a concert pianist to the solitary existence of a composer. This extraordinary musical personality was shamefully neglected throughout his long life yet continued producing intricate, masterfully wrought scores. Here’s hoping that Walker’s upcoming centennial will be the catalyst needed for a wholesale engagement with his rich oeuvre.

“A Composer’s Final Work Contains ‘Visions’ of an American Master”

Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music

Damien Geter’s African American Requiem

Learn more about composer (and bass-baritone and actor) Damien Geter‘s remarkable new work, An African American Requiem, in my cover story for the current issue of Chorus America’s The Voice, which explores this and other examples of “secular requiems” by contemporary composers (starts on p. 26).

The world premiere by Portland’s Resonance Ensemble, which commissioned the work, was originally scheduled for May but had to be postponed because of the pandemic. Resonance now plans to give the premiere on 22 January 2021.

Filed under: African-American musicians, American music, choral music, new music

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