MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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

Porgy and Bess Roundtable from PostClassical Ensemble

Following up on my post from the beginning of the month, here’s a distillation of PostClassical Ensemble’s 10 June zoom chat titled “Porgy and Bess Roundtable: What’s It About and Who’s Singing It?”

The panelists include George Shirley, the first African-American tenor to sing lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera, the bass-baritone Kevin Deas, one of the leading Porgys on today’s scene, Conrad Osborne, an expert in opera in performance, will also join in, and PCE founder Joseph Horowitz, with Bill McGlaughlin hosting. They also sample some historic Porgy recordings.

For more on this topic, here is Horowitz’s recent post: “Porgy Takes a Knee — Porgy and Bess and the American Experience of Race“:

“It’s interesting that Gershwin chose as his protagonist a person who’s on his knees. ‘Taking a knee’ has never been more relevant.”

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Filed under: African-American musicians, American music, George Gershwin, PostClassical Ensemble

Andante Cantabile from String Quartet in A minor by Florence Price

The first concert on my list to cover that got cancelled by the pandemic was to have been the Seattle Symphony in a program featuring the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Florence Price. That now seems a lifetime away. Cellist Seth Parker Woods, who plays here, turns to the music of Price for the perfect suggestion for how to start the new week in these times.

Filed under: American music, Florence Price, Seth Parker Woods

Music of James Newton and His Quintet

Filed under: American music, James Newton

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

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The composer George Walker died last summer at 96. He was a close friend of the artist Frank Schramm, who documented his final years in photographs. Photo (c) Frank Schramm

My New York Times article on the late George Walker is now online and will be in the Sunday Arts section.

SEATTLE — Last fall, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery began to display, among its recent acquisitions, a photograph of the composer George Walker. It shows him close up, his right index finger and thumb bearing down on a pencil with the precision of a surgeon, at work on the manuscript score of his Sinfonia No. 5.

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Filed under: American music, George Walker, new music, New York Times

John Harbison Comes to Seattle

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If you’re in Seattle over the next few days, don’t miss the chance to experience John Harbison in person, who will perform at the keyboard with his wife, violinist Mary Harbison at Octave 9 tonight. AND Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony give the West Coast premiere on Thursday and Saturday of Harbison’s new work for organ and orchestra What Do We Make of Bach?. The program also includes a Stokowski Bach transcription and the last of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies.

For more background on John Harbison, here’s my profile for a recent edition of Strings magazine:

Filed under: American music, Bach, John Harbison, Seattle Symphony

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