Over this past weekend Bard College at Sosnoff Theater offered two performances by American composers of the first half of the 20th century with The Orchestra Now. The first two works were from 1931 by Charles Ives and William Grant Still. Ives’ Decoration Day was written at least a decade before it premiered In Havana, Cuba. This early masterpiece recalls his childhood near Danbury, CT, where his father was a bandmaster. While this short composition remains imbued with the charm of childhood recollections from Memorial Day celebrations, its abrupt conclusion reminds us of the cost of war and becomes an explosive warning about the human cost of war. The orchestra not only felt at ease with the material but were clearly delighted to be performing this piece under the baton of Leon Botstein. The orchestra played with unity and zest, as if they had been performing this piece all their lives—they were electric!
I had heard William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony a few times while driving a car and was happy to hear this rarely performed piece. While making turns or glancing at the pushy tailgater in my rearview mirror, I would lose the thread of the symphony, the first important symphony composed by an African-American. The first movement, “Longing,” memorialized the slave era and the invention of the blues with an epic Liszt-like finesse; the second movement, “Sorrow,” recalled how the development of the African-American spiritual delivered a message of hope through the appropriation of Christianity, which was often considered at the time to be illegal and severely punished; the third movement, “Humor,” memorialized the invention of ragtime and jazz. This latter, exciting movement could have been played with a smidgeon of more ferocity. My trombonist friend opined that Still missed a couple of opportunities to highlight the trombone in his arrangement—an observation to which I readily agreed. This being the first African-American symphony, Still steered a more conservative, narrow course than we would expect today. The orchestra bounced back with the hymn-like, concluding “Aspiration” movement, which expressed the fervent hope that African Americans be integrated into the mainstream of society, as the music moved from hymn to big band swing with a spell-binding dissonant edge. Bassoonist Adam Romey had introduced the work with clear diction, excellent framing, enthusiastic charm, and later distinguished himself in this performance.
Moving to the early part of next decade, Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 2, which established Piston as an important American composer, the opening Moderato plays with the sonata form in a jazzy manner, as if to recall Piston’s early years as a jazz piano player. (A curious aspect of Piston’s symphonies is that they don’t specify a particular key.) The strings dominate in the 6/4 melody, yet I thought this movement would have possessed more balance with more violas (there were only four). Ye Hu’s clarinet introduced the slow Italianate Adagio, which Leonard Bernstein later selected to perform in his Carnegie Hall tribute to Piston after his death, and this movement was delivered with impressive subtlety, especially in the sensitive violins of Stuart McDonald and Yurie Mitsuhashi; an indelible neo-Romanticism stamps this languorous movement. A contrasting Allegro finale opened with a flourishing brass fanfare, moved to dance rhythms, and turned lyrical with an announcement from William Loveless on horn, as the orchestra moved into melodic resolution and contentment.
Aaron Copland’s short but powerful Lincoln Portrait (1942) concluded the concert. This work was originally on the schedule for Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 January inauguration, yet was scratched due to opposition from rabid McCarthyites who loathed Copland’s international success and Copland’s status as a liberal Democrat. Here was the seed of the Republican Party’s strategy to divide rather than unite the country. Oboe player Kelly Mozeik introduced the work with eloquence: she spoke about her brother in Pittsburgh who was a close friend of one of the victims of the recent massacre there; her sincere tone was one of plaintive lamentation.
Lincoln Portrait had addressed the situation of World War II in its recollection of how Lincoln bravely and honestly addressed the exigencies of the Civil War. Copland was attempting to celebrate the unity of American resolve after the war, and the suppression of his work indicated a mild parallel with Hitler’s banning of Mendelssohn’s music in Germany; it currently illustrates the neglect of classical music and the arts in general under the current administration.
Copland, who lived in nearby Peekskill, employed texts written by Lincoln and these texts, including the Gettysburg address, were forcefully and clearly narrated by Mx Justin Vivian Bond. Micah Candiotti-Pacheo’s clarinet was equally eloquent. The famous, explosive, climatic conclusion of this work remains immortally riveting and here Jamie Sanborn on horn sounded like an exclamation mark. America was great when the Presidency had a deep, reflective, moral center, speaking truth to history. A video of Bernstein conducting Lincoln Portrait appears below.