American Music’s Popularity — or Lack Thereof

Note: I use the term “American Music” in its colloquial sense referring to the United States of America, as this is the way I interpret the discussed articles’ labeling of it. I am not sure if this term is written exclusively meaning the United States or The Americas, as the topic of conversation revolves around Leonard Slatkin’s experience leading the St. Louis and Chicago Symphony Orchestras. Later in the article however, it references the April 19, 1989 program which included Copland’s Symphony №3, and a work by Argentine-born Alberto Ginastera. Therefore, use of this term does not seem to be consistent.

With our class’s recent discussion about William Grant Still, his contributions to the so-called “American Sound”, and how we often label this “American Sound” in a generic manner reflecting a Jazz or Blues influenced work, I originally considered looking into primary sources about the reception of American Music Festivals around the country. Interestingly, this idea pointed me to an article written by John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune on April 2, 1989, entitled “Native Son: Conductor Slatkin Champions American Music”. Leonard Slatkin, at that point in his tenth season with the St. Louis Symphony, was called in as a long-term substitute for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Georg Solti, who typically split time between the CSO and various other organizations. At this point, this would have presented a relatively rare opportunity for the late 1980s — an American conducting American music.

Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

This article takes what I consider to be a reasonable yet seldom discussed stance on American music’s popularity or lack thereof in American orchestral performances. Simply put, there is little American music performed because Americans do not occupy the music director positions in major orchestras. In this article, Leonard Slatkin is seen as the sole exception. As it comes to Solti’s increasing age, the question arises of who his replacement would be. (Solti passed away on September 5, 1997) “Moreover, the question of how much American music a given conductor has in his repertoire — and is willing to learn and to present to the local symphony public — still looms as a negligible factor when a trustee board decides who is best-qualified to take over its podium.” (Pg. 1, Right Column, Paragraph 2). This continues the perhaps intentional, but nevertheless unfortunate sequence where we will not hear American music take a prominent role in programming, even in American orchestras.

In this article, John von Rhein writes and then quotes Slatkin, “If musical directors with European musical outlooks are to head major American orchestras, ‘then you had better make sure you surround [them] with [guest conductors] who can cover an adequate range of American music in an organized manner’.” (Page 2, Left, Paragraph 3). In searching for more evidence of this ‘injection of American music’, I looked to the New York Philharmonic Archives, specifically for concerts with Slatkin conducting. I came across a subscription concert series including the premiere of one of the all-time difficult concertos for my instrument, Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto.

Program for the 12/30/1992–1/5/1993 Subscription Performances

This program merges more traditional orchestral repertoire (the first half includes Mendelssohn and Dvorak) with music by United States-born composers Christopher Rouse and George Gershwin. As a side note, and as a reason to ‘geek-out’ about trombone, on the score of Christopher Rouse’s concerto, there is a line stating “In Memorium Leonard Bernstein”. Needless to say, a little more than two years after the legendary conductor of the New York Philharmonic’s death, this work’s unsettling sound would have likely reflected the sentiments felt by the concert-going public during this time. The work received fantastic reviews and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1993. Though this is a specific circumstance, I do wonder if Slatkin’s performing of ‘traditional’ European repertoire alongside American repertoire is the best method for presenting this music to the public. Will American music ever be valued enough by the public to function on its own merit?

Christopher Rouse: Trombone Concerto, performed by Joseph Alessi and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop

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