“American Voices: New CDs Venture Beyond Tired Symphonic Programs”

As a parallel with my other points discussed in class discussing today’s limited performable repertoire in the orchestral field, this article by John von Rhein in the July 19, 1992 Chicago Tribune entitled, “American Voices: New CDs venture beyond tired symphonic programs” serves as a dual-purpose piece of (somewhat recent) history. This happens to be my second post about John von Rhein’s writing in the Chicago Tribune, the other being about the lack of American music in the orchestral concert repertoire, and conductor Leonard Slatkin’s efforts to change that. (That post is from March 21, 2021, with the corresponding article from April 19, 1989).

Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony’s Album art featuring music by Aaron Copland

One could understand two main purposes from von Rhein’s article: on one hand, it provides more evidence of a Euro-centric approach to the orchestral performance hall, though I would argue this is hardly necessary; and on the other hand, it highlights American composers such as Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, and William Schuman, and the works they are contributing to the ever-growing repertoire (under Bernstein’s and Leonard Slatkin’s batons). Von Rhein writes, “The sad fact is, however, that our leading conductors, soloists, and symphony managers have not entirely freed themselves from a Euro-centrist mindset when it comes to putting together concert programs.” (Left column, third paragraph).

As I have written about the so-called “Mahler Revival” of the 1960s, I will refer to a more suitable ‘revival’ for this topic. “Yankee modernist” Charles Ives’s music was the subject of a mid-1970s boom of American Music as a result of the United States’ bicentennial. The idea of “Americans conducting American music” prevailed: Leonard Bernstein conducted and recorded many of these works various orchestras he was associated with, but primarily the New York Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Ives, being born in Connecticut and growing up surrounded by marching bands, learned to incorporate various themes and folk tunes from the United States of America’s history. It is interesting that the author points out, Ives’s earliest songs were modeled after Romantic-era songs, and as such, he utilized poetry by Heine, Eichendorff, and others.

My original intention with this article was to highlight Aleatoric Music, also known as Chance Music, and perhaps find a few examples of this compositional style in action with pieces written by well-known composers. A piece I (shamefully) was not aware of is Leonard Bernstein’s Concerto for Orchestra: Jubilee Games. This piece utilizes the aleatoric approach, as the first movement (of four) is entitled “Free-Style Events”. Von Rhein writes, “Beginning with an aleatoric free-for-all and ending with a brassy benediction, the concerto is unified by the composer’s idiosyncratic use of number-symbology, Hebraic musical elements and the sheer chutzpah of his larger-than-life musical personality.” (Middle Column, third paragraph).

The specific Bernstein recording referred to in the article was released on Deutsche Grammophon in 1991, entitled “Jubilee Games”, and including both the New York Philharmonic and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In listening to his Concerto for Orchestra, specifically the first movement, there are pretty clear moments when multiple melodies and accompanimental figures are played in seemingly random fashion, only to be interrupted by clearly notated and organized sections. To my ear, this sounds incredibly similar to Charles Ives’s aleatoric writing, but just uses different raw materials to form a certain mood. Whereas I do not have a score to the piece, but rather am going off of what I hear, hearing this piece — where aleatoric sections are bound by some composed restrictions — I would consider only a small part of aleatoric music to be truly ‘chance music’.

Leonard Bernstein, Concerto for Orchestra “Jubilee Games”, Mvmt. 1, “Free-Style Events”. Performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, 1989.

Leonard Bernstein with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Nov. 20, 1948

In the fourth paragraph of the article, von Rhein writes, “But recordings, many of which are pitched to more sophisticated listening tastes than the vast majority of symphony concerts, can also strike a healthy blow for greater diversification.” (Left column, fourth paragraph). I am curious — to what degree do you see this as true?

I personally see there being more diverse works in orchestral concerts, albeit not the ‘main piece’, but rather a first-half piece that exposes the audience to new works while the orchestra can still sell tickets to their big second-half piece, which is more often than not, a standard European Baroque / Classical / Romantic work. I would figure, but I am uncertain, that more people would be exposed to new Western Art Music through live performances instead of CD / record distribution. Performing ensembles usually use premiere nights and commissioning projects as ways to bring in the same audiences but provide them with something new and exciting — has this changed with the digital age? (Remember, this article is nearly 30 years old now).

A Bostonian in the desert. Talk to me about Music, Football, Hiking, Cooking, or anything else!