Bye-Bye, Spring for Music

By Sedgwick Clark

The critics’ darling series “Spring for Music” had four good years of thoughtful, sometimes innovative programs played by first-rate American orchestras from the provinces for a mere $25 a ticket in Carnegie Hall, no less. But none of our country’s billionaires or blue-chip companies was willing to chip in a couple mils for another season.

“This began as a three-year experiment which stretched into four fully funded years,” explained publicist Mary Lou Falcone, one of the series founders, along with David Foster, president of Opus 3 management, who had the original idea, and Tom Morris, artistic director of the Ojai Festival and consultant to various orchestras. “The challenge was sustainability and the need ultimately for an umbrella organization to shepherd this forward. We looked, we explored, and the right organization did not surface. The fact of life is that each organization has its priorities, driven by its own original ideas.”

In the 1970s and early ’80s unpopular oil and tobacco companies supported the non-profit arts to curry favor with the presupposed politically-liberal arts audience. Then they changed their minds. Greed became good, and now the big bucks are earmarked for company shareholders and politicians. What’s to say?

Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot

I already weighed in on Christopher Rouse’s Requiem, with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert (5/5), two weeks ago. The second SfM orchestra was the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot in his third season as music director (5/6). The concert began with a programming coup: the New York premiere of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, which had won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music only a month before. Forty-two minutes of undulation proved to be one of the audience hits of the four out of six SfM concerts I heard this season. In his excellent notes, Paul Schiavo quotes the Pulitzer committee’s citation, which calls it “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.” Okay; a bit fanciful, perhaps, but okay. I found wisps of Debussy’s La Mer and Ligeti’s Atmosphères inescapable.

Adams’s briny minimalism was paired well with Varèse’s Déserts (without the electronic music interludes) and La Mer. Those who recall Pierre Boulez’s performances when he was the New York Philharmonic’s music director, however, may have found comparisons wanting. I thought Seattle’s Varèse was pretty tepid, especially the timpani, and the La Mer and Fêtes (encore) soggy.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Symphony has released the first three CDs of its own recording label, all conducted by music director Ludovic Morlot and recorded live in concert at Benaroya Hall: an all-Dutilleux CD of Symphony No. 1, Tout un monde lointain, and The Shadows of time. A second CD of three works by Ravel and Saint-Saën’s Organ Symphony. And a third CD of Ives’s Symphony No. 2, Carter’s Instances, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

Rochester Philharmonic/Michael Christie

Did I really need to hear a concert performance of Howard Hanson’s sole opera, Merry Mount, I wondered? Not long into the piece I thought, “My god, this is gorgeous!” And by the end I was ready to organize a Hanson revival.

Of all the major American composers of the last century, Hanson (1896-1981) seems the most forgotten. Born of Swedish émigrés, his music was resolutely tonal in a century of dissonance. He was dubbed “the American Sibelius.” In 1924, still in his twenties, he was named director of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He stayed for 40 years, during which there came to be known the “Eastman Sound,” which in reality was the “Hanson Sound.” In 1925, he established an annual festival devoted to American classical music. During the 1950s and early ’60s, he recorded many of those works—his and others’—for Mercury Living Presence. His most enduring work is his Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”), commissioned in 1930 by Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Hanson recorded the “Romantic” three times commercially—for RCA, Columbia, and Mercury—and the New York Philharmonic released a 1946 composer-conducted live broadcast in a ten-CD set of American music.

Given their close proximity of creation, there’s a lot of the “Romantic” in Merry Mount, especially in the last scene of Act II and Act III. Hanson’s depiction of Indians may be more Polovtsian than 17th-century New England, but it’s so good natured that only the terminally politically correct will blanch. Sure, it’s dated and naïve, but none of today’s neo-Romantics would—or could—wallow in such luscious harmonies and melodic beauty. The real problem with Merry Mount is that its protagonist, the Puritan preacher Wrestling Bradford, is such a cad. The fact that Lucifer is always just around the corner doesn’t make him any more appealing. The work was commissioned and staged by the Metropolitan Opera in 1934. It received nine performances, one of which still holds the Met record of 50 curtain calls, but critics were lukewarm, and it was never revived by the company. Kathryn Judd’s notes set the scene: “Full of Puritanical hellfire and brimstone, the quintessentially American story centers on the conflict between religious fanatics and hedonistic, free-thinking cavaliers, exploring the age-old dichotomies between piety and desire, restraint and excess—and exposing the dire consequences of repression.”

The large cast sang well, for the most part, but the real stars of this concert were the Rochester Philharmonic, which not surprisingly played Hanson to the manner born, and conductor Michael Christie. His brief stint as music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic some time ago was not encouraging, but his conducting on this evening revealed total emotional conviction, natural long-line phrasing, and mastery of orchestral color. Rochester may have found its new music director.

A resounding “yes” to a Hanson revival!

Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus/James Conlon

We may smile at Merry Mount’s evocations of kinky reborn Southern televangelists, but R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses is no laughing matter. It is difficult to imagine a more persuasive performance of Moses than that of the Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival Chorus under the committed leadership of James Conlon, music director of Cincinnati’s 141-year-old May Festival since 1979, on May 9th.

Conlon and the fine Festival Chorus, directed by Robert Porco, who celebrates his 25th year in that position, were joined by four extraordinary vocal soloists who sang their dramatic hearts out, full throttle: soprano Latonia Moore (Miriam), mezzo Ronnita Nicole Miller (The Voice of Israel), tenor Rodrick Dixon (Moses), and baritone Donnie Ray Albert (The Voice of God and The Word).

All I had heard previously of  Dett’s music was Percy Grainger’s ancient recording of the catchy little Juba: Dance. Young Nathaniel (1882-1943) began formal lessons early and in 1908 graduated in piano and composition studies from Oberlin College. He had a distinguished career as a teacher and choral director, pursuing further studies at many universities during summers. In 1932 he earned his master’s degree from Eastman; his graduation thesis was the composition of The Ordering of Moses. He also studied in France with Nadia Boulanger and at Harvard. His style combined the music of the European Romantics, such as Dvořák, with that of the American spiritual.

The Ordering of Moses received its premiere at the 1937 Cincinnati May Festival. Eugene Goossens conducted a chorus of 350 and a quartet of noted oratorio and operatic singers. It was, writes Richard E. Rodda in his program note, Dett’s “most ambitious creative effort,  . . . formed around iconic episodes of the biblical Exodus—the lament of the Israelites held captive in Egypt, the divine calling (“ordering”) of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea and the pursuit by the Egyptians, and the rejoicing of the freed Israelites—with a text he drew from the books of Exodus and Lamentations and the words of traditional spirituals, most notably “Go Down, Moses,” whose melody recurs as a motto throughout the work. . . . The event was Dett’s greatest triumph.”

The 1937 performance was broadcast live nationwide on NBC radio, but under controversial circumstances: About three-quarters into the work, the music was interrupted by the announcer, saying, “We are sorry indeed, ladies and gentlemen, but due to previous commitments, we are unable to remain for the closing moments of this excellent performance.” The reason for the interruption remains a mystery, but conjecture has it that the network response was due to callers objecting to the broadcast of a work by a black composer—and the heresy, I would guess, of a work that combined European classical music with spirituals.

The original acetates of the broadcast still exist, and Conlon chose to have that 1937 introduction precede his performance. Moreover, at exactly the moment the music was cut off, the broadcast announcement was inserted. Some audience members in post-concert conversation objected, but I felt it added to the historical nature of the work’s genesis and self-evident triumph 77 years later.

There was no question about the Spring for Music performance. A large, diversified audience roared its approval at the work’s conclusion and simply wouldn’t leave. After several curtain calls, Conlon turned to the cheering crowd and said that it’s a tradition for the orchestra, chorus, and audience to sing Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus at the close of each May Festival. He launched into the music, and I daresay there were few dry eyes in Carnegie Hall.

The concert began with an expert performance of John Adams’s half-hour Harmonium, on texts by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. It’s an attractive work, and on another occasion it would certainly not be so overwhelmed by the rest of the program.

For the Spring for Music Record

I missed two of this year’s Spring for Music concerts. The first, on May 8th, by the Winnipeg Symphony under Music Director Alexander Mickelthwate, was a program of music by Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer, Derek Charke, and Vincent Ho. The second, on May 10th, by the Pittsburgh Symphony under Music Director Manfred Honeck, was a program of music by Bruckner, Poulenc, James MacMillan, and a presentation of Mozart’s Requiem, billed as “Mozart’s Death in Words and Music.”

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