The Berlin Academy of American Music is another one of those pandemic projects in which determined artists defy the shutdown blues and somehow manage to get something done that they might not have thought of doing in normal times. In this case, it was American expatriate conductor Garrett Keast, now living in Berlin, who, along with fellow expat bassist Rosie Salvucci, organized some reading sessions of chamber orchestra music by Stravinsky, Copland, and others during the summer of 2020.
Cut to the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, also that summer. Another American friend living in Berlin, composer/pianist Craig Urquhart — perhaps best known for being Leonard Bernstein’s personal assistant and editing the Leonard Bernstein office’s newsletter “Prelude Fugue, and Riffs” — wrote a Lamentation for flute and string orchestra that was performed at the festival.
One idea led to another, connections were called in, and Lamentations became the launching point for the BAAM’s first album, Transatlantic (Onyx Classics), an album focused upon works by Americans, American émigrés, or foreign composers inspired by American ideals. From the programming alone, it turned out to be a very good idea.
The CD starts with Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, written on a commission from Washington, D.C., while Stravinsky was still in Europe, in 1937. It contains one of Stravinsky’s most brazen heists of material — J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 — turning it into a joyful trip of shifting meters and modernist harmonies. The Berlin musicians, more than half of whom are also American expats or were students there, are a wee bit draggy in tempo in the first and third movements, but closer to the composer’s mark in the second. Stravinsky pops up again later with the aria “No Word From Tom” from The Rake’s Progress, with Israeli soprano Chen Reiss in high operatic form as the ensemble digs hard into the cabaletta’s rhythmic accents.
Urquhart’s Lamentation, a lyrical minor-key lament with Stathis Karapanos’s plaintive flute lead over sustained strings, feels as much an homage to Urquhart’s employer and mentor (Bernstein’s poignant Halil comes to mind) as it is to their mutual friend who hosted them at past Schleswig-Holstein festivals.
The Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman’s song cycle Nofim (Sights) — also sung by Reiss — is a remembrance of the Tel Aviv neighborhood where he grew up, replete with lively to feverish Jewish dances, some jazz harmonies (the token American influence) in an urban scene, and ending dolefully with a funeral.
It’s hard to justify the presence of Japan’s Tōru Takemitsu in the “transatlantic” context, though they try by noting that Toward the Sea II was commissioned by Greenpeace (founded in Vancouver, B.C., based in Amsterdam). Never mind: these suave, relaxed, Debussy-like seascapes with Karapanos’s alto flute up front are perfectly enjoyable on their own terms.
Finally, Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite is played in the original ballet’s chamber ensemble instrumentation. So why not do the whole thing? Well, the total timing of the album — 82:07 — is already pushing the limits of the compact disc’s capacity, so they really couldn’t. In any case, the BAAM does the suite wonderfully well, with plenty of hoedown bounce in the central dances and the intimate feel of the original ballet intact.