July 8, 2008
When it comes to programming, most July 4th concerts trumpet the opposite of what the holiday celebrates. These "Dependence Day" concerts are slaves to tradition, and always include one or more of a small number of pieces supposedly defining the genre. I'm sure you can name them, the quintessentially "American" pieces by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Ferde Grofé, Leroy Anderson — and the two "must haves" that I found in 12 of the first 15 such concerts displayed by my Internet search engine, Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever and the most bombastic of them all, that strung-together series of tunes written by the famous American patriot Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, the "1812" Overture.
The folks at Festival del Sole decided that true independence should characterize programming for their "Special Free Independence Day Concert," so they built one with only three works, not the usual potpourri. The first two didn't fit into the "usual July 4th suspects" listed above, and instead symbolized much about the historical evolution of American music. Finally, a new third work, the 70-minute secular oratorio American Festivals, by Nolan Gasser, while devoted to key issues in America's past history, revealed by comparison the happy and sad state of current American music.
Critic Confesses All
The concert began with The Festival Overture on the American National Air, by Dudley Buck (1839-1909). I don't know how well he negotiated much of the seven-minute piece, but conductor Asher Raboy did a fine job of handling the conclusion, which I heard outside the auditorium as I walked up to it 15 minutes late, mistakenly thinking the program was to start at 6 instead of 5:30. In penance, I vowed to obtain a recording of the music, as well as publish my misdeed. I am glad I did the former, for the work was a revelation to me in its charm and competence.
When it was written, in 1868, the U.S. was a cultural backwater as far as Europe was concerned. Yet Buck was no rube: He dutifully crossed the Atlantic to the Leipzig Conservatory to learn his craft, and produced an overture worthy of Offenbach or Suppé. In it, the "American National Air" (The Star Spangled Banner wouldn't become our anthem until 1931) is treated as a second theme in a sonata form, the first theme of which is Buck's own sprightly tune. The two are treated to a not overindulgent development in various keys, after which the Air returns, as a fake recapitulation, in the minor key before a grand, proper recapitulation at the conclusion. This delight should be heard more often.
After this music by the Europe-inspired Buck, who is representative of all American classical composers before the later Charles Ives, came one of the first great pieces to inspire in the reverse direction, the jazzy Rhapsody in Blue of George Gershwin. Piano soloist Conrad Tao, whom I'd heard play Mozart very well at the Aspen festival, did not disappoint in his technical proficiency. He received a deserved standing ovation. I only wish he had shown he was having a little more fun playing this icon that a certain airline has tried to crash-land with its advertising campaigns.
One Good Thing After Another
After intermission came the Holiday Cantata (or secular oratorio) by Gasser, American Festivals. This has been a five-year labor of love by the composer and the poet/golf-course-designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. Three of the movements have premiered elsewhere over time, but this was the first concert at which they were played together with the new last movement, "Thanksgiving."
All the movements contain fine moments, plenty of variety, and attractive orchestration. Any one of them deserves more exposure in the concert hall to commemorate their respective occasions. While Gasser has brought elements of unity to the set (for example, reusing motives — which unfortunately are not easily distinguished — and bringing most soloists together in the last movement), the whole seems less than the sum of its parts.
For one thing, the first three have liberty as a common theme. "Oration on the 4th of July," for narrator and orchestra, covers territory from "When wise Ben Franklin/Warned his countrymen/That those who give up/Their liberty for safety/Surely will lose both" through the Civil War ("In the dripping gloom/At Vicksburg, at Gettysburg") to an exhortation "To pledge anew/Your life, your fortune/Your sacred honor/To your everlasting liberty."
"Memorial Day," perhaps the most touching of the four movements, composed for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and walk-on bagpipe, honors the veterans who "striped our virgin banner red/when for Liberty, they bled." And the third movement, "Black Suite Blues," honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day and set for bass-baritone, saxophone, and orchestra, quotes King's "Free at last."
But liberty isn't mentioned in "Thanksgiving." Instead, there is a funny dialogue between a wild turkey and a hen, then an extended paean to the geography and wildlife of the nation ("Into the great Gulf of sunlit hues/Where marlin shimmer, soar and dive" and "Give thanks to yellow Yellowstone/For all creatures to flock to roam"). A native-flute player (Mary Youngblood) reminds us of the original inhabitants of the continent, and later, the baritone sings of pioneers seeking El Dorado "To learn what natives knew/Where the Indian corn grew/Beaten into bitter bread./On their wilderness we fed." Near the conclusion came "We sleep as children do,/Dreaming of where buffalo roam."
Perhaps the cantata could cohere better if the last movement were shortened and liberty or another textual (or perhaps rear-projected) theme were carried all the way through, and perhaps it would be more effective if more contrast was apparent between movements rather than inside movements. Nevertheless, American Festival was well received by the audience.
Audience Weighs In
The concert was free, and was simulcast to crowds on the lawns of the California Veterans' Home in Napa Valley. Necessary amplification did not make for the best acoustical milieu, though it did allow the rather small Festival del Sole Chorus (Lynne Morrow, director) to be heard clearly.
Eric Owens was outstanding in the bass-baritone roles, with rich and passionate renderings. The actor Craig T. Nelson's stern voice carried the narration effectively. Lawrence Miller, as the tenor saxophone voice of Martin Luther King Jr. had some of the best music and played it for all it was worth. Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove sang with generous vibrato, fresh from substituting for Ewa Podles as Erda in Das Rheingold at the San Francisco Opera.
I received a wide range of reactions to Gasser's cantata from people I contacted leaving the building, ranging from "It brings tears to your eyes," "A gift to the community," and "Nice to hear the music with the words," to "That last stuff was kind of weird," "It was too discordant and dark for my taste," and the enigmatic comment "Robert Trent Jones Jr., had it all inside him."
The welcome change for an Independence Day concert with the inclusion of the Buck and Gasser pieces nevertheless reminds me of one reason planners are dependent on the old standards: They have melody. That's why the Gershwin piece, for all its jazzisms that quickly became passé, will be around as long as anyone who is proud to (try to) sing The Star Spangled Banner. The Gasser, on the other hand, welcome as it is, would greatly benefit from a killer tune.
Melody continues to be out of fashion today, and lack of it remains a handicap for any new work attempting to appeal to mass audiences over the long term. The happy side of American music is that composers are being ever more superbly trained, and most want to reach audiences now. The sad side is that all I could sing to myself after the concert, airline be damned, was the Gershwin.