Recent Listening

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 3; Randall Thompson: Symphony No. 2; David Diamond: Symphony No. 4. New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein.
I think most of my students these days don’t know the name Roy Harris. Yet in my own undergraduate days, the Harris Symphony No. 3 was on the syllabus in my 20th century music history class as an example of American symphonic writing. (I think Appalachian Spring was on the list as well, but if you wanted an American symphony, the Harris was the go-to piece, unless you substituted the Copland Third for Appalachian Spring.) The Harris remains convincing, with vivid gestures and an unusual single-movement formal plan. The Thompson is more neo-classical; a little predictable at times, but charming. (Did it really get the enormous number of performances mentioned in the letter to Bernstein I cited here? Bernstein’s advocacy probably helped.) I found the melodic material in the Diamond Fourth to be more compelling than in other works of his that I have heard, with less of the aimless contrapuntal bustle that he can fall into.

Miles Davis Quintet: Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. This is a very strong set offering tunes associated with earlier Davis recordings – Autumn Leaves, So What, Stella by Starlight, and Walkin’ – but from the perspective of a later ensemble, including George Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, that treats the material much more freely than Davis’s groups of a few years earlier. It’s certainly trickier to follow the form on this version of Autumn Leaves as compared with the one on the Cannonball Adderly album Somethin’ Else. There’s gorgeous low register open horn playing from Miles on Stella, and a couple of bowed Ron Carter solos, not something I associate with that master. Do I hear passing references to the original version of So What in Coleman’s solo on this piece?

Fall Reading List

Some items I am hoping to get to this fall:

My Bright Abyss – Christian Wiman

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington – Terry Teachout

The Leonard Bernstein Letters – edited by Nigel Simeone

Transatlantic – Colum McCann

The Amazing Bud Powell: Black Genius, Jazz History, and the Challenge of Bebop – Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.

That last item is by one of my colleagues at the day job – check out his blog here.

Mahler 7 at the Kimmel Center

I just got in from hearing the London Symphony and Gergiev do Mahler 7. Received wisdom says that this is a problematic piece, with the outer movements not seeming to be from the same piece as the inner movements, especially the two Nachtmusiken; the finale also comes in for criticism as being strangely banal. I never found the work to be a problem, but I have an odd relationship with the piece – it was the first Mahler I ever heard, when I brought home an LP copy of Lenny and the NY Phil from the public library back in my home town. I was caught right in the first few bars, and have had a special affection for the piece ever since. I had the privilege of hearing Bernstein conduct the piece in the 80s, and it was the way he could capture the nuances of tempo that I missed tonight. Gergiev simply played the piece too darn fast. The first movement was the best, but the 2nd, 4th and 5th were all rushed. Rehearsal 72 in the second movement is marked molto moderato in 4/4 but tonight it was played as though in 2/2, with a moderately moving half note. It was impossible to articulate the staccato triplet offbeats in the horns at 3 before 79, and so the charming waltz-like effect was lost.

Maybe it was just the Lenny charisma, but somehow he made the finale work – it was ironic in its juxtapositions. There is that startling moment when a soft a-flat chord is revealed when a tutti C major chord cuts off, and there are similarly abrupt inflections of tempo – I count 72 indications of tempo changes and nuances in the score of the finale. And yet the piece is sincere as well – the bell-ringing passage near the end is genuinely joyful. Tonight’s rushed performance seemed to bring out the banalities, and lacked the sense of irony that Bernstein achieved. At moments it seemed like Mahler had been influenced by Shostakovich, which is not a good thing, in my book.

While the conducting was dismaying, the playing was magnificent – rich in dynamic contrasts, virtuosic in the demanding solos (the horn playing was memorable), precise and clear, but warm in ensemble sound. The end of the fourth movement was magical, as it should be – all credit to Mahler and the players rather than the conductor.

It is not a new post, but via Classical Convertchoose your own Mahler Symphony cycle.