Recent Listening – American Composers

Some of these are new, some are not, but all are worthy of your attention. Excellent performances as well.

Paul Moravec: Sanctuary Road. Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle. Naxos.
Another substantial choral work by Paul on an American theme, after his The Blizzard Voices – in this case, the theme is the Underground Railroad,  There is a generosity to the writing that suits the grand forces and the big topics.

Paul Schoenfeld, Steven Stucky, John Harbison: Three American Violin Sonatas. Cho-Liang Lin, violin; Jon Kimura Parker, piano. Naxos
Eclectic, effective writing from Schoenfeld; one of the works in traditional genres to which Stucky turned late in life; always thoughtful, always fresh Harbison.

George Perle: Serenades. Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose conductor. Wenting Kang, viola; Donald Berman, piano. BMOP/sound
Ranging from 1962 (Serenade No. 1 for viola and chamber orchestra) through 1968 (Serenade No. 2 for eleven players) and on to 1983 (Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber orchestra). Though they range over 21 years, Perle’s coherent harmonic language and witty rhythmic gestures obtain throughout. I think the best item here is No. 3 – I believe I was at the premiere in NYC!

Gerald Levinson: Now Your Colors Sing. various performers. Innova.
A splendid 2-cd survey of work by a composer truly deserving of a much higher profile. A student of Messiaen and Crumb, a visitor to Bali, Levinson’s music is more than the sum of those influences. Extraordinarily refined harmony, highly colorful orchestration, clear and expressive formal shapes, all at the service of a profound expressive impulse.

John Harbison: String Trio; Four Songs of Solitude; Songs America Loves to Sing. Camerata Pacifica. Harmonia Mundi.
At the moment, the compositional pendulum has swung back to the exploration of extended instrumental techniques of the kind that were of interest in my earliest student days. Given that context, it’s a pleasure to hear pieces where the pitches really matter. There’s a big serious string trio, a group of four lyrical violin pieces, and a set of pieces based on American folk and traditional tunes, written in the hope that the tunes would work the way the chorales work in Bach’s music, as part of a shared repertoire among listeners. I’m afraid the tunes are not as widely known as they may once have been, but, as with Bach, you can still enjoy the compositional ingenuity, the brilliant instrumental writing, and the sheer rollicking joy of this music.