Americana Concert Features Eagles, a Synthesiser, Rounds and the Gettysburg Address

United StatesUnited States Rorem, John Adams, Diamond, Roy Harris: Mark Simpson (clarinet), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Eric Stern (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. 19.11.2013 (PCG)

Rorem – Eagles (1958)
Adams – Gnarly buttons (1996)
Diamond – Rounds (1944)
Harris – Symphony No 9 (1962)

This third concert in the BBC’s autumn ‘Americana’ series nicely contrasted more familiar works such as the Adams with some real rarities. Rorem’s early tone poem Eagles is a positively iconoclastic piece, far removed from the more melodic composer we encounter nowadays. Here he spreads his youthful wings, but the dramatic outbursts do not dissipate or overwhelm the essentially lyrical nature of the music. One received an impression almost of a hyperactive Barber Essay for orchestra, with a total of nine percussionists working up a good head of steam. The work was inspired by Walt Whitman’s The dalliance of two eagles, but did not use any of the poet’s words – an odd trend which one also notes in other American works such as Carpenter’s Sea drift and Converse’s The mystic trumpeter. The piece however held together well without any such programmatic aid.

The performance of Adams’s Gnarly buttons was distinguished by the appearance of a 1990s synthesiser which had apparently been specially restored for the occasion. The introduction of the ‘period instrument’ movement into a work less than twenty years old possibly sets a new trend for authenticity, but the accordion-like sounds that resulted could I fear easily have been better replicated on a more modern sampler. There were problems of balance too with the contributions of the banjo and guitar which failed to make their mark except in very lightly scored passages; possibly some discreet amplification might have helped. If the Rorem had recalled the music of Barber, then the first two movements of Gnarly buttons harken back to Copland’s Appalachian spring with hints of the pawky Stravinsky of the Ebony Concerto. But the final movement is pure Adams, an outpouring of lyrical beauty which slowly builds up to a more troubled conclusion. Mark Simpson coped with the very wide range of the solo part with deceptive ease and great skill.

David Diamond had been commissioned to write Rounds at the request of Dimitri Mitropoulos, who had complained that “most of the difficult music I play is distressing.” This is certainly difficult music to play, but it has an infectious bounce which treats its folksy material with surprising freedom and unexpectedly spicy dissonances – rather in the same way that Warlock treated his original materials in the Capriol Suite. We were given some really beautiful string playing in the second movement, with rounded romantic tone which even recalled the luxuriant Finzi in places. The treatment of the music throughout was more fugal than simply the ‘round’ style implied by the title, but the Bartókian snap pizzicati which punctuated the finale, along with the accented harmonics that sounded like apologetic hiccups, brought plenty of sparkle to the score, a real find which deserves to be much better known.

If only the same could be said of Roy Harris’s Ninth Symphony. This ‘Americana’ series has included a rarely heard American symphony in each of its constituent segments; but while the Piston in the opening concert was a revelation, this Harris seemed to be beyond such acts of rescue. A gigantic orchestra (quadruple woodwind, four each of trumpets and trombones, two tubas and five percussion) laboured mightily to project a patriotic response to the quotations from the Declaration of Independence which head each movement, but the result simply lacked either distinctive profile or stylistic unity. There appeared to be some quotations from American patriotic songs in the opening movement, but these were unidentifiable and may simply have been Harrisian imitations. John Holland played his trumpet solo in the second movement with steely tone (and subtlety) but one was left with the distinct impression that Hovhaness did this sort of thing so much better. The use of a triple fugue in the finale was evidence of a composer desperately looking for something to do; and unfortunately all three themes were obstinately unmemorable either in isolation or combination. Stern evidently loves and believes in the score, and one cannot imagine it more convincingly performed; but his energy and commitment were better displayed in the earlier works in the programme. The orchestra, as usual in this series, were peerless throughout.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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