October 29, 2012

Ron Spigelman on Harold Arlen

Guest conductor Ron Spigelman joins the RPO November 2 and 3 for a tribute to the great American songwriter Harold Arlen. Read Spigelman's thoughts on what makes a great song, which composer should be on the cover of the great American songbook, and more.

Harold Arlen
It hit me early on that these incredible artists and composers have not only left an indelible mark on our culture, but have also been unforgettable to me. A great song is one that I think about or even occasionally whistle (or sing) for no apparent reason. It stops being subjective when a melody or a line is conjured up from my subconscious. It stays there because it is meant to be there and it's now a part of me. Some may define great music as the way something is composed. I have always thought of it as something that effects me viscerally and never leaves me.

The songs of Harold Arlen have always felt that way to me. "Over the Rainbow" is one of those songs that is not far from the surface at all times, and I know I'm not alone on that one. The turn of phrase in many of his songs clearly has a lineage to blues, which is why jazz musicians love to do versions of his songs. More than that, if I were to describe his music, I would simply say that it's timeless and always is an in-the-moment experience. If it was up to me, I would put Harold Arlen on the cover of the Great American Songbook. I am so looking forward to doing this concert next weekend!

--Ron Spigelman

October 9, 2012

Suggested Recordings: Howard Hanson's "Nordic" Symphony

Hanson: Symphony No. 1 (“Nordic”)
Kenneth Schermerhorn, Nashville Symphony
Naxos CD 559072

Howard Hanson was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, but his parents were Swedish, and his favorite composer was Finland’s Jean Sibelius. In fact, when George Eastman established the Eastman School of Music (ESM), he first offered its directorship to Sibelius (old George knew far more about classical music than he ever let on); Hanson, just returning from several years of study at the American Academy in Rome, was the second choice, began in 1924, and the rest, as they say, is history.

There are only three recordings available of Hanson’s “Nordic Symphony”, and they set my expectations on their head. (So much for relying on memory of judgments made long ago.) Howard Hanson’s own recording with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra came up the loser. It contains the Mercury label’s worst possible engineering: the orchestra sounds raw, dry, and so congested that the only inner details you can in full passages are either piccolos or trumpets blaring at triple-forte. While Hanson does move things along, his rhythmic pulse can be quite foursquare.

I thought the Seattle Symphony on Delos (re-released on Naxos) would be better, but not so. While the sound is certainly warmer and more resonant, far too many details are still inaudible, and Gerard Schwarz allows the flow to become sluggish too often.

To my surprise, the recording I can best live with until a better one comes along is Kenneth Schermerhorn’s. He’s not as animated as Hanson the conductor, and in the last movement his “Allegro” is hardly “con fuoco”. But he maintains his chosen pulses, has a good grasp of form, and for once I could actually hear the harp, the contrabassoon, and an array of colors the woodwinds add when “doubling” the lines of other instruments.

Final conclusion: this symphony, written in 1923 when Hanson was finishing up his time in Rome, is poorly orchestrated—that’s why so many details (and there are loads of them) remain inaudible. So there’s the challenge for Arild Remmereit and the RPO: will enough colors and details support the obvious melody lines and harmonies to make this performance a thrilling experience? If the answer is yes, the world is still waiting for a really good recording!

By the way, there’s one error in the Naxos liner notes. The writer confuses the Eastman Philharmonia (ESM’s upper classmen’s and graduate students’ orchestra) with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. For the American Composers Concerts that Hanson began at ESM in 1925, he created the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra (ERSO), comprised of ESM artists’ faculty, advanced students, and members of the Eastman Theatre Orchestra that, with the advent of “talkies”, became the Rochester Civic Orchestra in 1929. In 1941 the ERSO began giving public concerts as part of ESM’s annual Symposium of American Orchestral Music. By the time it (and the Eastman Wind Ensemble) began recording for the Mercury label in the early 1950s, its name had changed to just Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. Mercury stopped making classical recordings in the mid 1960s, and the orchestra ceased operating in 1973.  

Gil French is a music critic living in Rochester. 

October 3, 2012

Suggested Recordings: Korngold's Violin Concerto

Guest writer Gil French re-starts our blog with this guide to the finest recorded performances of Korngold's Violin Concerto, which the RPO performs live with James Ehnes on October 4 and 6. 

Korngold: Violin Concerto
James Ehnes; Bramwell Tovey, Vancouver Symphony
Onyx 4016 or CBC 5241
Anne-Sophie Mutter; Andre Previn, London Symphony
Deutsche Grammophon
Jascha Heifetz; Alfred Wallenstein, Los Angeles Philharmonic
RCA (mono)

What a great time I had really getting to know Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in depth by comparing seven different recordings! 

Korngold described the piece as “written for a Caruso rather than a Paganini,” and the long, supremely lyrical melodies transported me so fully that they really did make me want to sing. But I couldn’t hold the tunes in my head. Why, I wondered. They’re certainly not faceless. 

Only by looking at the score did I understand why: the meters constantly shift, and there are frequent tempo changes, retards, and accelerandos. The music also has the expansiveness of Mahler, but also the “open prairie” sound of American composers like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Korngold, after all, did spend a vast about of time in both Vienna and the US, especially Hollywood, where he gained fame writing scores in the 1930s and 1940s for Errol Flynn movies. Ah, but on the best recordings all these tempo and meter changes are completely seamless, and the flow utterly musical to such a degree that I craved more as I went from one recording to the next.

Two recordings reign supreme. (Now I’m not saying this just to be polite; when I did my comparative listening last March, I had completely forgotten that James Ehnes would be the soloist for this concert.) James Ehnes and Bramwell Tovey both bring out the Caruso element in all three movements. The flow is so marvelously sustained and the parts so ingeniously woven together that the shifts of tempo never show, never stagnate, and are always going somewhere. Ehnes’s role is self-evident, but Tovey is equally long-lined and lyrical, especially when such rich, warm, and transparent engineering lets all the inner details come though. This recording was originally released on CBC Records, which is since gone out of business; it has been reissued on the Onyx label.

I have to add, however, that Anne-Sophie Mutter and then-husband Andre Previn give Ehnes and Tovey a real run for their money. I would describe their style as not only Caruso-like but rhetorical, that is, so caught up in the inner language of the concerto that at times the rhythmic flow is so natural that Mutter is practically speaking. In the third movement she’s really more like Paganini--terribly exciting!--and, in truth, the orchestral and engineering qualities are even more remarkable.

Both recordings are quintessential and the choice is de gustibus. But for yet another exciting take, no one plays it like Jascha Heifetz. This is one of his best recordings. He’s not as romantic in the second-movement Romance as Ehnes or Mutter, and the monophonic sound muddies orchestral details; still, the early hi-fi pre-stereo sound is tolerably good. But oh! that sweet sweet sound of Heifetz. How did he get it? RPO Assistant Concertmaster Willy Deglans once told me he once saw a film of Heifetz with the sound slowed down seven times, at which point Heifetz’s vibrato was at the normal violinist’s rate. I never have understood how professional violinists can play so many notes so fast so accurately for so long—and especially Heifetz!

By the way, those other four recordings were by Gil Shaham and Andre Previn (Deutsche Grammophon), Nikolaj Znaider and Valery Gergiev (RCA), Chantal Juillet and John Mauceri (Decca), and Ulrike-Amina Mathe and Andrew Litton (Dorian). After starting my listening session with Ehnes and Tovey, none of these four could hold my attention for more than 10 minutes.