About this Recording
8.559344 - PERRY, W.: Jamestown Concerto / SCHUMAN, W.: A Song of Orpheus / THOMSON, V.: Cello Concerto (Hanani)
English 

American Music for Cello and Orchestra
William Perry (b. 1930): Jamestown Concerto
William Schuman (1910-1992): A Song of Orpheus
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989): Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra

 

This is a presentation of three works that should be an important part of the American cello literature but have not been frequently heard. It is the first modern recording of William Schuman’s A Song of Orpheus; Virgil Thomson’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in its original full orchestration has not been recorded since the 1950s; and William Perry’s Jamestown Concerto is receiving its world première recording. All three composers worked extensively in art song, opera or musical theatre, and their concertos, while technically demanding, emphasize the lyric qualities of the cello, the instrument that most closely identifies with the human voice. The music is distinctly American, optimistic and outgoing, while intentionally touching on the roots of the American experience.

There are some interesting commonalities about the three pieces and their composers. Each work draws on specific inspiration from the past. In the case of Schuman’s A Song of Orpheus, the source material is a Shakespearean poem from the play Henry VIII. William Perry quotes from seventeenth-century madrigals in the Jamestown Concerto and also sets a poem from the Elizabethan period. Virgil Thomson draws on melodies from a Southern hymnal published in 1835.

Similarly, all three composers had distinguished careers apart from their composing activities: Schuman as an educator and arts administrator, president of Juilliard School and later of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City; Virgil Thomson as the influential chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune; William Perry as an award-winning film and television producer.

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William Perry: Jamestown Concerto
for Cello and Orchestra

 

William Perry was born on 8 March 1930, in Elmira, New York, a small upstate city that was also the birthplace of composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. After a solid grounding in piano, Perry began composing and conducting in his teen-age years, producing a full-length musical at the age of sixteen. This led to musical study at Harvard University where his teachers included Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston and Randall Thompson. This period in the early 1950s was a particularly fruitful time for musical activity at Harvard, and Perry was also able to study harmony with Irving Fine and musicology with the legendary Archibald T. Davison, for whom Virgil Thomson had once been a teaching assistant. As a conductor, Perry organized his own student orchestra and chorus, specialising in eighteenth-century music and in one performance of Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music provided a wind section that included twelve oboes, eight bassoons and a serpent.

During post-graduate military service in Germany, Perry wrote a musical theatre piece called Xanadu that was to tour Europe for more than five years, and upon his return became a house composer and television producer for a major advertising agency. When the job of musical director and silent film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York became available, Perry was selected for the post and over the next twelve years composed more than a hundred film scores for such silent screen classics as The Gold Rush, The General, Orphans of the Storm, Blood and Sand and others. His subsequent television series, The Silent Years, hosted by Orson Welles and Lillian Gish, introduced silent film classics to two new generations of film-goers.

Throughout his more recent career, Perry has alternated the writing of film and stage music with orchestral compositions that have received performances from the Chicago Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and other leading orchestras in the United States, Canada and Europe. His television productions have won Emmy and Peabody Awards, and he received two Tony nominations for his score to Broadway’s Wind in the Willows. Perry’s music is richly tonal with broad-based melodies and a frequent use of modality that often reminds one of the pastoral music school of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Dance forms, both period and contemporary, are a dominant element in the rhythmic structuring of much of his music.

Perry’s Jamestown Concerto was written in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent colony in America at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. It had its première in Scottsdale, Arizona on 28th January, 2007 with the Musica Nova Orchestra conducted by Warren Cohen and Yehuda Hanani as soloist. It received its broadcast première on US National Public Radio on 13 May 2007, the exact commemoration date of the first landing in Virginia.

The work differs from traditional cello concertos in several significant ways. It is in five movements and contains no internal cadenzas. There is a solo cello overture that introduces the first movement, and thereafter each movement is preceded by an interlude for cello, sometimes lightly-scored. And while most concertos would be referred to as absolute music, the Jamestown carries a programme, somewhat in the tradition of Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy or Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote but with greater specificity in delineating the characters and events involved in the Jamestown enterprise.

The composer has provided the following notes:


I. London 1606. The Virginia Company

After the solo cello is established as the narrator of the story, the orchestra enters with a colourful splash representing the robust liveliness of London in the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean period. A broad second theme, presented by the cello and a consort of viols (first desk string players), introduces The Virginia Company, the corporation formed to finance and supervise an expedition to the New World. The germ for this melody comes from a madrigal written by John Milton (father of the poet) and contributed to a set of madrigals, The Triumphs of Oriana, compiled by Thomas Morley and published in 1601. The collection was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth (Oriana) and each madrigal ended with the phrase “Long Live Fair Oriana” as in Milton’s setting.

The movement ends with a flourish and the First Landing of the colonists in May of 1607.

II. Settlements Along the River

An interlude depicts dawn in the New World as the settlers establish their site on the James River in territory ruled by Chief Powhatan, whose regal call is played by a solo trombone echoed by a solo horn. Skirmishes between settlers and natives are punctuated by the few cannon owned by the colonists. Captain John Smith appears (trumpets in triads) to quell the uprising, and we meet Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, who has a childlike theme (solo flute against solo cello pizzicato). Legends of a love affair to the contrary, Pocahontas was only eleven or twelve years old when she met John Smith. Also subject to question is how she saved his life, but the combining of their two themes suggests that the event did happen. Powhatan’s call is heard once again as the movement ends.

III. The Long Winters

Winters were harsh in the new colony, there was a shortage of fresh water, and disease always threatened Jamestown’s very survival. Cello harmonics against vibraphone chords help to convey the plight of the settlers. In a middle section, a plaintive melody played by the oboe d’amore in duet with the cello reminds them of home and the loved ones they left behind.

IV. Pocahontas in London

In 1616, Pocahontas, now married to John Rolfe and christened with the name Rebecca, was taken to England where she met the King and Queen and was treated with dignity as the daughter of a powerful chief. On one occasion, she attended a masque at Whitehall Palace, an extravagant entertainment called The Vision of Delight with a text by Ben Jonson and stage design by Inigo Jones. Only one fragment of the music remains, and this is presented as an aria by the cello in the interlude which leads to a vigorous gigue. Pocahontas arrives, her childhood theme now transmuted into a stately processional. The gigue then proceeds apace only to be interrupted by Powhatan’s call, summoning Pocahontas home. The music becomes a lament, for in fact, she died just as her ship left the harbour, and amid the tolling of church bells, she was buried at Gravesend.

V. Jamestown: Four Hundred Years On

The final interlude leads briskly into a march saluting present-day Jamestown. After a series of brass fanfares, the main theme enters, a setting of a poem written by Michael Drayton as the first ships set sail in 1606. The melody of the Virginia Company returns from the first movement, and after further brass fanfares, the concerto ends with the cello ornamenting the march theme with swift passagework in its lowest register which then sweeps to its highest.

The orchestration for the Jamestown Concerto calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn and optional oboe d’amore), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp and strings.

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William Schuman: A Song of Orpheus –
Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra

 

William Schuman was born in New York City on 4 August 1910, and was closely identified with the city throughout his life. He studied the violin in his youth, organized his own high school dance band, and began composing popular music, writing by some accounts more than two hundred songs. When he entered New York University with a view to obtaining a business degree, he continued to compose for radio and nightclub acts, often creating melodies to lyrics provided by his friend, Frank Loesser, later to be the notable Broadway creator of Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella.

In 1930, not yet twenty years old, Schuman attended his first symphony concert, conducted by Arturo Toscanini, which included the Symphony No. 3 (‘Rhenish’) by a previous Schumann. He thereupon determined to become a composer of classical music, undertook harmony and counterpoint lessons, had an influential encounter with the expansive and rich-textured music of Roy Harris, with whom he then studied composition, and proceeded to obtain a teacher’s degree in music education from Columbia University. For the rest of his life, composition and education were the cornerstones of his career, culminating in his appointment in 1962 as president of the Lincoln Center complex, arguably the most important musical administrative post in the country.

As a composer, William Schuman worked in many genres, including ten symphonies, the American Festival Overture, New England Triptych, and numerous other orchestral and band pieces, ballets, film scores, operas (The Mighty Casey underscores his lifetime passion for baseball), choral music and songs. His awards were almost beyond count including the first Pulitzer Prize for music (A Free Song), the National Medal of Arts, and Kennedy Center Honors for “an extraordinary lifetime of contributions to American culture through the performing arts.”

Schuman’s music is wide-ranging in its use of traditional forms which have been thoroughly modernised. His writing departs from tonality without losing a tonal focus, offers a rich chromatic palette, and even in his largest-scaled works presents a fabric of clarity and vitality. Aaron Copland said, “In Schuman’s pieces you have the feeling that only an American could have written them. You hear it in his orchestration, which is full of snap and brilliance. You hear it in the kind of American optimism which is at the basis of his music.”

A Song of Orpheus was commissioned by the Ford Foundation expressly for the cellist, Leonard Rose, who gave the première of the work on 17 February 1962, with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Izler Solomon conducting. Schuman wrote the piece during the period from September 1960 to July 1961, and when completed, it was dedicated to his wife on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary.

The origin of the title and the source of the melodic material was a song setting of Shakespeare’s poem, Orpheus With His Lute from the play, Henry VIII. Schuman had composed the song in 1944 for producer Billy Rose and a projected Broadway production. Schuman later described how his Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra was derived:

“Some years ago my friend Vincent Persichetti, the composer, suggested that the song would make an excellent theme for a set of variations. His suggestion came to mind when I was searching for an idea for the work I had agreed to compose for Leonard Rose. Although the composition is not in the form of a set of variations, all the music grows out of the melodic line of the song which is stated at the very beginning of the composition. The words of the song are written in the cello part in order to enable the soloist to perform the melody with the clarity of a singer’s projection. The composer requests that William Shakespeare’s text be printed in the concert programme books, or, if this is not possible, recited before the work is performed. Knowing the words should enhance listening pleasure.”

We are happy to print the words as requested, but to our knowledge, the actual stage recitation of the poem before a performance has never been undertaken until this recording, featuring the outstanding American actress, Jane Alexander.


Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart,
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

William Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 1


Perhaps because of the special quality of the dedication, the music is largely lyric and intimate, and the initial presentation of the song is gently accompanied. The melody is then explored in a variety of ways, after which the cello has an extended cadenza leading to a brisk series of cello and orchestral episodes. The orchestra holds centre stage itself for a time, and with considerable fervour, following which the soloist enjoys a second cadenza, occasionally joined by the ensemble. The closing of the piece in extreme quietness reflects the last three lines of the poem.

Interestingly, Schuman turned for a third time to Shakespeare’s poem in 1978 when he wrote a chamber work entitled In Sweet Music for voice, flute, viola and harp. This drew not only on his original song setting of 1944 but also on the Cello Fantasy of 1961.

The orchestration for A Song of Orpheus consists of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, harp and strings. There are no parts for percussion, but the harp, standing in for the Elizabethan lute, plays a conspicuous rôle, and the composer acknowledged the editing assistance of the well-known harpist, Marcel Grandjany.

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Virgil Thomson
Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra

 

Virgil Thomson, one of the most original of American composers, was born in Kansas City, Missouri on 25 November 1896. He liked to make clear that he was not from Kansas and once noted, “Compare Harry Truman, who was a typical Missourian, with Eisenhower, who was a Kansas boy. Missourians are more individual.” Virgil Thomson surely was that, but his musical training was well within a customary mould for the composer-to-be: keyboard lessons in his youth, which included service as an organist in a Baptist church, a public school education and then, after a period in the Army, serious music study at Harvard University.

In 1921 Thomson traveled to Paris with the Harvard Glee Club, and thanks to a fellowship that allowed him to spend a year there, took up counterpoint and composition studies with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher and mentor over the years of so many musical Americans in Paris, among them Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Philip Glass. Equally important, Thomson got to know Jean Cocteau and Eric Satie, whose music he greatly admired, as well as Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger, and other members of Les Six. He returned to Harvard and received his degree in 1923 and a year later became organist at King’s Chapel in Boston.

Although he was starting to make his way in America, Thomson decided to return to France saying, “I prefer to starve where the food is good”. He was to live in Paris for fifteen years, developing relationships with, among others, Stravinsky, Picasso, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. His meeting with Gertrude Stein in 1926 was of greatest significance to his growing career as a composer. With her he wrote one of the landmark operas of the twentieth century, Four Saints in Three Acts (première in 1934) and later The Mother of Us All (1947).

During this period he wrote his Symphony on a Hymn Tune, the ballet, Filling Station, and many of his famous personal Portraits. He also composed three major film scores, The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937), both for director Pare Lorentz, and later Louisiana Story (1948) for Robert Flaherty. Thomson’s suite of music from Louisiana Story won a Pulitzer Prize, the first and only time this honour has gone to a film score.

Thomson returned to New York as World War II was breaking out and took on the post of chief music critic at the New York Herald Tribune, writing reviews that during his fourteen year tenure became the most influential in America, and certainly the breeziest and most outspoken. He continued to compose and write for the remainder of his life and died at 92 in his apartment in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, which had been his home and thus a Manhattan cultural centre for almost fifty years. Viewed as a whole, Thomson’s music, like his writing, combines Middle American directness with Parisian sophistication. It may seem disarmingly simple, but there is technical assurance in every phrase.

Virgil Thomson began work on the Cello Concerto in 1945, receiving extensive advice from his friend, the cellist Luigi Silva, to whom it is dedicated. It was completed in 1950, the year of its première by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra with principal cellist Paul Olefsky as soloist. (Curiously, in this present recording Yehuda Hanani is performing on the very same cello that Olefsky used in the première.)

Regarding Luigi Silva’s contributions to his cello craftsmanship, Thomson said, “He told me what could and could not be played. He showed me ways of making things easier, or in some cases harder”. Arguably, the latter advice prevailed, because the concerto is technically formidable with virtuosic demands in many passages, especially in the challenging arpeggios of the first movement and the high-register placements of the second. In its early days the concerto received performances from such prominent soloists as Pierre Fournier and Anthony Pini, but thereafter the performances dwindled, and Thomson wondered if perhaps he had made the solo part too difficult. That the concerto has not become a repertory piece is to be lamented because it is singularly attractive, witty, high-spirited and exuberantly American in the best sense of the word.

Thomson has attached descriptive titles to each of the three movements. The first is called Rider on the Plains, and its comfortable gait clearly suggests a horse and rider rather happily making their way across an open plain. The musical underpinnings, however, come less from the prairie than from the sonata form traditions of a classic concerto complete with a pair of colourful cadenzas.

The second movement, the traditional slow movement, is titled Variations on a Southern Hymn, and the hymn, set to a tune known as Tribulation, carries words by the English poet, Isaac Watts:


Death, ’tis a melancholy day
To those who have no God,
When the poor soul is forced away
To seek her last abode.


Thomson would have known this hymn and its three-part harmonization from a standard hymnal called The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion by William Walker, published in 1835. The music was written in shape-notes: circles, triangles, squares and diamonds that were thought to make it easier for congregations to read the music.

Though the melody is simplicity itself, Thomson’s treatment of the variations is high fantastical with the cello playing a daunting assemblage of harmonics, tremolos and quadruple stops.

The final movement carries the title, Children’s Games, and it is Virgil Thomson at his brightest and cheekiest. The main theme suggests the kind of circle games that youngsters enjoy on a school playground, but before long, Thomson undertakes a musical game that might have characterized his own childhood music studies. In the space of four bars, he quotes from the popular hymn, Jesus Loves Me, and then swings effortlessly into a Beethoven piano sonata.

The concerto ends in an exciting flurry of sixteenth note runs and chromatic scales.

Thomson’s orchestration requires two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and a large percussion section, celesta, harp and strings.

Douglas Bruce


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