, November 2010
Ned Rorem’s name deserves to be included in the short list of America’s greatest composers, and frequently is. Yet, he and his music also, frequently and deservedly, stand alone in the twentieth century landscape and in the history of American music itself. For, if names such as Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein are first thought of in terms of an “American” sound and if more recent names such as John Adams and John Corigliano might be a new definition of the same esthetic, then Rorem’s music provides another unique view of the same notion. One reason is that Rorem has always been a composer for whom words and music are linked. His vast and stunning vocal output prompted Time Magazine to declare him “the world’s best composer of art songs”.
In this new wonderful collection of Rorem’s music by Naxos, the art songs disc might be a good place to start. Ned Rorem, as both a composer and as a person, can be found in its essence, stripped of all but the emotions and the melodies found in the “selected songs”, so thoughtfully performed by soprano Carole Farley, with Rorem at the piano. This disc offers thirty-two short gems from the composer’s vast output of songs. The unique aspects of Rorem’s’ place in American music history can also be found, at its core, in these songs. Rorem is a Romantic in style. His music can be bold, crying out, declamatory, exuberant and, occasionally, tender and sad. On this disc alone, listen to the range of feeling in such songs as “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (Robert Frost), “Youth, Day, Old Age and Night” (Walt Whitman) or “Spring” (Gerald Manley Hopkins). It is impossible not to be impressed and moved by the texts, by the amazing meld of melody, harmony and word and, in this case, by the magnificent and thoughtful performance by Farley who has the immense good fortune of performing with the composer at her keyboard.
The Rorem Symphonies, found all on the first disc in this collection, are exciting, sweeping, dramatic works where melodies are long arched, harmonies are interesting but purely housed in traditional tonalities and the orchestrations are brilliant and clever. All three of Rorem’s symphonies on the first disc in this collection are conducted by Jose Serebrier, a champion of contemporary music and well acquainted with Rorem’s music. Another conductor who championed Rorem was the great Leonard Bernstein who gave the first performance of the Symphony #1 and the #3. The first symphony, written in 1950, is characterized by exciting brass writing and a bracing finale. The second motive that defines the work is Arabian in character; devised from a tune Rorem apparently picked up on a trip to Morocco. Both the Second and Third are also very fine works filled with soaring melodies and an open, accessible optimistic feel. The Symphony #2, in particular, was left unplayed for awhile before being “resurrected” by Serebrier, in the composer’s words. These performances are top notch and well worth hearing. All of these works deserve to get more play, especially by American orchestras.
The Piano Concerto #2 and the Cello Concerto were, for me, pleasant surprises. On this disc, Serebrier conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra with Simon Mulligan, piano and Wen-Sinn Yang, cello. The Piano Concerto #2 dates from 1951 and was first performed by Julius Katchen and the French Radio Orchestra. This work was viewed, at its premiere, as a logical extension of the American-ism exemplified by Gershwin. While it does have moments that are quite jazzy in nature and some sweeping Copland-esque gestures, it is still uniquely Ned Rorem. The Cello Concerto is a more recent work, from 2002. Intended as a reworking and expansion of ideas found in his Dances for Cello & Piano, Rorem gives the work an unusual structure. Built on eight short movements or episodes, Rorem also indulges his fancy for “programmatic subtitles” such as “Three Queries, One Response” or “One Coin, Two Sides”. Rorem also points out in the program booklet that such titles are not meant to imply anything literal but rather suggest the mood or structure in play. This is a great addition to the cello repertoire with moments of great fun, technical display and even some quiet solitude.
Both the Flute Concerto, from 2002, and the Violin Concerto (1985) are also multi-movement works with intriguing section titles. Rorem’s Flute Concerto, written for the Philadelphia Orchestra and the present performer, Jeffrey Khaner, was originally conceived as a somewhat programmatic work, after Homer’s “Odyssey”. Ultimately, the titles (such “Leaving-Traveling-Hoping”) are reflective of a mood and not a particular story. This is a wonderful work, full of ample technical flourish and prolonged stretches of great melody and beauty. The Violin Concerto is similarly thematic but does bear a very interesting structural difference from the other concerti in this set. The opening section, a pretty and pensive melody entitled “Twilight,” is used as a theme to establish a Toccata in a set of variations of sorts. The two clearest examples are the “Chaconne” and the “Rondo”. This, too, is a very nice work and beautifully played by Philippe Quint, who has many other contemporary works in his repertoire. My own favorite of these concerti is the Cello but they are all quite good and deserving of much more review than this mention.
There really is so much to admire in this fascinating and pretty comprehensive collection of Rorem’s work. All of this music is well-written, well-performed and sets high standards for what American twentieth-century masterworks will stand the test of time. The fifth disc is an interview with Rorem, conductor Serebrier and Naxos radio promotions manager Raymond Bisha. The interview, with extracts from the composer’s works, is quite interesting to listen to. Jose Serebrier is clearly a dedicated and skilled devotee of contemporary music, the present composer in particular. Rorem is engaging, a good conversationalist and can discuss his art in a thoughtful, insightful way without coming across as a university professor! Each music disc has been issued separately by Naxos over time and merits a detailed review of its own accord. In the meantime, anyone interested in Rorem or needing to hear accessible, thoughtful, high quality “contemporary” music would enjoy this tremendously. Now, if Naxos and Mr. Bisha would please record one of my favorite Rorem works (ever!), An American Oratorio, I would be even more gratified!