About this Recording

Explore America, Volume 1

Explore America, Volume 1

In no single collection of any size could the incredible range and diversity of America’s contribution to music be appraised. The best of America’s composers have forged a unique compositional voice, employing musical elements native to their environment, while adapting and expanding the forms of their European predecessors and contemporaries. Some chose a more formal assimilation of the Great Masters, while others seemed to reject influence from across the Atlantic altogether, and fashioned instead a new and innovative music, often provocative and radical, in some cases without knowledge of European trends. Indeed, it may be said that a healthy spirit of independence and self-sufficiency, blended with a wide-ranging ancestral influence, is what defines Americans. With just a taste of several of the titles in the Naxos American Classics series, this collection of pieces does not attempt to encapsulate the diversity of American music; rather the series sheds light on some of its seminal moments, confirming the “classic” status of some of these works while uncovering some lesser-known surprises and encouraging the listener to explore America through the rich tapestry of American music.

            Perhaps no figure looms larger over the history of American art music than that of Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland, the first American composer to win global recognition. His early career was spent in France, under the tutelage of renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, who helped him develop his own compositional voice. The maturing composer creatively fused European modernism with a new American vernacular, developing his individual style through the years. His universal fame rests on the series of ballets he composed in the 1940’s, including the wildly successful Appalachian Spring, written for Martha Graham, and incorporating the beautiful Shaker tune “Simple Gifts”.

            Hailing from Pennsylvania, Charles Wakefield Cadman dedicated his life to the study of Native American forms of musical expression and the hopeful preservation of that culture, leading a small group of composers called, in the early decades of the 20th Century, the “American Indianists”. Today, he is most remembered for his song based on Omaha tribal melodies, From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water, here arranged for violin and piano.

            Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter studied at Harvard with John Knowles Paine and in Rome with Edward Elgar. His jazz-infused style that invoked the rapid urbanization of America is best exemplified in the ballets Krazy Kat and Skyscrapers, both popular in the twenties. Carpenter’s whimsical Adventures in a Perambulator, a depiction of a day in the life of a baby, was to be used in Walt Disney’s sequel to Fantasia, regrettably abandoned.

            It may be said that America has best expressed itself in song. Ned Rorem, based in New York, is one of the most talented and prolific composers of art song in America, penning hundreds throughout his distinguished career. His Nightingale was composed in 1951, during a period spent in Paris and Morocco, and set to an anonymous text.

            Samuel Barber could count, among his numerous awards and achievements, two Pulitzer Prizes. Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Barber studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, and, in maturity, utilized a panoply of styles while never fully committing to one or the other. In his Violin Concerto, the composer’s early lyricism morphs into an expressively dissonant language, with a great display of virtuosity, as evidenced by the tumultuous Presto final movement.

            Wisconsin-born Gloria Coates works with expressive glissandi – the gradual sliding from one note to the next – in a luxuriously original way, creating a hazy and colorful texture. Her early String Quartet No. 1 utilizes a variety of string techniques and sonic nuance, and seems to glow in a cold, satin-like sheen.

            Alan Hovhaness, of Scottish-Armenian ancestry, strove for a spiritual marriage of East and West in most of the works of his long and prolific career. Hovhaness’ music is usually characterized by a meandering modality that sprung from his embrace of ancient music and non-Western musical elements. The Cello Concerto was one of the few early works the composer chose not to destroy during World War II in a rush of self-criticism.

            No composer, American or otherwise, could claim a singularity of purpose nor a musical aesthetic as uncompromising as that of Charles Ives. A successful insurance man by week, Ives considered himself             a “weekend composer” and, throughout his under-recognized musical career, more than flirted with atonality, polytonality, microtonality and tone clusters years before the composers of the European vanguard. In fact, in Danbury, Connecticut, where Ives spent much of his life, he probably knew nothing of these trends. From the man who once implored an audience impatient with new music, “stand up and use your ears like a man!” his folksy Symphony No. 3 of 1904 only hints at the innovation and humor that would infuse his work in the early decades of the 20th century.

            George Frederick McKay is known today if only as the teacher of two of America’s pioneer composers: John Cage and William Bolcom. The first graduate from the Eastman School of Music, McKay, who called the Pacific Northwest home, incorporated jazz syncopations and melody into his music, where the lively Americanistic Etude is but one example.

            A Russian-Jewish immigrant who grew up in New York’s rough Lower East Side, Irving Berlin became a veritable one-man hit factory of songs for five decades. Some of his biggest include Cheek to Cheek, White Christmas, and God Bless America, in total, some 1500 songs from a man who never learned to read music, relying on assistants to transcribe his ideas. His first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, launched the 23-year old into stardom. We hear the 1911 classic here arranged for brass.

            American music is inevitably linked to that popular medium of Hollywood dominance: film. With the birth of this novel medium, the 20th century saw an enormous profusion of dramatic music for the screen, and the requisite need for music, with American and European-born composers flocking to California’s mecca of moviedom.

            Ferde Grofé was a great musical painter of American landscapes, producing works that celebrated the Grand Canyon, the Hudson River and Niagara Falls. His jazzy Hollywood Suite evokes the behind-the-scenes work of a movie musical, where glitzy stars come together with the stagehands, cameramen and all who make a show happen.

            Leonard Bernstein has been called the Renaissance man of American music. Born of Russian immigrant parents in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bernstein went on to become a hugely influential pianist, conductor, writer, teacher, composer and music advocate. The charismatic musician was equally comfortable in the classical and popular music spheres and did more to blur the lines of definition, and - with his boundless energy - to increase musical awareness than anyone before or since. His West Side Story, an astounding, genre-bursting collaboration with some of the biggest names of Broadway (Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins) elevated musical theater to new heights. “Tonight” is a poignant profession of love between the show’s Tony and Maria.

            Ukraine-born and raised in New York, Leo Ornstein enjoyed a long, but often obscure, musical career. Labeled a “futurist” when young, the principal reason he is not better-known to concert audiences may have to do with his never embracing a particular musical style, vacillating back and forth between dissonant complexity and tonal simplicity. His improvisatory Morning in the Woods, from 1971, paints a dreamy, impressionistic picture, redolent of the sounds and colors of nature.

            America can take pride in recognizing and nurturing the compositional talents of women, including Arkansas native Florence Price, the first African-American woman to achieve prominence as a composer. We hear her exquisite setting of Song of the Dark Virgin, by the poet Langston Hughes, to whom music was a primary inspiration, and one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.

            Joyously melodic and rhythmically vigorous, Michael Torke has been hailed as one of our finest composers of today. His Rapture – Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, the most-recently composed work on this disc, begins with an orgiastic drum assault that bursts into celebratory exclamations from the orchestra, seeming to revel in the music’s natural energy.

            As his father was a U.S. Marine band trombonist, John Philip Sousa naturally grew up with band music. The elder Sousa enlisted his son in the Marines at the tender age of 13 and, by age 26, the composer took leadership of the United States Marine Band, serving under five presidents in the late 19th century, before forming a civilian band, the most famous in history. The composer of Stars and Stripes Forever was also a huge fan of baseball. “The March King” penned The National Game upon the request of major league baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

            Today, American music is as healthy as ever, constantly evolving, reaching new audiences and touching new lives, like the sport Sousa so fervently lauded a century before.


Sean Hickey



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