Friday, June 29, 2018

Tonality Endures as the 20th Century Advances

It did not take long for me to work my way through the third category that I planned for my project to write about Sony Classical’s 61-CD box set of recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Having apologized for the amount of time it took me to work through the nineteen CDs in the “Early 20th century” category, the five CDs in the “Later 20th-century tonality” went by like lightning. However, within the limited scope of those five CDs, I realized that, as I had suggested “Stravinsky and his Contemporaries” as an alternative to “Early 20th century,” one might describe the content of my latest round of listening as one of “popular tonality backlash.”

Only four composers are represented in this collection. The contributions of two of them, Bernard Herrmann and John Corigliano, involve scores written for the film industry; and the one two-CD set amounts to a jazz cantata by Wynton Marsalis entitled All Rise. The one album of more “serious” music is a survey of compositions by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas; but it would be fair to say that there is a “pop” side to much of that composer’s music.

The one composer that does not get a particularly fair shake is Corigliano. When one consults the Wikipedia page of Corigliano’s compositions, one sees that he provided only three film scores, an extremely modest percentage of a particularly prolific catalog. Dwelling on the film scores at all is a bit like trying to assess the career of Orson Wells in terms of his notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast. The three films are Altered States, Revolution, and The Red Violin; and, as readers may guess, The Red Violin is the one that shows up in the Sony collection. My guess is that this has as much to do with Joshua Bell providing the solo work as with the score itself; but there is also a nagging feeling that both the film and and music fall into that “middle-brow” category that so irked Amiri Baraka back when he was writing about jazz as LeRoi Jones. This should not have surprised me, since one of Jones’ primary targets was Columbia Records, whose catalog has now been absorbed by Sony.

On the other hand Herrmann is a composer associated almost entirely with film music, for better or worse. Nevertheless, he seems have compiled suites based on some of his film scores; and I remember that, early in my work, I had the opportunity to listen to a performance of the Psycho suite performed by the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) on the final program of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s first season as Music Director. I was particularly impressed by the fact that NCCO could play this because it was scored only for strings. (Most of us know that the “shower” music is strings-only with effective bowing techniques; but I had not realized that the entire film score required only strings.)

Nevertheless, what seems to have been a deliberate effort to appeal to popular tastes led to what I felt was a significant sin of omission from the Salonen CD. Herrmann may be best associated with Alfred Hitchcock, but he was involved with a wide variety of other projects. The best known of these is probably Citizen Kane; but the one that had the greatest impact on my memory was Hangover Square, a film directed by John Brahm based on a novel of the same title. Without giving anything away, the critical episode in the film involves the first performance of a new piano concerto; and Herrmann provided that concerto for Brahm, giving it his own title, “Concerto Macabre.” My personal feeling is that this music stands just as well on its own as it does in a soundtrack!

In terms of both duration and resources, Marsalis’ All Rise is an ambitious undertaking. There are a variety of ways in which he tries to endow this piece with a unique “crossover” voice; and the result is one of the more successful combinations of jazz and classical players. On the other hand I would guess that anyone of my generation will find it hard not to hear echoes of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Symphony concerts. While it is not my intention to accuse Marsalis of trying to one-up Ellington, I would say that, for an effort of this kind, Ellington was probably a more effective leader than Salonen was. Mind you, All Rise definitely tends towards middle-brow territory; but it probably would have been better off if Marsalis had recruited the necessary classical talent for his project rather than leaving Salonen to administer the whole affair.

Silvestre Revueltas conducting his music (provided by Fototeca Nacional de Mexico, photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

By all rights Revueltas could have been included in the “Early 20th century” category. However, I think it would have been unfair to lump him in with that collection of “Dead White European Males” (an epithet that received a lot of attention when genres such as “world music” started enjoying greater awareness). Much of his rhetoric is based on his Mexican roots, and that separates him from the Europeans by a wide margin. The only selection on this CD that I have heard in performance is “Sensemayá;” and, at the very least, this CD is an excellent way to learn that there is more to his repertoire than that one piece.

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