Thursday, June 22, 2017

Capriccio Honors George Antheil’s “Bad Boy” Reputation

At the end of last month, I reported that the British Chandos label had begun a project with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, to record the music of American composer George Antheil. I used that article to discuss the composer’s “bad boy” reputation, noting that Antheil himself chose that epithet, using it in the title of his autobiography. I then observed that the new Chandos album had pretty much slighted any of the composer’s “bad boy” qualities.

I am therefore happy to report that, at the beginning of this month, Capriccio released a brand-new (based on recordings made this past January) album that vigorously affirms Antheil’s self-appointed reputation:

courtesy of Naxos of America

The orchestra is the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, the leading symphony orchestra of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The ensemble is led by Chief Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, who has held that position since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season. The album was co-produced for Capriccio by Deutschlandradio Kultur and Südwestrundfunk (SWR). That is quite a team in support for a composer whose music is seldom performed in his own country.

It does not take long for the listener to appreciate how Antheil acquired his self-professed reputation. The opening selection is “A Jazz Symphony,” which was written in 1925 for a series of concerts organized by Paul Whiteman entitled Experiment in Modern Music. (This was the same concert series that had premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Carnegie Hall.)

Whiteman never performed the piece. The polite reason is probably that he did not have the resources. Antheil’s instrumentation required two oboes, two clarinets, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, various percussion, two banjos, three pianos (including one soloist), and a full string section. The less polite reason is that Antheil’s writing probably scared the bejesus out of Whiteman. Many of the leading jazz musicians of Whiteman’s day accused him of trying to “make a lady” out of jazz; and that remark was not intended as a compliment! “Rhapsody in Blue” may have found the right sweet spot between the testosterone-laden qualities of Whiteman’s critics and the more polite tastes of Carnegie Hall audiences; but Antheil was far less inclined to compromise. Ironically, the conductor that did perform “A Jazz Symphony” (at Carnegie Hall) was W. C. Handy (who was definitely more in touch with “real jazz” than Whiteman ever was) leading the Harlem Symphonietta.

One might then be justified in asking how well an orchestra in the Rhineland-Palatinate could manage with all the “bad boy” qualities that Antheil packed into this piece. As far as I am concerned, the answer is “Very well, indeed!” Mind you, it helps if the listener has some basic familiarity with “Rhapsody in Blue;” but, thanks to United Airlines, it is hard to find listeners lacking that acquaintance. Of course the reason for that background awareness is not that Antheil appropriated from Gershwin. Quite the contrary, he takes just about every memorable moment that Gershwin concocted and, in true “bad boy” style, turns it on its head. The music amounts to a wildly disruptive romp through “induced expectations;” and chief pianist Frank Dupree was anything but tame in taking on the rhetoric of the solo part.

This is just as much the case on the second track, which is Antheil’s first piano concerto. This was written earlier than “A Jazz Symphony” in 1922, during Antheil’s time in Europe. In many respects this piece is also a romp through how music was being made at the time, particularly in Paris. Appropriations of bits and pieces of Igor Stravinsky keep popping up, and there is a pretty clear sense that Erik Satie is lurking between the cracks. In a similar way it is difficult to listen to the final track, “Archipelago ‘Rhumba’” without thinking of Darius Milhaud. Antheil wrote that piece in 1935, and it is hard to imagine that he had not been exposed to a performance of “Le Bœuf sur le toit” when he was in Paris during the previous decade.

The tamest selection on the album is the orchestral suite that Antheil extracted from his score for Eugene Loring’s ballet “The Capital of the World.” This may be the only ballet based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and that may be its only distinguishing feature. It was first performed in December of 1953, and Antheil probably extracted the suite around the same time. If it owes any debt of appropriation, it would be to Manuel de Falla; but Hemingway’s plot never runs as deep as any of the narratives that inspired Falla. Antheil’s score is competent enough; but it comes off sounding as if it had been written “on spec.” In the history of Ballet Theatre relationships with composers, the one that Agnes de Mille had with Aaron Copland is far more memorable.

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