American Music

  • World Premiere Herrmann and Exploring Early Documentary Scores


    Herrmann: Whitman
    David Jones, clarinet. Netanel Draiblate, Eva Cappelletti Chao, violins.
    Philippe Chao, viola. Benjamin Capps, cello.
    PostClassical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordonez
    Naxos 8.559883
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****


    Over nearly two decades, the Post-Classical Ensemble in Washington, D.C., has engaged audiences with its unique blend of global and folk music with dance, theater, and film for rather adventurous programming.  Under their founding conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez they have made several recordings of film music.  Most of these have been added into remasterings of the films and released on DVD.

    The ensemble’s first exploration of film music came with their recordings of two classic Virgil Thomson scores: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), and The River (1937) [Naxos 8.559291]  Thomson’s essential documentary scores are perfect examples of a distinct Americana style that was emerging in the 1930s.  The music’s more open, often hymn-like writing added to the lifting up of the stark imagery that accompanied director Pare Lorentz’s films.  These early documentary films broke new ground in their depictions of imagery music and language all pointed towards visual representations of FDR’s New Deal.  It is worth tracking down this earlier Naxos disc as there are some restored moments that have been missing from the very few recordings of the suites Thomson put together for the film.  Some music had also been cut, and this was restored as well.  Naxos also released both films along with three interesting featurettes and some audio of the composer discussing his music from 1979 that was conducted by film music reviewer Roger Hall.  [Naxos DVD 2.110521]

    A couple of years later, the ensemble returned to provide an updated recording for an historical release of Aaron Copland’s The City (1939).  This quintessential Copland score was created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and has never been released in its entirety (though suites from the music have come and gone).  The DVD release (Naxos DVD 2.110231) provided a restored original soundtrack under Max Goberman’s direction.  The soundtrack was also then re-recorded and re-created by the Post-Classical Ensemble and that is also available as a brilliant-sounding option.  To date, oddly no CD of the performance has been released though.  This DVD release also includes a couple lengthier featurettes to add additional historical support and information.

    In 2014, the ensemble and Gil-Ordonez recorded a new performance for an important documentary film about the Mexican Revolution, Redes (1935).  The striking film features an exhilarating score by the great Silvestre Revueltas which gets an excellent performance here linked to the film.  Musically, it helps that very little dialogue is tracked in the musical sequences, so things can stay fairly clean sonically with this new release.  The Naxos DVD (2.110372) allows us to hear the original soundtrack as an option.  Again, no standalone CD for this score, though it would certainly be a must for those interested in global film music and this quite excellent 20th-Century composer.

    That brings us to the present CD release of music by Bernard Herrmann.  The album opens with music that he wrote for the radio drama Whitman.  This 1944 work uses a script by Norman Corwin and is based on Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass.  The piece as it is reconstructed here is for narrator (William Sharp in this recording) and small orchestra in this edition by Christopher Husted (2019).  The music has a more decided Americana feel with beautiful, folkish lines and even nods to traditional and familiar tune references (“Perpetual” is a moving adaptation of “America, the Beautiful” whose melodic gestures are part of the fabric).  The music provides the sort of brief swaths of Herrmann-esque dramatic gestures that are familiar from the composer’s film work (especially those delicate, emotional sighs).  It is a bit closer to his scoring for The Twilight Zone series (or even a few hints of Psycho itself when we head into “Battle”).  This is the closest though to a blend of Coland and Harris that Herrmann comes in his music, and that is quite fascinating to hear.  The piece is a perfect example of the blend of theater, poetry, and music that is a part of the ensemble’s programming.  This World Premiere Recording is certainly an exemplary performance.  Now, it would be interesting to hear the music sans narration as well, perhaps as a collection of CBS Workshop music someday.

    Herrmann’s brief clarinet quintet Souvenirs de voyage (1967) is a bit of a palette cleanser before we move into a performance of Psycho: A Narrative.  Herrmann recorded this work back in the 1960s, but a suite of music entered the concert film repertoire instead.  John Mauceri resurrected Herrmann’s original string piece in a new edition in 1999 and has recorded this a couple times and this is what is used here.  This is less a suite and more a dramatic orchestral journey that uses the film’s musical material as the departure point for a more original orchestral work.  The hall is a bit ambient in this recording which may be slightly off-putting at first but the ear settles in well.  The performance manages to stay crisp where it needs to and intonation is also quite good (especially in those very difficult higher registers).  Dynamic shifts are also very well handled with those slow, growing crescendos being quite impressive.  The music is shaped in a way that befits in concert orchestral focus so that the pieces feel better integrated into the whole.    

    For Herrmann completists, there is a lot here to be excited about.  The Whitman piece shows how Herrmann’s subtle musical support perfectly matches the text of this piece with gorgeous writing that rarely draws attention to itself.  That said, there are several quite moving moments throughout the work.  The quintet and Psycho selections area nice addition.  The result is a CD that draws in those in the art world with a possible filmic connection to discover some great music.

  • A New Orthodox Liturgy Makes Its Stunning Debut


    Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy
    Timothy Parsons, counter-tenor. Michael Hawes, baritone.
    Jason Thomas, bass.
    Saint Tikhon Choir/Benedict Sheehan
    Capella Records CR421
    Total Time:  75:33
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    One of the instructive ways to appreciate the music of Russian composers (especially those of the 19th Century), is to expose oneself to the Russian Orthodox musical traditions.  It is in this music that one hears a distinctive harmonic sound and richness that can be discerned as informing the fabric of the works of composers like Tchaikovsky, the Mighty 5, Gretchaninoff, and Rachmaninoff.  The latter’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil, Op. 37) is perhaps one of the most significant and well-known examples of a composer’s exploring the liturgical music of a Russian Orthodox ceremony.  Enter American composer Benedict Sheehan who was commissioned by the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music Institute to create an entirely new liturgical setting in 2015.  The result is the present recording of the resulting Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (2018).

    Part of the approach Sheehan was encouraged to take was to develop a liturgy that honored the Russian heritage of the church, but which also took into consideration the needs of English-speaking worship.  The work is a blend of liturgical components (litanies, various antiphons and hymns, an “Our Father”, communion, blessing) and psalm settings (Sheehan adapted Psalms 145 and 148).  There are references to ancient Znamenny and Valaam chants as well.  As the liturgy opens in its typical call and response with its single chant-like line.  The choir then responds in its rich harmonic style.  Listeners familiar with the work of composers like Morten Lauridsen will discern a kindred choral style in this music that connects spiritual power and beauty.  Reducing this to simple spiritual minimalist writing though will not do the work justice.  There are moments that hint at pentatonic lines which adds an ethereal quality to the texts.  It actually will become an additional unifying feature of the entire liturgy.  Full choral writing also takes a firm page from contemporary American choral writing, though arguably there are many times where how the cadences are arrived at that belie their more Russian heritage.  This is a quite fascinating blend.  Even in parts of the first antiphon there is even a slight folkish feel as it moves into its final moments.  The greatest difficulty for such a massive work is to find the right blend of textural changes and harmonic approaches so that the music can stay fresh.  Sheehan does this by alternating the litany segments in more traditional call-and-response with choral writing that moves from open blocks of sound into multiple subtle, shifting lines—a sort of gentle polyphony.  This then comes back together for homophonic textures of rich harmony.  By shifting which voices become the lead of a line, he is able to provide additional variety.  Of course, something to keep in mind is that other things occur occasionally in worship that provide that extra space needed.  He manages to help continue the line of musical structure throughout to help connect to what has come before and move us forward to where we are in the liturgy as a whole.

    To say that this is a gorgeous performance feels a bit sacrilegious, and yet that is indeed one way to describe the stunning music and choral work.  There is a sense too that the music can be easily adapted for most local choirs—may they be inspired to aspire to the heights reached here.  Certainly there are any variety of segments that would work fine as standalone choral pieces.  The release of Sheehan’s liturgical setting could perhaps not come at a better time as we all are separated, unable to gather in our places of worship, or have this weekly communal opportunity to connect to the divine.  While the liturgical tradition may not be one’s own, that should not be a deterrent to anyone.  There is music here to touch the soul and might very well make some weep with the memories of their own worshipping communities.  There is that additional interior promise of hope and joy, mixed with appropriate reverence, that can also help listeners connect to the divine.

    The release is accompanied by a Blu-Ray disc that features the music in its Liturgical premiere from October, 2019 (lasting a little over 2 hours)—a fine visual to help add additional context to the music for those less familiar with the tradition.  Also included there is the World Premiere of the “Cherubic Hymn” which as a sort of sneak preview of what was to come (performed in May of 2019) and the “Communion Hymn”.  The sonic capacity of the performance is thoroughly enhanced with several audio options that provide a surround sound option to fully immerse yourself in this experience.  Regardless of one’s faith expression, this music on its own has the power to heal your soul and transform you from the present moment.