Music Library Reviews: Daugherty, Beethoven and Cherubini

MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: Mount Rushmore for Chorus and Orchestra (2010). Carl St. Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale.  Radio City: Symphonic Fantasy on Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra (2011). St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony.  The Gospel According to Sister Aimee for organ, brass and percussion (2012).  St. Clair and members of the Pacific Symphony; with Paul Jacobs, organ. Naxos 8.559749.

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Michael Daugherty is not an easy composer to understand.  His music is tonal and apparently "communicative" enough: the problem is understanding what he's trying to put across.  I could not see much of the likeness of Arturo Toscanini in his Radio City: Symphonic Fantasy on Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  There is a reference to a leading motif from Verdi's La forza del destino and some Vivaldi-like figurations are touched on here and there in the first movement (Daugherty, in his liner notes, cites the Maestro's opening his very first concert with the NBC Symphony in 1937 with a Vivaldi concerto grosso).  There are lush passages that seem reminiscent of the orchestral approach and style of Ottorino Respighi, whose music Toscanini championed and in several significant cases premièred. 

Daugherty is making up a programmatic triptych about Toscanini, as he makes plain in his notes.  But how much of it is Toscanini and how much is Daugherty?  The idea is to paint a portrait of the aging Maestro as Prospero, Shakespeare's magician in The Tempest—noting a 1944 performance by Toscanini of Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem after Shakespeare.  The three movements are titled O Mirabile Nuovo Mondo (O Brave New World), in which the 70-year-old Toscanini takes the helm of the NBC Symphony; Ode al Vecchio Mondo (Ode to the Old World), where the Maestro stands at the summit of Rockefeller Center and wonders if he'll ever return to his beloved Italy again and In Onda (On the Air).  Where, oh where, are Toscanini's three great loves—only a parsimonious snippet of Verdi, but no Wagner and no Beethoven.  And certainly no Brahms.

In Mount Rushmore, Daugherty by turns seems to be trying to be the new Randall Thompson or the new Aaron Copland, but not trying too hard.   The Jefferson movement gives an Italian poem written for him in a letter from his European mistress Maria Cosway, and only a few words (just two of them) from his response, a piece called Head and Heart.  There are only key words from the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson's letters, especially those of his old age, are rife with grist for a composer's mill—all of which Daugherty has seen fit to ignore.  The Lincoln movement is a setting of the unexpurgated Gettysburg Address, with much overuse of the whip and a sprinkling of Dixie toward the end, which Lincoln himself might have appreciated. (He is said to have asked a military band to play the Confederate anthem after some brief remarks heralding the end of the Civil War.)  Again, why not the Second Inaugural Address, or his all-but-forgotten poem Memory (which needs some judicious pruning for a musical setting) or his unselfconscious declaration of his atheism in a letter to a judge in Illinois?

Teddy Roosevelt fares somewhat better in Daugherty's hands, although fragments from his speech at the dedication of the Grand Canyon are interspersed with Thomas Hastings' insipid hymn tune Toplady (for the poet Augustus Montague Toplady, whose Rock of Ages Hastings was setting).  George Washington is fêted with the chorus showing a split personality, sounding like the bawling congregation of some backwoods church in William Billings' Chester and sounding much more elegant in a quote from one of the first president's letters. 

As in a much earlier orchestral work, the percussion-happy toccata Desi (once championed by David Zinman), Daugherty seems most at home in celebrating pop-culture icons.  The Gospel According to Sister Aimee, completed and unveiled only last year, is pre-eminently a showcase for virtuoso organist Paul Jacobs.  The Fisk organ in the recently completed Costa Mesa, California concert hall is voiced and scaled to play with a large orchestra (Gospel has the organ married to a brass and percussion ensemble, and taking a prominent role).  The subject is Aimee Semple McPherson of Los Angeles, a fire-eating Pentecostal evangelist with a bizarre theatrical sense who was also a lover of the affluent life.   The first two movements, in which Mr. Jacobs is given plenty to do, are entitled Knock Out the Devil and An Evangelist Drowns/Desert Dance; the third movement, an apotheosis of McPherson's death at the age of 54 from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills (called Toward the Promised Land), shows the organ's more subtle side—short-resonator reeds in duet with orchestral trumpets and flutes of various kinds.  There are hints of pentatonic-style hymn tunes, but Daugherty is not borrowing from the revivalist musical treasure-house: he is making his own melodies, and that is always the mark of a good composer.  As evocative of the strident and tragic nature of tent-show Pentecostalism as this piece is, I strongly suspect that Paul Jacobs  — not Aimee Semple McPherson — was Mr. Daugherty's chief inspiration.  Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra respond eagerly to the Daugherty mode of music-making.

 

BEETHOVEN: Mass in C, op. 86. Frieder Bernius conducting Hofkapelle Stuttgart and the Stuttgart Chamber Choir; with Maria Keohane, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor and Sebastian Noack, bass-baritone. CHERUBINI: Sciant gentes (That men may know: Symphonic motet, 1829). Bernius and Hofkapelle Stuttgart and Stuttgart Chamber Choir, with Keohane, Hobbs and Noack.  Carus 83.295.

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Beethoven's Mass in C, op. 86This is a very clean-cut offering of the Beethoven op. 86.  One could almost take dictation from it, but there is a lack of warmth and the big line—especially in the Kyrie.  Mr. Bernius seems to forget whose music he is playing.  Even the fortissimo exultation of the Gloria seems curiously understated. At times there seems to be a relative disregard for phrasing and seeming inconsistencies in the pronunciation of ecclesiastical Latin (as when the word suscipe is traded back and forth between various singers and sections). The choral diction in the more overtly symphonic Credo seems much less defined.     There is too much of the faddishly inexpressive string playing one hears too much of these days—which will be discussed below.  The soloists are all first-rate and the chorus quite good.  Clean-cut, but not expressive—and certainly not Beethovenian!

The Cherubini motet seems to suffer, at least on the orchestral end, from the endemic senza vibrato syndrome now all too prevalent among interpreters of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century works.  In other words, make modern stringed instruments sound like gut instruments—much in the same way as many ill-advised choral conductors try to make women singers sound like boys.  Gut strings can be played, as has been shown in many cases, with a great deal of warmth and expressivity: if legend has it right, Eugene Ormandy's celebrated recording of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings was done with guts, at his insistence; when his string players seemed mutinous, Ormandy assured them than if even one of them took issue with the sound of the playback, the recording would not be released.  To return to the Cherubini: it is too cautious a performance of a work that is essentially dramatic.  String tremolandi sound measured rather than free, even though from an objective standpoint one cannot fault the instrumental or vocal execution: everything is clean, intonation (both vocal and instrumental) is impeccable and there is always a secure sense of phrasing.  But something else is missing: tension, impetus, a sense of portent.

 

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