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Halsey STEVENS (1908-1989)
Symphonic Dances (1958) [19:04]
Sonata for Solo Cello (1958) [23:18]
Symphony #1 (1945) [14:54]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/George Barati (Symphonic Dances); Gabor Rejto (cello); Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Akeo Watanabe (Symphony #1)
Notes in English
ARKIVMUSIC CRI 892 [53:21]

Note: *The tracking times listed above (taken from the CD) are incorrect; the actual timings are as follows: Symphonic Dances [17:56], Sonata for Solo Cello [20:32] and Symphony #1 [14:55] for a total of [53:23].

The recently defunct CRI (Composer’s Recordings, Inc.), was a pioneering record label founded in 1954 based out of SoHo in New York City and dedicated to championing the music of American composers. Fortunately New World Records, also based in Manhattan, have committed to re-releasing the entire CRI catalogue. This disc, part of CRI’s "American Masters" series, is currently available through the New World Records website at full-price or from for only $2.99!

Halsey Stevens was born in Scott - a small town in central upstate New York about four hours north of Manhattan - on 3 December 1908. At Syracuse University in the mid-1920s to mid-1930s, he studied composition with William Berwald (1864-1948), a German-born composer who had studied with Rheinberger and von Sternberg. Stevens also studied piano with George Mulfinger (1900-1988), a student of Emil von Sauer and Franz Schmidt. This was where he first encountered the music of Stravinsky, Bartók and Schoenberg and was particularly affected by Bartók’s String Quartet #2. Later in 1944, at The University of California at Berkeley, he had a few composition lessons with Ernest Bloch. In 1946, Stevens secured a teaching post at USC (University of Southern California) and was to remain there until the end of his life serving as "Professor Emeritus" from 1976 until his death in Los Angeles, California on 20 January 1989 after a twenty year battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Stevens composed music that was essentially tonal but not without modern influences, particularly Stravinsky and Copland. Though undeniably "American" in his musical language, the European sway is tangible. Stevens himself has acknowledged the pivotal influence of Bela Bartók. In fact, Stevens learned Hungarian in order to be able to read Bartók’s letters in their original language for a book he wrote about the composer in 1953: The Life and Music of Bela Bartók - the first major study of Bartók and a work that is still considered definitive to this day. He has also stated that Brahms, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach and to a lesser extent Ravel and Schoenberg had served as important models for his music.

In his memoirs, the British composer Humphrey Searle described Stevens as "a composer somewhat in the neo-classical style and a man of great culture". In the liner notes for this record, Robert Carl writes that "Stevens is a composer whose music is deeply expressive, but also essentially modest … It effortlessly alternates between play and gravity. It gives pleasure at every turn". And, as a final point, the professor, composer and former student of Stevens, Dr. Morten Lauridsen states that "In the significance and eloquence of his contributions to music of our time, Halsey Stevens had few peers".

Also included among his students were Benjamin Lees, Ramiro Cortes, Wallace Berry, John Biggs, Robert Dillon, Robert Nelson, Shirley Munger, Herbert Bielawa, James Hopkins, David Cope and the renowned jazz composer and tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
Symphonic Dances (1958)

This work was commissioned in 1958 by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under a grant from the Ford Foundation to the American Music Center. The first performance was conducted by Enrique Jorda on 10 December 1958.

In three movements, this piece may just as well be considered a short symphony.

The first movement has a distinct Stravinskian air to it – a ballet, modern yet home-spun somewhat reminiscent of Copland. The horns play a central role. Through this electric energy and harmonic mixture there is a certain grace to this music that is undeniable and quite attractive. It steps lightly - difficult but efficient.

The second movement has a lovely elegiac quality underlined by sweetly sounding strings. Yet, this is not sentimental music – nostalgic yes, but not sentimental. Stevens has a distinct way of sounding richly tonal and heartfelt yet firmly neo-classical. Special mention should be made of the plaintive melody of the horn solo, moving and in good taste but by no means maudlin.

Tasteful is the best way to describe Stevens’ music. The third movement takes up where the first left off; well-constructed with attractive ideas that are untraditional but so very familiar. These dances would make a wonderful ballet.

The playing of the Londoners is technically on-point and the Hungarian composer/conductor George Barati (1913-1996) – who, by the way, studied with Bartók - is clearly "inside" this music.

Sonata for Solo Cello (1958)

Also from 1958, this sonata was written for and dedicated to the Hungarian cellist Gabor Rejto (1916-1987) who introduced the piece on 5 January 1959 at one of the Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles and who also performs the work here. At the age of sixteen Rejto entered the Academy of Music under Adolf Schiffer - a student of the Czech cello virtuoso and composer David Popper. At the age of twenty he traveled to Spain to study with the great Pablo Casals subsequently concertizing all over the world. In addition, he was Professor of Cello at USC from 1954 until his death in 1987.

This sonata is in five movements with a fast-slow-fast-slow-fast format.

The first movement (Introduction) entices the listener, combining a tonal style with a chromatic flavor. Rejto establishes a richly romantic mood that suggests the presence of Bach.

The Ciaccona that follows is a set of ten variations that elicits a beautiful songlike effect, poised and restrained. This music is quite understated, comfortably familiar yet wholly individual.

The next movement (Scherzo) is a two-minute dissonant interlude affirming clearly Rejto’s prodigious virtuosic capabilities. This music completely explores the instruments’ communicative possibilities with such economy, each and every note vital.

The fourth movement (Notturno) along with the Ciaccona is the "heart" of the sonata. There is elegance and taste to this music, prototypically neo-classicist. Stevens has a way of being reserved and august without ever seeming old-fashioned. This movement alone should justify this sonata’s place in the mainstream cello repertory.

The Finale is rhythmically masterful and Rejto once again proves equal to the challenging technical demands making them appear effortless – the music so tightly composed that its four minutes feel like one!

The equilibrium of these five movements is faultless - a masterpiece of beautifully balanced and delightful notes.

Symphony #1 (1945)

This symphony was completed in 1945 although some of the music was composed as early as 1938. The original version was premiered on 7 March 1946 with the composer himself conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. The revised edition (the version recorded here) was premiered on 2 March 1950 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of Alfred Wallenstein.

Although in one movement, this is a multi-faceted work that juggles propulsive rhythms in a manner most original and expressive. Beginning ominously, building into a varied flow of interesting ideas with a distinct exotic flavor, the sections mesh fluently with orchestration somewhat suggestive of Bartók, perhaps Ravel, even Sibelius but always, unmistakably – Halsey Stevens. There is much activity here, and once again, not one note seems out of place or superfluous. The contrast of ideas is striking, vigorous and unquestionably moving. Stevens’ writing for strings is dark-hued and the effect of the distantly tolling bells towards the end is magical. This work will never sound the same twice, like a hologram – multi-dimensional.

The Japan Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra is conducted by one of its founders, Akeo Watanabe (1919-1990) - the other being Shigeo Mizuno. It plays impressively and enthusiastically. Watanabe conducted numerous recordings for CRI featuring such composers as Copland, Cowell, Sessions, Ruggles and Vivian Fine. He was also one of the founders of the Sibelius Society - his mother was Finnish. On the down side the sound is rather boxy - the packaging offers no hint of recording dates or venues.

This disc will unquestionably lead me to explore the works of Halsey Stevens further; his Sonata for Trumpet and Piano seems to be his most frequently recorded work. The time for a renaissance of the work of this unjustifiably neglected composer is long overdue. I strongly urge those who may be curious to familiarize themselves by means of this collection.

Osvaldo Polatkan


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