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American Gifts
Irving FINE (1914-1962)
Music for Piano (1947, arr. Van Geem and Zeltsman) [15:53]
Roger SESSIONS (1896-1985)
Sonata No 1 for Piano (1927-30, arr. Zeltsman) [18:09]
Joseph BRACKETT (1795-1882)
Simple Gifts (1848, arr. Penny Rodriguez) [2:14]
Michael TILSON THOMAS (b.1944)
Island Music (2003) [30:50]
Jack Van Geem, Nancy Zeltsman (solo marimbas)
Raymond Froelich, James Lee Wyatt III (tutti marimbas) David Herbert, Tom Hemphill (percussion)
rec. May 2018, Richard Ortner Rehearsal Hall, Boston Conservatory, Berklee, USA; and live, January 6-8, 2000, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA
BRIDGE 9534 [66:10]

Just to clear up any possible ambiguity, the first three works on this disc (those by Irving Fine, Roger Sessions and Joseph Brackett) are played by the excellent marimba duo made up of Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeltsman. In the closing work – by Michael Tilson Thomas – the duo is joined by the percussion section of the San Francisco Symphony. This last is presented in a live recording, which means that there is a change in acoustic, but not one that should disturb the listener.

Irving Fine was one of the many American composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger. At the time (in the 1940s) of his writing of Music for Piano much of his work was in an essentially neoclassical idiom. I previously knew this work only from a recorded performance by pianist Chia-Ying Chan, (Beethoven, Schubert, Fine, CENTAUR CRC 3627) released in 2018. I hadn’t, that is, previously encountered this adaptation by Van Geem and Zeltsman. It took me a while to adjust to the sound of the two marimbas. On reflection, after several hearings, I was left feeling that the version for marimba duo works best in the second movement, ‘Waltz-Gavotte’, of Music for Piano. Elsewhere there is sometimes less clarity in the musical argument as presented by Van Geem and Zeltsman. Obviously, this arrangement has the virtue of adding to the repertoire for the marimba, something about which both Van Geem and Zeltsman are clearly very enthusiastic. The world ought, surely, to be big enough for both the original and the adaptation to survive and be played? But is Fine’s music much played these days? If it isn’t, that’s a shame. Fine may not be the most adventurous of composers, but what Leonard Bernstein said of him seems to me to be true – “each of his works gives emphatic evidence of superfine craftsmanship” (quoted from the website of the Library of Congress, in the introduction to the Library’s Collection of and about Irving Fine).

I confess that, unlike that of Irving Fine, the music of Roger Sessions has more often inspired in me feelings of respect rather than affection. I often find Sessions’ work somewhat austere. Even so, I have a sense that Sessions’ work, like that of Fine, has been rather underrated and underplayed in recent years. His Piano Sonata No 1 is a work of considerable complexity, written at a time when the composer was living in Rome, as a Fellow at the American Academy in that city. The work’s structure is described succinctly in the booklet notes for this CD, by Andrea Olmstead, “The structure of the sonata is in three movements. The andante introduction is actually the beginning of the slow middle movement. This andante is interrupted by the fast movement [marked allegro], then continued. The first and third movements are in sonata-allegro form and in C minor; the opening and recurring slow sections in B minor”. Olmstead also observes of the slow movement, “while some hear references to Beethoven, Chopin, or Liszt, the composer saw it as like a Bach aria”. The Andante, both before and after it is interrupted by the Allegro, has, in the account by Van Geem and Zeltsman, a sensuous tenderness I haven’t heard in recordings of the piano original. However, both the Allegro and the closing movement, marked molto vivace, are taken rather too slowly, losing much of that contrast between tempi which does a lot to ‘structure’ the work and which Sessions surely had in mind.

The Shaker melody Simple Gifts, probably written in 1848, is now assumed to be the work of Joseph Brackett, an Elder (in Maine) of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, usually referred to as the Shakers. Simple Gifts, a dancing song, was barely known beyond the Shakers themselves until Aaron Copland incorporated five variations on the melody in his ballet score Appalachian Spring (1944). He returned to the piece again in his Old American Songs (1950), setting it for voice and piano. (Incidentally, these songs were transcribed for chorus by Copland’s friend Irving Fine. Given that Roger Sessions was another friend of Copland’s there is an interesting, if unspoken, thread linking the first three works on this disc). By now we have all heard Simple Gifts, in one form or another, a great many times and it is to the credit of Penny Rodriguez that her arrangement refreshes the piece very attractively. She fragments the famous melody at times and goes far beyond simple transcription. She is repaid by some sympathetic and accomplished playing by Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeltsman. Rodriguez was a new name to me but a trawl on the internet tells me that she was the daughter of missionary parents and was initially brought up in the Peruvian jungle. She went on to study piano at the Moody Bible Institute and the American Conservatory in Chicago. She has written a good deal of Christian-themed music both for piano and choir.

Although he remains best known as a conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas has always composed. In some of his best works, such as his orchestral song-cycle Poems of Emily Dickinson (2002) and his 2016 setting of a poem by Carl Sandburg, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, he has shown himself to be an impressive composer, much of whose music can be described as syncretic. In Four Preludes, for example, he draws on a wide range of musical sources and idioms. Mark Swed, writing in the Los Angeles Times (December 2nd, 2018) wrote of this work that “you could spend the half hour that the songs last counting the different musical influences – Sarah Vaughan, John Mclaughlin, Bernstein, Berg, Gershwin, Ellington, doo-wop, bebop and on and on”. One might add, for example, the name of Stravinsky. I describe Tilson Thomas’ music as syncretic rather than merely eclectic because at his best he integrates these heterogenous idioms into a coherent whole, rather than merely juxtaposing them. This is achieved in Island Music, the piece by which he is represented here. The work is dedicated to “Lou Harrison and in memory of Bill Colvig and Ingolf Dahl”. The dedicatees are relevant to the nature of the music. Harrison (1917-2003) was, of course, a composer whose work integrated Native American, and Asian musical idioms with Western music, putting much greater emphasis on melody and rhythm than on harmony in much of his music. Bill Colvig (1917-200) was an amateur musician and instrument maker (he made many of the gamelan instruments used in Harrison’s music and was Harrison’s partner for more than 30 years). Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) was born, as Walter Ingolf Marcus, in Hamburg. His lawyer father was Jewish, his mother Swedish. His developing musical career was threatened by the rise of the Nazis and he escaped to Switzerland, early in the 1930s. He studied there, and worked at Zurich Opera for six years before emigrating to the USA in 1939. He settled in Los Angeles establishing, with considerable difficulty, a career as a pianist, conductor, composer and teacher. He taught at the University of Southern California, where his students included Michael Tilson Thomas and Morten Lauridsen. Tilson Thomas had a high regard for Dahl, saying that he was “an inspiring teacher; over and above the subject matter, he showed his students about the practical value of humanism. That is, how to let humanistic concerns infuse your daily existence” and describing him as “a musician’s musician” (both quotations are taken from Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s book A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Emigres and Exiles in Southern California, Yale U.P. 2009, pp. 286 and 212. The book contains – pp.211-221 – an interesting discussion of Dahl).

Island Music is in four sections – an Introduction (‘Long Familiar Refrains’), Part I (‘Thoughts on the Dance Floor’), Part II (‘In the Clearing’) and Part III (‘Ride Outs’). The CD booklet provides a long discussion of this rich and fascinating work and I shall paraphrase and quote from it in what follows. The first section was conceived when Tilson Thomas was holidaying in Bali. The house he was staying in contained some instruments belonging to the local gamelan orchestra. He “couldn’t resist the opportunity of improvising on them” and “evolved a bouncy little tune which became the main theme of Island Music.” That theme represents the kind of freedom from pressure and distraction which one hopes to discover in a holiday. In what follows, however, the original ‘vacation’ theme is affected by distracting thoughts which gradually change it. But in Part III the decision “is made to work back to the tune and recover its energy and optimism.” As befits a work dedicated to Lou Harrison (and with its origins in gamelan), rhythm and timbre matter more than harmony in Island Music, with its pentatonic scales and reliance on percussion, tuned and untuned. After the dance rhythms of Part I, Part II (‘In the Clearing’) develops a degree of melancholy, “as it remembers, praises, and laments the spirits of those who are sadly no longer with us on the dance floor” (Tilson Thomas). Part III (‘Ride Outs’) provides a sense of uplift, as the soloists seek to work their way back to the “original happy form of the tune” and the work closes with “a coda, very much indebted both to Beethoven and James Brown, which brings the piece to a jubilant conclusion” (Tilson Thomas). As I hope that description suggests, Island Music encompasses a range of emotions and idioms and has a structural ‘arc’ which has something of the traditional symphony about it. Island Music differs from the other three works on this disc; firstly, because unlike them it was specifically written for marimbas and secondly, because it supplements their sounds with those of other percussion instruments. It is a work in which I have found more to take pleasure with each successive hearing; I suspect that it is a work that will continue to reward for some years, full as it is of luscious sounds, infectious rhythms and a range of emotions and ideas.

This disc offers music which is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Jack Van Geen and Nancy Zeltsman offer persuasive arguments for the value and potential of the marimba, an instrument for which both very obviously have a profound love.

Glyn Pursglove



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