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George GERSHWIN (1898–1937)
Concerto in F (1925) (New Critical Edition) [30:17] John HARBISON (b. 1938)
Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra) (1985) [6:38] Joan TOWER (b. 1938)
Sequoia (1981) [16:12] Walter PISTON (1894–1976)
Symphony No. 5 (1954) [22:08]
Kevin Cole (piano) (Gershwin)
National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic/David Alan Miller
rec. 2019, Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Maryland, USA NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559875 [75:31]
Dan Morgan welcomed this disc and I am happy to agree with his assessment. This fine addition to Naxos’s American Classics series is to be wholeheartedly welcomed. Only Gershwin’s Concerto in F is part of the standard repertoire and the other works on the CD deserve more exposure than they have received to date. The University of Maryland-based National Orchestral Institute (NOI) has provided young performers the opportunity to play both standard and unusual repertoire during the summer months for many years now. Based on this recording, their level of performance is not just fully professional, but equal to that of many an established orchestra. I just read that starting this year the orchestra will have its first-ever music director, Marin Alsop. In the past conductors have taken turns with the orchestra during their season. David Alan Miller, who specializes in American music and is best known as the music director of the Albany Symphony in New York State, is one such conductor.
John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby was commissioned by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony. The music was also intended as the overture to Harbison’s opera, The Great Gatsby that he completed later and which was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1999. This “Foxtrot for Orchestra,” would make a splendid concert opener. It is an ingeniously organized piece that begins ominously with loud dissonant chords before the actual foxtrot theme that is led by the soprano saxophone and accompanied by a trap-set (small bass drum, snare drum, high-hat cymbal, two cow bells and wood block) and a flexitone, common in the 1920’s dance bands. The piece contains more serious themes, but the foxtrot returns and in fragmented form before the quiet conclusion. I compared this new account with one by the Baltimore Symphony under David Zinman, originally on Argo.
The NOI Philharmonic’s performance is every bit as fine and with appreciably better sound. The percussion parts, in particular, really come to life in comparison to Zinman’s softer version.
Joan Tower’s music has been getting more exposure in recent times, at least on CD. I reviewed recordings of her orchestral music with the Nashville Symphony on Naxos (review ~ review). Sequoia is typical of Tower’s style and leaves a powerful impression with its large percussion section and effective writing for winds and brass. Though Tower noted that the piece is not quiet, and indeed it can become noisy, it does end quietly. While I appreciated the work, I find her Made in America and Concerto for Orchestra more listener-friendly. The orchestra’s playing and the recorded sound in Sequoia are first class in every way.
Walter Piston composed eight symphonies, but is probably best known for his tuneful ballet suite, The Incredible Flutist. Of the symphonies, the only one with which I was really familiar is the Sixth. The Symphony No. 5 is a darker work that is as well-crafted as one expects from much of his music. The first movement begins quietly with string tremolos and solo flute. In addition to flute, there is notable writing for oboe and harp in this symphony. Its nature can be rather austere in the first two movements, the second which begins with a twelve-tone theme on double bass and cello pizzicatos. It later awakens with passages on woodwinds and horn and a brass-laden climax before dying down once again. The finale is lively and the music lets in at least a little sunlight and joy. The NOI Philharmonic clearly has the measure of the symphony. However, for a better introduction to Piston’s music I would recommend the Symphony No. 6, considered by many as his best work in the genre, and The Incredible Flutist on an RCA recording by the Saint Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin that also includes the Three New England Sketches.
The headliner, though, on this CD is Gershwin’s popular Concerto in F in a new critical edition. Timothy Freeze in his note in the accompanying booklet (Frank K. Dewalt does duty for the other works) conveniently indicates where there are differences in the score from the earlier, standard editions. If one were comparing with scores in hand, these changes would likely be detectable. Just listening, I was aware only of the horn solo beginning the second movement. Now the horn is played unmuted and the sound is full and present, where before it sounded more distant. Frankly, I do not see that one is more persuasive than the other.
What makes this new account so terrific, however, is the stunning performance by Kevin Cole and the orchestra. I have not enjoyed this concerto as much since the classic Earl Wild version with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops on RCA. It has to be admitted that that vintage rendition is now showing its age and the reverberant sound can in no way compare to the vibrancy of the new recording. Dan Morgan refers to other favourite accounts of the concerto. My comparisons were with Peter Donohoe’s and the City of Birmingham Symphony under Simon Rattle (review) and Xiayin Wang and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian (review, neither of which can hold a candle to this new recording. I was particularly disappointed with Wang/Oundjian, finding them uninteresting and undernourished, though technically beyond reproach. Donohoe/Rattle are substantially better, if one can put up with the conductor’s occasional mannerisms and the way-over-the-top vibrato on the trumpet solo in the second movement. I have nothing but praise for Donohoe’s pianism.
Cole/Miller, on the other hand, are alive to every measure of the music and keep things bright and flowing. Timing wise, only Wild/Fiedler are fleeter than the present account and yet nothing sounds rushed here. The young players in the orchestra are obviously enjoying what for them must not be just another routine performance and their coordination with Cole is outstanding. He is such a fine pianist that I would relish hearing him in other Gershwin, which is his specialty. Miller brings it all together without drawing undue attention to himself. Both the percussion and brass have a field day and one can appreciate their contributions in the clear, state-of-the-art recording.