Sounds Heard: Americans in Rome

Sounds Heard: Americans in Rome

Mark Wingate—Sombra No. 1

Purchase CD from Bridge Records
Various Artists: Americans in Rome—Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome
Bridge 9271A/D

Works by: Samuel Barber, Robert Beaser, Jack Beeson, Derek Bermel, Martin Bresnick, Elliott Carter, Tamar Diesendruck, Lukas Foss, Vittorio Giannini, Howard Hanson, Stephen Hartke, Walter Helfer, Lee Hyla, Andrew Imbrie, Kamran Ince, Hunter Johnson, Aaron Kernis, Ezra Laderman, Bun-Ching Lam, David Lang, Billy Jim Layton, John Anthony Lennon, Arthur Levering, Scott Lindroth, James Mobberley, Paul Moravec, Charles Naginski, David Rakowski, George Rochberg, Loren Rush, Roger Sessions, Harold Shapero, Leo Sowerby, Alexander Lang Steinert, Randall Thompson, Mark Wingate, and Yehudi Wyner.

Each year since 1914, thirty emerging American artists and scholars are awarded a year-long residency at the American Academy in Rome. Since 1921 they’ve allowed composers in the door, and the roll call of composers who have created important works there is something of a who’s who of American music: everyone from Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Lukas Foss, Howard Hanson, David Lang, Ulysses Kay, Barbara Kolb, David Rakowski, George Rochberg, Yehudi Wyner, Carolyn Yarnell, and—O.K., let’s stop at 11; you get the idea.

An extremely generous new 4-CD set from Bridge Records celebrates this legacy by presenting nearly five hours of music by some 37 composers, all in stellar performances, many of which involve the program’s Artistic Director, pianist Donald Berman. Some of this music was only recently discovered by Berman in the Academy’s archives, while many of the other pieces, though in circulation, had never before available on commercial recordings or only previously appeared on recordings that have been long out of print. Since the works featured span a total of nine decades (from the 1920s to now), the set offers a remarkable prism through which to look at American chamber music composed for standard ensembles throughout most of the 20th century and beyond, a learning experience that is further enriched by the set’s extensive program notes. While the more extreme ends of the sonic spectrum are noticeably missing—unfortunately there were no Rome residencies for the likes of, say, John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Lucia Dlugoszewski, Harry Partch, or Julius Eastman—there’s a remarkable variety in the material featured herein. And while a broad spectrum of music is represented, the material is packaged in such a way that there is nothing jarring about the transitions across eras or styles.  One disc is devoted exclusively to vocal material, another to solo piano music. The remaining two discs are instrumental chamber repertoire—for strings (with or without piano) and winds (with or without piano) respectively. This kind of compartmentalization offers an ideal way to listen comparatively.

The vocal disc (Disc One) is an excellent case in point.  The centerpiece is an
“American Academy in Rome” songbook which juxtaposes art songs for solo voice and piano by nine composers including Leo Sowerby (a 1920 Rome fellow) and Derek Bermel (who went to Rome in 1999). Every one is served well by the grouping.  A publisher should consider issuing these as a set. In addition to the more famous names, the songbook also includes some real obscurities, like the promising “Look Down, Fair Moon” by the now almost completely forgotten Charles Naginski who drowned in the pool at Tanglewood when he was only 31. The opening for the vocal disc is a gorgeous set of four songs to poems by Emily Dickinson composed by Robert Beaser in 2002—the first text of which is the poignant, and very appropriately expository:

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

The solo piano disc (Disc Three) opens with an extraordinary pair of virtuosic works, the 1944 Fantasy Rondo by the recently deceased Lukas Foss and the very un-Mozartean My Friend Mozart by Kamran Ince, although the latter was actually inspired by the composer reading books about Mozart. Other highlights include a series of atonal etudes by Billy Jim Layton and two early Bagatelles by George Rochberg composed long before he renounced dodecaphony. Possibly my favorite piece on piano disc, however, is Mark Wingate’s fascinatingly kinetic Sombras, in which piano flourishes compete with electronically generated ones.

The two chamber music discs (Discs Two and Four) are also filled with a cornucopia of sonic delights. There’s a Wind Quintet by the octogenarian neo-classicist Harold Shapero written in 1995 that’s charming despite its unapologetic anachronism, plus a formidable three movement Sonata for Violin and Piano from 1929 by the now unjustly overlooked composer/conductor Alexander Lang Steinert, who was a scion of the family who established Boston’s Steinert Piano Company (still in business) as well as an early champion of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. There’s also quite a bit of more provocative fare. Lee Hyla’s muscular Mythic Birds of Saugerties for solo bass clarinet sounds like a bizarre fusion of a Berio Sequenza and Eric Dolphy. A typically confrontational David Lang piece, Vent for flute and piano, features a series of traded slow off-kilter tremolos that are bookended by having the pianist support angular flute melodies with cascades of single-repeated notes. Arthur Levering’s mesmerizing Tesserae for viola and piano is an equally tantalizing work which combines the propulsive rhythmic energy of minimalist music with the more unstable harmonic vocabulary of music that is less tonally rooted. Tesserae is one of the few pieces already available elsewhere (New World issued it last year on the all-Levering Still Raining, Still Dreaming), but it’s nice and all-too-rare to have multiple interpretations of recent compositions, especially ones featuring a viola soloist!

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