"Curious, isn’t it, that the last really great symphony…was Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, date 1945, exactly coincident with the end of World War Two? It is as though that apocalyptic bomb had demolished not only Hiroshima but, as a side effect, the whole tonal symphonic concept as well.
And so for the last thirty years we have had no real symphonic history."
So Leonard Bernstein told the American Symphony Orchestra League back in the summer of 1980. Bernstein was, of course, many things, though his powers as historian were often clouded by a deeply seeded subjectivity and sometimes willful neglect: the years between 1945 and 1980 alone saw one symphony from Aaron Copland; two from Bernstein himself, Prokofiev, and Krzysztof Penderecki; three by Henryk Górecki; four by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Karl Amadeus Hartmann; five by William Schuman; six from Shostakovich and Hans Werner Henze; and seven by Roger Sessions, plus reinventions of the genre by composers as diverse as Elliott Carter (Symphony of Three Orchestras) and Luciano Berio (Sinfonia). And that’s by no means a comprehensive list. By just about any standard, the years since 1945 (and after 1980, for that matter) have seen a pretty rich symphonic history, indeed, one that’s even more impressive when one includes substantial orchestral music that doesn’t fall under the generic label of “symphony.”
Thirty-five years on, though, Bernstein’s bias remains fairly widely held. But there are signs it might be starting to slip. Q2’s recent Symphomania made at least a few waves when it aired earlier this spring. And a series of new and recent recordings by Boston orchestras demonstrate that, in the right hands, symphonic music since 1945 remains alive and well, still powerful, fresh, and vibrant.
If Harbison’s symphonies have hewed fairly close to symphonic convention, Andrew Norman offers a completely opposing approach. True, Play, Norman’s 2013 magnum opus, isn’t a symphony in name. But, in terms of its vision and musical argument, it’s just that: a fresh, boldly invigorating adaptation of the well-worn genre, now decked out in bold yellows, blues, and reds: a 21st-century symphony for a 21st-century audience.
That said, many of its building blocks are strikingly archaic. Norman’s use of scalar material as the basis for many of his flights of fancy is downright Beethovenian. And the delirious, heterophonic textures that pop out in the big second movement and throughout much of the third hark back to the Renaissance and late medieval music. Yet these building blocks leap and transform in unexpected ways.
The concept behind Play is simple: it’s a grand study of just that term, particularly the interactions of the members of an orchestra “with, against, or apart from” each other, in the composer’s words. Cast in three movements, the middle one of which is the longest, it offers numerous opportunities for the orchestra to play with and off of itself. Not exactly aleatoric (at least not in the strictly Lutoslawskian sense), there is enough freedom written into the score that any two performances of Play will likely turn out very differently from one another. It must be a fun piece to watch in performance – Norman’s note argues as much – but even without the visual element Play’s sonic canvas is breathtaking.
Its first movement is essentially introductory, opening with a huge bustle that presents the basic materials to be developed over the course of the piece. If you’re familiar with Norman’s kaleidoscopic language, you’ll know some of what to expect: strings slide, brasses galumph, winds swirl about. Strange and familiar percussive sounds intermingle. Fragments of tunes appear and are suddenly swallowed up. Rhythmic mottos build until, in the blink of an eye, they morph into something new. Throughout, even in the quiet moments, the energy level is spastic.
That sense of adventure continues in the big second movement. Here, gestures heard in the opening movement reappear, take new shape, and continue to transform, ultimately, into a beautiful, slowly descending series of scales and chords. In the finale, a huge, multilayered orchestral song unfolds out of this descending gesture, first in short steps and fragments, later with inexorable purpose and energy. At the end, the music unwinds itself, and Play’s closing pages carry with them a Sibelius-like sense of natural power and inevitability.
Some critics have gone so far to declare Play the greatest orchestral work of our still-young century. I’d agree that it’s probably somewhere near the head of the top five. As any serious work of art does, Play provides its measure of challenges. But its rewards are significant and its impact difficult to shake off. It’s not saying too much to declare the mind behind the piece one of the most brilliant and fertile on the scene today.
Play’s debut recording, courtesy of Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and their label, BMOP/Sound, is stunning. Norman, formerly BMOP’s composer-in-residence, wrote the piece for the group and it sounds tailor-made. Rose and the ensemble have produced a series of terrific albums over the last few years. As far as I’m concerned, this one is their finest yet. Filling out the disc is an acrobatic performance of Norman’s wacky Try, a phantasmagoric essay for large chamber ensemble, an endearing marriage of goofiness and heart.
BMOP and Rose are the stars of another major album, the highlight of which is Irving Fine’s only (and unjustly neglected) Symphony. Commissioned by the BSO and premiered at Symphony Hall in 1962, it’s a mighty piece and, in many ways, a tragic entry to the tradition of the Great American Symphony as begun by Paine and Chadwick, and continued through Ives, Copland, Harris, Diamond, Schuman, Harbison, and others.
Fine was a significant presence in and around Boston and Tanglewood from the 1940s until his untimely death in the summer of 1962. He founded the music department at Brandeis and brought a number of leading composers to its faculty, including Leonard Bernstein, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger. His music covered a remarkable stylistic breadth, which is neatly documented on BMOP’s new disc, which surveys Fine’s complete orchestral works.
His early output reflects the influence of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical style: the Toccata Concertante features lots of fragmented ostinato patterns, though, unlike some of the rambling neo-Classic essays of his colleague, Shapero, it also displays a dark, focused undercurrent; its bite is acidic and its aftertaste is tart. The Notturno for Strings and Harp and Serious Song demonstrate more of the latter qualities, while Fine’s witty Diversions suggest that he was among the more multifaceted composers of his generation.
But it’s his Symphony that ensures his compositional legacy. Cast in three movements, it never completely loses its hard edge. Fine was influenced by Serialism and utilized elements of tone rows throughout the Symphony, but there’s a very personal quality to the music nonetheless. Even when it’s at its most craggy, as in the Herculean “Ode” with which it ends, the score is marked by strains of lyricism; its darker shadows were already anticipated in works like the Toccata and Notturno.
In the Symphony’s first movement, “Intrada,” angular gestures and fervent outbursts alternate with a kind of manic energy: there’s almost always a strong sense of forward momentum, of needing to get someplace in a hurry. That destination isn’t, it turns out, to be found in the second movement, “Capriccio.” Motoric, unsettled, and not a little humorous itself, there’s a madcap quality to Fine’s writing in it. Rich with color, it spends itself quickly.
The goal of Fine’s Symphony is, of course, its finale. And here it’s remarkable just how much power the composer packed into a little under nine minutes of music. Of course he’s assisted by the dramatic trajectory connecting the choppy first movement to the edgy second. Now, though, the jaggy outlines of the opening merge with the agitated character of the middle movement, and, together, they culminate in a somber final hymn. Echoes of Stravinsky, Britten, and Prokofiev are present, but none are derivative: all serve a shattering, implacable expressive goal.
There are a couple of recordings of Fine’s Symphony already on the market (including a hard-to-come-by account of the composer leading the piece with the BSO), but none pack the sonic wallop of BMOP’s reading. All of the album’s performances are as committed and precise as the best of what BMOP’s done lately, and that should say something. Though several pieces on the disc (including the Symphony) were recorded in concert, there’s minimal audience noise; on the contrary, you get a fine sense of the electricity of BMOP in full flight.
Together, these three collections give powerful testimony to the dynamic quality of the post-World War 2 symphonic tradition and subtly remind of the importance of New England composers and orchestras in the development of major new symphonic works. Best of all, they strongly demonstrate the potency of the much-maligned and, in many ways, inexplicably neglected American symphonic tradition, which, if anything, has grown more in stature, innovation, and creativity over the years since 1945 than in the century-and-a-half preceding it. Lenny, that great champion of American music, should have known better.