Classical Cafe:

Review: KSO's 'American Masters'

It is probably human nature to want to wrap things up in neat little packages, to summarize and categorize, to get a definite handle on a particular subject, to grasp central themes and premises -- in other words, to put complicated subject matter in simpler terms. Whew! On the broad topic of American music, I keep hoping for a concert program that does that, that offers the ultimate "ah ha!" moment. But the search is a Quixotic one--such a thing doesn't exist. How does one even start to put Charles Ives, Philip Glass, John Adams, and Amy Beach in the same basket? An even simpler task--like Sunday's intriguing KSO program of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, and Lucas Richman--proves the point: American music defies categorization. A compilation tape a la the film High Fidelity? Forget about it.

Most of the works on Sunday's concert at the Bijou Theatre came from the lesser-known side of each composer and, as such, revealed a different side, if not a new one, for each. The exception to this--and the least revealing--was a Suite of Waltzes from Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical, A Little Night Music, with which KSO music director Lucas Richman ended the afternoon. On the other end of the scale, Leonard Bernstein's last completed composition from 1988, Arias and Barcarolles, revealed a lot about the Bernstein journey through rhythm and melody.

Arias and Barcarolles was first written as a song cycle for piano four-hands and four singers, with Bernstein writing most of the text of the eight songs himself. For performance reasons, the composer later reduced it to two singers, mezzo-soprano and baritone; the chamber orchestra arrangement was done by Bruce Coughlin after Bernstein's death. The often humorous, sometimes serious, songs cover a gamut of references, to Bernstein's mother, a bedtime story, and a tribute to Charles Webb, the dean of Indiana University, and his wife. Expressive, and impressive, performances were offered by two local vocalists, soprano Lettie Andrade De La Torre and bass-baritone Daniel Webb.

The highlight of the afternoon's program for this reviewer was Cole Porter's jazz-themed ballet score Within the Quota, which apparently has the distinction of being the first ballet with an American theme by an American composer. The work was, for all intents and purposes, lost after its initial performances in Paris (appearing on the same program as Milhaud's La Creation du Monde) and in the U.S. (1924). The score was later found in the 1960s and 70s, and re-orchestrated by William Bolcom. This fun and satisfying work makes use of some delicious dissonances, noisy clamor, and instrumental textural descriptions of life in the city ... New York City, that is.

Richman opened the afternoon with George Gershwin's gorgeous Lullaby, a string quartet (arranged here for chamber orchestra) by the still-learning 20-year old in 1919. Owing to Gershwin's grasp of melodic invention, it has a way of settling into one's memory and sticking. This was a luscious performance by the KSO strings of a truly luscious work. A dark, rainy afternoon, however, was probably not the best opportunity for such a soothing piece of music.

Richman continued the practice of honoring KSO patrons and contributors by composing a work in their honor--in this case, Salutation No. 9 for Alicia Merywether.

Cole Porter showed up for the encore, with Webb, De La Torre, and the orchestra doing an arrangement of "Wunderbar" from Porter's Kiss Me Kate.

So, the never-ending quest for the "god-particle" of American music continues. I guess the real joy is in the journey.

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About This Blog

Alan Sherrod serves up a big plate of nourishing commentary on the Knoxville classical music and fine arts scene.