Hit Parade

Once more, with feeling: Kurt Mazur conducting Mstislav Rostropovich.Photo: Chris Lee

Perhaps music critics should be barred from gala opening-night concerts. Does anyone really want to read how their patience was tried by a stale program of overexposed repertory staples, a beloved veteran soloist who has seen better days, or a fashionable audience that would otherwise never think of attending a musical event? That more or less describes the New York Philharmonic’s kickoff – Kurt Masur conducting the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony and Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dvorák’s Cello Concerto – but this curmudgeon refuses to complain. After all, both works are favorites for good reasons, the orchestra seemed in top form, and Rostropovich – well, let’s just say that the great Russian cellist, at 72, now embraces Dvorák’s popular score with more sweaty enthusiasm than poise or precision.

More-enterprising concerts are sure to come as the season rolls forward. Meanwhile, I prefer to salute the Philharmonic’s approach to the millennium by congratulating the orchestra on its third and latest boxed set of historic recorded live performances. The subject this time is American music, and apparently, timid souls around Fisher Hall had doubts about the commercial viability of such a pricey package containing 49 performances by 39 native composers on ten compact discs, a panoramic survey of more than a century of the country’s music. I hope that they are wrong and the set sells a million copies – the scores heard here not only demonstrate the breathtaking stylistic range of American music but also its accessibility.

As if to prove that point, the canny producer of this project, Sedgwick Clark, has instructively programmed disc No. 2 as a mini-concert featuring five works written in the mid-twenties: Copland’s jazz-inflected Music for the Theatre, Varèse’s jagged Intégrales, Loeffler’s impressionistic Memories of My Childhood, Bloch’s neoclassical Concerto Grosso No. 1, and Gershwin’s bluesy An American in Paris. Listening to these diverse scores as a group is both a tonic and a reminder of an exciting decade when composers were breaking away from European models to write music that sang with a distinctly American voice. But then, if one steps back and takes an overview of the entire set, those qualities of confidence, easy invention, and creative exuberance are apparent everywhere.

Represented by eight works, Aaron Copland is the most frequently encountered composer, and rightly so as we celebrate his centennial year and close ties with the Philharmonic, an association that began in 1925 and lasted until his death in 1990. Other eloquent voices from the past include Hanson, Harris, Barber, Thomson, Chadwick, Ives, Griffes, MacDowell, Ruggles, Ellington, and Schuman; among today’s composers we meet Rorem, Schuller, Diamond, Crumb, Carter, Tower, Reich, Adams, Rouse, Zwilich, and Bolcom. No one, I think, could say that there is a weak score in the lot. Beyond that, an occasional unlikely pairing of conductor and composer produces some especially happy surprises: George Szell and Samuel Barber (Essay No. 1), Guido Cantelli and Copland (El Salón México), Artur Rodzinski and Ernest Schelling (A Victory Ball), Pierre Monteux and Paul Creston (Symphony No. 2), Leopold Stokowski and Bernard Herrmann (The Devil and Daniel Webster Suite), Arturo Toscanini and Sousa (The Stars and Stripes Forever). Leonard Bernstein dominates, but few are likely to complain since the Philharmonic’s favorite maestro conducts ten works he never had the opportunity to record commercially.

Once again the accompanying documentary material is lavish and handsomely presented: two books totaling 500 pages crammed with essays, interviews, archival photos, performance tables, contemporary program notes, and reviews. The two-volume set is currently available at selected Tower Records stores, or it can be ordered by phone: 1-800-557-8268. At $185, this feast of American music is a bargain.

Hit Parade