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July Fourth Musical Highlights

WNYC Explores American Music in its Many Guises

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Parades and picnics, flag-waving and fireworks: the Fourth of July is an opportunity to explore American music in all its spirit and diversity. But just what defines American music? What makes it sound American? WNYC's Independence Day musical calendar may offer some clues...

The British music critic Andrew Clements recently criticized the very idea of American opera in London's Guardian newspaper, arguing that it is hopelessly stodgy, trapped in Puccinian realism, and incapable of the bold experimentation found overseas. Whether or not you agree with his assessment, it's undeniable that American composers have long struggled to find a national identity, distinct from the European tradition. Many have been both burdened and invigorated by an ambiguous relationship with jazz, Broadway and other native popular styles, even as they adhere to old-world genres like the symphony, concerto, and sonata.

It is ironic, if hardly surprising then, that European musicians have often taken the lead in exploring America's musical history. Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi has led the Detroit Symphony in over a dozen CDs of American repertory for the British label Chandos. On Friday's Overnight Music with George Preston, we hear their recording of the Symphony No. 2 of Charles Ives. Ives's five-movement canvas is filled with direct quotations drawn from various corners of American musical life, including Protestant hymnody, popular song, and Civil War marching tunes.

Another European-led recording project devoted to the American experience is Naxos's American Classics, an extraordinary series comprising 108 CD's and anticipated to include dozens more. The mastermind of American Classics is Klaus Heymann, a German based in Hong Kong. The participating orchestras are based in the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Slovakia, and the former Soviet Union.

Yet several American orchestras have joined the budget-priced label of late. On Overnight Music, we hear one of them - the Nashville Symphony's 2002 recording of George Chadwick's seldom-heard symphonic suite "Aphrodite," under conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. Chadwick was a composer enormously popular with Boston Symphony audiences before 1920, and "Aphrodite" is one of many unsuspected and unfamiliar crannies in early American symphonic repertoire. With its brilliant orchestration, the work suggests the Impressionist tone poems of Debussy and Ravel.

Some of America's best indigenous music was enriched by the European composers and performers who took refuge from the Nazis in the country during the 1930s. Jascha Heifetz was the leading figure among the group of Russian Jews who dominated violin playing in the twentieth century. After settling in California, he became an American citizen, and arranged several American popular tunes, including Stephen Foster's "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." On Friday's Evening Music with David Garland, we hear violinist Leila Josefowicz's rendition of this chestnut from her 2001 disc Americana (Philips). This will be paired with the equally cosmopolitan "Yankee Doodle" variations by Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps (from his 1845 "Souvenir d'Amerique," also performed by Josefowicz).

To round out the July Fourth musical journey, New Sounds with John Schaefer presents very updated versions of Ives's music in Sideshow's 1999 CD "The songs of Charles Ives." The disc's ten selections are drawn from "114 Songs," a 1922 collection of completed pieces and works-in-progress printed by Charles Ives in an effort to generate interest in his work within the American musical community. It's arguably Ives's most memorable and most American work, and Sideshow, a New York improvising quartet, re-imagines its iconoclastic spirit for new audiences.


July 4, 2003: A Musical Calendar

Whether you're enjoying a day at the beach, at the park, or simply relaxing at home, WNYC provides a distinctive and diverse patriotic soundtrack. Below is a chronological calendar of events, from 12am to 12pm.

Overnight Music with George Preston
12am on 93.9 FM

The American symphonic tradition takes center stage as Host George Preston presents works by Copland, Chadwick, Ives, and others. While Aaron Copland is best known for his folksy ballet scores, his idealistic and tuneful Symphony No. 3 has always been a bit underrated. It's a work of poignant lyricism and brass-laden climaxes and incorporates the famous "Fanfare for the Common Man" in its finale. We also hear the American landscape and story evoked in recent works by composers as diverse as Richard Danielpour, Ned Rorem, and Mark O'Connor. And as a special treat, we hear excerpts from "On the Town," Leonard Bernstein's vibrant 1944 Broadway musical in a now-classic 1993 recording featuring Clio Lane, Michael Barrett and Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The Leonard Lopate Show
12pm on 93.9 FM and AM 820

Academy award winning composer Elmer Bernstein has made music for over 200 major film and television scores. He talks about with Leonard Lopate about his celebrated, four-decade-plus career.

Soundcheck with John Schaefer
2pm on 93.9 FM

Soundcheck celebrates the sounds of America as host John Schaefer talks to singer-songwriters who are revisiting and reinventing classic American songs. The program also wraps up singer-songwriter week, as guests include British songwriter/pop-star Billy Bragg and Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie archives. In the mid-1990s, Nora Guthrie invited Billy Bragg and the American roots-rock group Wilco to write music around some of Woody Guthrie's previously unpublished lyrics. The result is "Mermaid Avenue", a collection of soulful songs that sheds a new, contemporary light on one of America's pioneer singer-songwriters. John will also welcome composer Dick Connette, who takes lyrics from traditional American songs from the past two hundred years and updates them with his own music.

Evening Music with David Garland
7pm on 93.9 FM

Celebrate Independence Day with some old-fashioned--and NEW-fashioned-Americana: from the enthusiasm of Charles Ives' First String Quartet to the introspection of Bill Frisell, enjoy some independent-minded American music on Evening Music with David Garland.

New Sounds with John Schaefer
11pm on 93.9 FM

Host John Schaefer nominated Sideshow's debut CD "The songs of Charles Ives" (CRI/Blueshift) as one of the ten best recordings of 2001. Similarly, the Village Voice called the disc one of New York's "best of 1999," noting that it "consists of smart, rowdy, sneaky, bass-clarinet-guitar-vibraphone-percussion versions of Charles Ives' turn-of-the-century art songs…" The Voice continues, "Transplanting America's gnarliest great composer to semi-improvisational topsoil is a weird idea, but it works shockingly well, and the group blurs the line between intellectual rigor and chaotic fun. Their first album, in the works now, should open some eyes in both the classical and new music worlds."

Additional Resources:

  • Why Does Copland's Music Sound American? In a 1999 All Things Considered segment, NPR's Noah Adams talks to musicologist and crtitic Michael Steinberg about the music of Aaron Copland. Why, we ask, does Copland's music sound American? What is it about the music that evokes an American landscape in the minds of the audience? Steinberg think it has something to do with the composer's habit of quoting folk and cowboy tunes -- but also something about his chord structure that connotes wide-open spaces. Read more

  • Newmusicbox.org, the Web magazine of the American Music Center, celebrates Independence Day by examining the world of independent jazz labels. Also, you can read an excerpt of Michael Hicks's new book Henry Cowell, Bohemian, and a conversation with the author. Read more
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