What exactly is American classical music? When crafting their answers, programmers have historically chosen one of two approaches: cautious, fragmented or risky efforts, a merger of all into one.
Fragmentary strategy can acknowledge that items written by jazz composers like Duke Ellington should be in the mix, but as a separate concert or album, rather than the fully recorded works of Gershwin or Bernstein played regularly. The fusion approach was heard less frequently. But it was there. In 1976, American pianist Frederic Rzywski presented listeners with an innovative combination of two different piano pieces by saxophonist and bassist Anthony Braxton—plus a sonata by German-born composer Hans Eisler and “Nowhere to Go Except Nearby”—in one stunning concert.
The concept, once experimental, is now a concept that the classical mainstream sometimes reaches, as on a recent album by violinist Daniel Hope, “America.” Experimenters are still merging, too – as in the new version of the PUBLIQuartet string quartet, “What Is American”. The Third Way—to commission entirely new music—is featured in another recording, three-disc violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s sprawling “This Is America,” released July 1.
Hope’s album is proof that merging isn’t necessarily easy. In his recording, released earlier this year on Deutsche Grammophon, he bravely attempted Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come” as well as “Come Sunday” from Sam Cooke’s “Black, Brown and Beige.” (Also found in the program are mainstays of the narrow-frame American reference, such as the works of Bernstein and Copeland.)
In Cooke, Hope’s tone is fun enough – if the touch is too faint to match Joy Denalane’s vocals. But Ellington’s snippet is a missed opportunity, with the opening speeding up by a breeze.
Judge this reading against Ellington’s recording from 1958 in which violinist Ray Nance is celebrating in the same melodic material for an additional 10 seconds, after his entry. There is a reason not to speed up the phrases; Extra seconds can mean everything.
On Hope’s album, the best performances come early, when he takes on a set of Gershwin’s tunes. Here, a trio led by pianist Marcus Roberts called to help improvise and swing the American term. Their engagement inspires some soulful strumming from Hope, whose tunes dance merrily during an “enchanting rhythm”. (He also plays double stops to the rhythms of drummer Jason Marsalis at the end of “Summer.”)
However, the collaboration between Hope, Zurich Chamber Orchestra and the Roberts trio remains uncompromisingly courteous, with the latter notably encircling. It’s a far cry from the energy of a 2003 performance of the Berlin Philharmonic led by Seiji Ozawa, pouring into this band’s digital concert hall, which featured the Roberts Trio for a bold, push-and-pull read of Gershwin’s concerto in F.
America seems to realize this could be a problem. On the cover, Hope is seen in a blazer and suit, leaning against an old car parked in front of a building whose windows are decorated with portraits of American music greats. But the artists pictured in these window frames don’t exactly track the sound of the album. Not a single clip has the explosive quality of saxophonist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy that cycles between records and bell. So what does it do in the album art?
In addition to his own music, Dolphie has appeared as a major soloist in the civil rights era musical essays for guitarist and composer Charles Mingus, particularly in “The Originals of Faubus” and “Reflections on Integration”. However, the protest poetry of Dolphie and John Coltrane – another artist depicted on the cover of “America” - is not present here other than the title of Cook’s most promising pop song.
As a result, musically, Hope doesn’t take the struggling State of the Union head-on, or acknowledge past revolutions within this country’s ever-evolving jazz tradition. The fiery music played by Coltrane and Dolphy in 1961 was criticized at the time as “anti-jazz” in some quarters – something that was short-lived. But while Hope seems eager to cite the fire of American ingenuity on the album cover, he doesn’t want to sing it out in practice.
And the opposite is true for long runs of Gandelsmann’s This Is America, an ambitious group trying to gauge the national temperature by ordering new singles from a group of dozens of composers. In his written notes for the album, the violinist cites a range of issues as inspiration for his impulse to commission these tracks: the pandemic; police violence and the killings of Ahmed Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; More than four million acres of California forest were lost to wildfires in 2020; The unemployment; “Vicious Constituency Speech.”
Several composers responded to Gandelsmann’s claim with a similar sense of intense horror and sadness. fair enough. But as a listening experience, the nearly four-hour program could have used more works like “Sahra be Wyckoff” by Syrian-born clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh. Written at a time when it was difficult for friends and tech collaborators to put it together, it recalls a more joyous past for jam sessions in Brooklyn. Gandelsmann’s intoxicating performance brought me back to Azma’s awesome 2021 album “Flow”, recorded with NDR Bigband, from Germany. This group is another example of the enormous variability of American energies – with the Ellingtonian harmonization fusing with melodic styles from the Middle East.
Other than that, Gandelsman’s pieces received a turn toward more somber moods and themes—including a memorial to a dead friend and multiple reflections on civil conflict. Some of the compositions reflect the composers’ well-established interests. So when Tyshawn Sorey introduces the meditation (and sometimes ferociousness) of “Courtney Brian,” the miniatures can be a small but important addition to the author’s rapidly expanding catalog of prismatic tributes to his musical contemporaries. But “For Courtney Bryan” deals only lightly with Gandelsman’s stated hope that the commissions “somehow reflect the time we all lived in.” (For Suri’s more specific ideas of the moment, you might turn to “Saving the Boys” from last year.)
However, everything is played neatly; Gandelsman is attuned to the subtle nature of each artist, dedicating his voice to each one. The second disc presents a dash of compositional contrast and explanatory efforts. There, you’ll find Angelica Negron’s dreamy poem about childhood stargazing (“A Través del Manto Luminoso”), where the live sound of Gandelsman’s pipes fuses perfectly with the electronic backing track.
The somber and mysterious Ebon Oguntola’s “reflections” induce the Gandelsmann to contrast arc pressure, signaling unexpected fluctuations in one’s mind. In the then iconic lyrical Rhapsody, his dynamic transformations are more fluid in nature – and quietly impressive. Gandelsmann lends a charming, free-wheeling quality to his performance in Terry Riley’s “Barbary Coast 1955.”
The problematic invention cycles in those works throughout “What Is American” by PUBLIQuartet, my favorite classic album of the year so far. It contains Dvorak’s winning arrangements, as well as the song “Black Coffee” by Tina Turner and composed by Ornette Coleman’s “Years of Law” and “Woman in the Street.” There is a head nodding performance of Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say” (inspired by James Brown).
And there’s the newly commissioned string quartet, “CARDS 11.11.20,” from Roscoe Mitchell – the composer and saxophonist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, along with Braxton and other members of the Society for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Like other works in Mitchell’s “Cards” series, this composed effort calls for improvisation (while allowing musicians to mix parts of the musical note, at some point in the performance); PUBLIQuartet players feel right at home inside this bizarre American challenge.
Among these and other works are the torn recitations of the mysterious Fifth House quartet of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in The Star-Spangled Banner. Amid the Civil War, this poet – and father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – denounced “the traitor who dares to desecrate/flag her stars and her story page!” (Think about it in the context of the January 6 rioter who carried the Confederate flag inside the U.S. Capitol, and who was recently convicted of one felony and four misdemeanours.)
What Is American has never been so full of fun, eclecticism, and civic engagement all along one CD. The album’s ability to weave multiple traditions reaches its climax early in its radical yet recognizable adaptation of Dvorak’s String Quartet #12 – nicknamed “American” in part because of his love and inspiration for black American musicians such as Harry Burley (as well as Native American tune).
We have dozens of original and accurate renditions of this war horse; PUBLIQuartet players have rightly realized that it can handle a little renovation. Their performance indicates “improvisation” at work. They practically draw the first and second themes of the opening movement and divide them into quarters, presenting or explaining them in coarse accents.
Before summarizing the closing action of those topics, the players give us a spinal tingling moment. After completing their version of the development, they implement a change of tempo before collectively improvising in blues mode with wide appeal.
Seconds later, as the group reverts toward Dvorak’s American-inspired sound, there is a new idea absent on other albums with similar aspirations: the suggestion that group dynamics, such as individual interpretations, are essential to American music. It won’t solve the country’s problems, but as the contemporary American spirit continues to define, the recording I’ll be playing for our loved ones is coming on the Fourth of July.