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American Sound

by B.A. Nilsson on May 1, 2013

Albany Symphony Orchestra, David Alan Miller, conductor
Palace Theatre, April 27

 

The cultural gap between Albany and Manhattan gapes far out of proportion to the mileage that separates them. To Albany, Manhattan is the intimidating cosmopolite. The reciprocal view sees Albany as a dump heap of politicians.

Yet the cause of American music has been served in this city with a dedication that would hardly invite you to believe that we’re served only by a part-time orchestra. The Albany Symphony has commissioned or rediscovered works that comprise a largely invisible backbone of this country’s classical-music tradition.

It happens in Manhattan, too, of course, but it’s taken decades for that city to climb out of Europe’s thrall. Albany wasn’t as badly lumbered with snob-o-centric expectations. So it’s fitting that the Albany Symphony’s return to Carnegie Hall on May 7 features an all-American program with one new(ish) work, one rediscovery and one older, not-quite favorite. It’s the program that was presented Saturday at the Palace Theatre, and if the Carnegie Hall performance is anywhere near as accomplished, Albany—and the cause of American music—will be well-served.

Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 3 was the rediscovered work–rediscovered and restored to an original state, about which more in a moment. The reputation of Gould the composer has long been compromised by Gould the light-music artist, whose “and His Orchestra” albums like Jungle Drums suggested he be categorized with Percy Faith, yet he won a Grammy for his recording of Ives’s Symphony No. 1.

The four-movement Symphony No. 3 presents a six-note motif that gets played against itself before crumbling into smaller bits similarly developed. But Gould is a composer of mood as well as of moments, and is happy to suddenly throw us into appealing frenzies of syncopation to liven the trip.

A slow second movement teased us with not-quite melodies, as if a pop-style song were threatening to break through, while the high-spirited third movement showed its debt to Stravinsky while recalling in its own way the early jazz that also informs the Harbison work played earlier in the concert.

Conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos pressed to Gould to replace the symphony’s final movement; David Alan Miller found the original one and put it back, and we’re in his debt for that. It’s a big, sweeping finish, and it put me in mind of Copland’s Third Symphony, also written in 1946. I like the Copland, but it seems at times to try too hard. Gould’s symphony has a charming unselfconsciousness about it.

Gould came out of Gershwin, but so did every open-minded composer in America. Like Gould, Gershwin once suffered the categorization blues, but his concert works are now concert staples. Except, perhaps, the Second Rhapsody, which continues to suffer. Like other symphonic works by the composer, it’s been re-orchestrated and otherwise tampered with, but, with Gershwin specialist Kevin Cole at the keyboard, the ASO gave us the original version of the piece.

Kevin Cole

If Gershwin’s orchestration skill pales beside that of the composers who shared the program’s bill, he still out-Gershwins them in every other respect, and the only thing the Second Rhapsody needs to net it a more prominent place in the repertory is more performances and recordings—especially with a dynamo like Cole as soloist.

Who more than proved his mettle by encoring with his own ten-minute medley of Gershwin songs, reminding us that the songwriter churned out an endlessly appealing set of melodies for songs that all seem to share the same bridge.

John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999. During the nine years following, he did as all shrewd composers do and made a concert piece out of a number of the opera’s instrumental selections. It was last performed by the Albany Symphony three years ago, when Harbison was on hand to note that some listeners think that the 1920s-style dance-band numbers peppered throughout are truly from that period.

He certainly captured the pre-Swing Era spirit of the time, and the Suite calls for a small combo to feature in those sections. Thus it was that concertmaster Jill Levy suddenly appeared far upstage to deftly intone the combo’s violin solos like a specter from a long-ago thé dansant.

It’s a lovely work that blends early jazz with a post-Bernstein, jazz-infused sensibility that represents in its own way the clamor that is American music, and that distinguishes this music from that of the rest of the world. Carnegie Hall and its attendant cosmopolites are in for a treat.