What exactly is American classical music? In crafting their answers, programmers have historically chosen one of two approaches: cautious, piecemeal efforts, or a risky, all-in merge.
The fragmented strategy might concede that elements of jazz composers like Duke Ellington should be in the mix, but as a separate concerto or album, rather than the fully notated and regularly performed works of Gershwin or Bernstein. The fusion approach has been heard much less frequently. But it existed. In 1976, American pianist Frederic Rzewski treated listeners to an artful mix of two piano pieces written by saxophonist and improviser Anthony Braxton, plus a sonata by German-born composer Hanns Eisler and his own “No Place to Go but Around.” ”, in a vertiginous recital.
This once-experimental concept is now one that the classical mainstream occasionally comes to embrace, as on violinist Daniel Hope’s recent album, “America.” Experimentalists still do fusion too, as on string quartet PUBLIQuartet’s new release, “What Is American.” A third route, that of commissioning entirely new music, is demonstrated on another recording, violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s sprawling three-disc set “This Is America,” due for release July 1.
Hope’s album is evidence that the fusion approach isn’t necessarily easy. On her recording, released earlier this year on the Deutsche Grammophon label, she valiantly attempts Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Come Sunday,” from Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige.” (The mainstays of a more limited American repertoire, such as the works of Bernstein and Copland, are also on the program.)
In Cooke, Hope’s tone is pleasant enough, if a touch too pale to match Joy Denalane’s soulful voice. But Ellington’s excerpt is a missed opportunity, opening too quickly.
Contrast this reading with a 1958 Ellington recording in which violinist Ray Nance revels in the same melodic material for an additional 10 seconds, after his entrance. There’s a reason he doesn’t fast-forward through sentences; the extra seconds can mean everything.
On Hope’s album, the best performances come early, when she performs a handful of Gershwin tunes. Here, she invites a trio led by pianist Marcus Roberts to help with improvisations and American-language swing. Her participation inspires an energetic playing from Hope, whose tune she happily dances to during “Fascinating Rhythm.” She (she also plays bluesy double stops over drummer Jason Marsalis’s beats towards the end of “Summertime”).
However, the collaboration between Hope, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and the Roberts Trio remains very courteous, with the latter notably hemmed in. It’s a far cry from the energy of a 2003 Berlin Philharmonic performance conducted by Seiji Ozawa, broadcast on that ensemble’s Digital Concert Hall. , in which the Roberts Trio participated in a daring reading of Gerswhin’s Concerto in F.
“America” seems to be aware that this could be a problem. On the cover, Hope is seen wearing a vest and tuxedo, leaning against a vintage car parked in front of a building whose windows are decorated with portraits of great American musicians. But the photoshopped artists in those window frames don’t keep up with the sound of the album. There is not a single passage that has the explosive quality of saxophonist and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy in the exultant hopscotch between registers and timbres. So what is he doing on the album cover?
Beyond his own music, Dolphy appeared as a key soloist in civil rights-era musical essays by bassist/songwriter Charles Mingus, particularly “Original Faubus Fables” and “Meditations on Integration.” However, the protest poetry of Dolphy and John Coltrane, another artist who appears on the cover of “America”, is not present here beyond the title of Cooke’s pop song that promises change.
As a result, Hope’s album does not musically confront the turbulent state of the union, nor does it acknowledge past revolutions within this country’s ever-evolving jazz tradition. The fiery music that Coltrane and Dolphy played in 1961 was criticized at the time for being “anti-jazz” in some quarters, a version that has not aged well. But though Hope seems eager to cite the fire of American ingenuity on an album cover, he doesn’t want to be singed into practice.
The opposite is true for long stretches of Gandelsman’s “This Is America” project, an ambitious ensemble trying to take the national temperature by soliciting new solo works from a group of a couple dozen songwriters. In his album cover notes, the violinist cites a number of themes as inspiration for his impulse to commission these pieces: the pandemic; police violence and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; the more than four million acres of California forests lost to wildfires in 2020; unemployment; “Rhetoric of the vicious cycle of elections”.
Many of the composers responded to Gandelsman’s suggestion with a similar sense of overwhelming dread and sadness. That seems fine to me. But as an 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 for a time when it was difficult to get together for friends and artistic collaborators, it recalls a more joyous past of jam sessions in Brooklyn. Gandelsman’s heady performance sent me back to Azmeh’s stunning 2021 album “Flow” recorded with Germany’s NDR Bigband. That ensemble is another example of the mutability of American energies, with Ellingtonian orchestration merging with Middle Eastern melodic modes.
Otherwise, the pieces Gandelsman received tended toward more somber themes and moods, including a memorial to a dead friend and multiple meditations on civic conflict. And some pieces reflect the deep-seated concerns of the composers. So when Tyshawn Sorey delivers the contemplative (and sometimes fierce) “For Courtney Bryan,” the thumbnail may serve as a small but important addition to the composer’s rapidly expanding catalog of pristine tributes to his musical contemporaries. But “For Courtney Bryan” is only slightly compromised by Gandelsman’s stated hope that the commissions would “somehow reflect the time we were all living in.” (For Sorey’s more specific thoughts on our moment, you can check out his searing “Save the Boys,” from last year.)
Still, everything is played with precision; Gandelsman is attuned to the precise nature of each artist and adapts his sound to each one. The second disc offers a flurry of compositional contrast and interpretive effort. There, you’ll find Angélica Negrón’s dreamy ode to childhood looking at the stars (“Through the Luminous Mantle”), where Gandelsman’s direct, flute-like sound melds ideally with the electronic backing track.
Ebun Oguntola’s somber yet mysterious “Reflections” propel Gandelsman into the contrasts of arc pressure, suggesting unpredictable twists and turns of an individual’s mind. In “Rhapsody”, Tomeka Reid’s then virtuosic song, his dynamic changes are more fluid in nature and quietly impressive. And Gandelsman brings a charming, free-associative quality to his interpretation of Terry Riley’s episodic “Barbary Coast 1955.”
The kaleidoscopic invention in those works flows throughout PUBLIQuartet’s “What Is American,” my favorite classic album of the year so far. It contains award-winning arrangements by Dvorak, as well as Tina Turner’s “Black Coffee” and Ornette Coleman’s tunes “Law Years” and “Street Woman.” There is a performance of Vijay Iyer’s string quartet “Dig the Say” (inspired by James Brown).
And there’s a newly commissioned string quartet, “CARDS 11.11.20,” by Roscoe Mitchell, the composer and saxophonist who rose to fame in the 1960s, along with Braxton and other members of the Association for the Advancement of Musicians. Creatives. Like other works in Mitchell’s “Cards” series, this all-out compositional effort invites improvisation (musicians are allowed to shuffle bits of the score, at one point in the performance); The PUBLIQuartet musicians sound at home in this peculiar American challenge.
Snaking between those and other works are the quartet’s fractured recitations of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s obscure fifth verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the midst of the Civil War, this poet, and father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., criticized “the traitor who dares to desecrate / The flag of his stars and the page of his history! ” (Think of that in the context of the Jan. 6 rioter who carried the Confederate flag inside the US Capitol building, and who was recently convicted of one felony and four misdemeanors.)
Never overloaded, “What Is American” packs fun, eclecticism and civic engagement into the length of a single CD. The album’s ability to weave together multiple traditions reaches an early peak in its radical yet recognizable adaptation of Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12, dubbed the “American” in part due to his affection and inspiration for African-American musicians such as Harry Burleigh (as well like the Native American melody).
We have dozens of pristine, score-accurate renditions of this warhorse; PUBLIQuartet players have rightly intuited that it can withstand a bit of reinvention. His performance represents, they point out, “improvisations” on the work. They practically draw and butcher the first and second themes of the opening movement, introducing or elaborating on them with rough, scratchy accents.
Before the movement’s final recapitulation on those themes, the performers give us a chilling moment. Having completed their version of the development, they execute a tempo change before collectively improvising in a bluesy mood with broad appeal.
Seconds later, as the group returns to Dvorak’s American-inspired sound, there’s a fresh insight missing from other albums with similar aspirations: a suggestion that group dynamics, as much as individual performances, are essential to American music. It won’t solve the country’s problems, but by the definitions of the contemporary American spirit, it’s the recording I’ll play for my loved ones on the 4th of July.