Piano Concerto (1925)

By Carol J. Oja

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Born in the Ukraine in 1892 and still living in Wisconsin, Leo Ornstein led this century’s first wave of immigration by European composers to the United States. Arriving here in 1907 at fifteen, he was joined in the next ten years by Ernest Bloch, Dane Rudhyar, and Edgard Varése. Three decades later a larger, more widely recognized crew–including Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith, and Milhaud–followed the same path. Ornstein studied piano with Bertha Fiering Tapper at New York’s Institute of Musical Art (now The Juilliard School), and she nurtured him intensely, especially in taking him on a couple of extended trips to Western Europe, where Ornstein first discovered the continent’s emerging radical tendencies in art. An acclaimed virtuoso, Ornstein made his New York debut in 1911 in a sober program that included the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin. But he was soon to acquire a much more flamboyant persona. That same year he started composing, and when his London debut took place in 1914, Ornstein established himself not only as a formidable keyboard artist but as a flaming futurist. Included on the program were his recent compositions, Wild Men’s Dance and Impressions of Notre-Dame, both of which quickly became notorious hard-hitting assaults on cherished traditions. Those compositions also appeared on an important series of recitals given by Ornstein at New York’s Bandbox Theatre in 1915. At the same time, he performed new works by Schoenberg, Satie, and Scriabin–figures whose music was then barely known in the United States. Waldo Frank, the renowned literary critic and shaper of American modernism, recalled after hearing Ornstein perform his compositions in the late 1910s that “a voluminous, cacophonous broadside of chords” erupted from the piano which threatened “to blow the instrument in the air and break the windows.” Like his contemporary Henry Cowell, Ornstein had a talent for making an explosive impact.

After nearly a decade as a prophet of the avant-garde in the United States, Ornstein suddenly retreated from the concert stage in 1920, just as New York was on the cusp of launching a group of home-grown modernists. In retrospect, it was an unfortunate decision, causing his music to be neglected by the very revolutionaries who benefited from his pathbreaking work. Ornstein settled down to teach piano at the Philadelphia Musical Academy and performed only occasionally–most notably for the premiere of his Piano Concerto in 1925 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. He went on to found the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, where he continued to teach until his retirement in 1953.

A pyrotechnical dazzler, Ornstein’s Concerto was clearly written by a pianist with a physical passion for hammering every inch of the keyboard. From the first note, the writing for piano teems with raw virtuosity. Using a traditional three-movement concerto form, the work glories in chromatic runs and gapped scales, as well as chords built of fourths and fifths (no tame triads for Ornstein). Rapid-fire runs and octave gymnastics alternate within toccata-like sections and passages of static repetition. Defying the reputation of modernists for taking their art too seriously, this work brims with fun and wild daring. Like watching a high-diver, it leaves the listener breathless, wondering if a safe landing is possible.

Fifty years after its composition, in a letter to Oliver Daniel, who was then preparing a biography of Stokowski, Ornstein recalled rehearsals for the premiere of the Concerto and gave a sense of the challenge of performing a brand-new work:

I remember our meeting when Stokowski looked at the score. He had a funny little room at the head of a rickety stairway back of the stage of the old Academy of Music. He studied the score for a long time, then turned to me and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ We eventually gave two performances in Philadelphia and one in New York. He must have realized the difficulty of the piece because instead of leaving the rehearsal for Friday morning, the day of the concert, he set the first rehearsal for the previous Monday. Then his professionalism was very evident. He turned to the men and indicated that there would have to be not only extra rehearsals but longer ones. He practically devoted the entire week’s work to the Concerto and gave a dazzling performance. It was entirely clear to me after working with him that under the surface appearance of great bravura there was a thoroughness that might almost be considered of an academic nature.

Ornstein’s Piano Concerto has lain dormant for seventy years. Like the whole of his output, it awaits fresh performances and renewed critical attention.

Nocturne

By Carol J. Oja

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Although hardly a household name, Colin McPhee (1900-1964) deserves far greater credit than history has given him for the crucial role he played in opening Western composition to the sounds and philosophies of the East. Today, in our polyglot, postmodern society, we take such mingling for granted. But sixty-four years ago, when McPhee set sail for the island of Bali, he began an odyssey that no composer had ever before attempted. It lasted nearly a decade and resulted in a significant series of compositions and writings about Bali that helped inspire a whole generation of American composers to broaden their cultural focus.

McPhee left for Bali after launching a career among a vigorous community of young modernists in New York during the 1920s. A native of Canada, he studied composition in Toronto, as well as in the United States. Like most of his generation, he also went to Paris, where he worked with the composer Paul Le Flem and the pianist Isidor Philipp. After settling in New York in 1926, McPhee became a pupil of Edgard Varése and was among a select group of young North Americans to have his compositions performed by Varése’s International Composers’ Guild. At some point late in the decade, restless with the elitist impulses of modernism, McPhee began exploring other modes of musical expression and chanced upon rare recordings of the Balinese gamelan. As he later recalled, “the clear, metallic sounds” of this percussion orchestra “were like the stirring of a thousand bells, delicate, confused, with a sensuous charm, a mystery that was quite overpowering.” Lured by exotic artistic potential and emboldened by the anthropological passions of his new wife, Jane Belo, McPhee set sail for Bali in 1931 and ended up staying nearly a decade. While there, he and Belo built a native-style house in the small mountain village of Sayan and immersed themselves in the local culture. Among their Western colleagues and personal friends were the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. With a composer’s attention to musical detail, McPhee explored Bali’s alluring repertories. In the process he uncovered a complex web of traditions, many of which were then on the wane. Working daily with local musicians, either in his Sayan home or on frequent field trips to remote corners of the island, McPhee transcribed hundreds of works and founded ensembles to revive dying repertories. His one attempt at making sound recordings failed. Audio technology of the time was far from advanced enough to deal reliably with on-site field work in a tropical climate.

Driven reluctantly back to the West in 1939 by the advancing war, McPhee devoted the remainder of his career to championing the culture he loved so intensely. Among his many writings about Bali, two books stand out: A House in Bali (1946), a poetically evocative memoir of his experiences on the island, and Music in Bali (1966), still the principal scholarly treatise on Balinese repertories. A series of gamelan-infused compositions also resulted, beginning with Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), one of the earliest works by a Western composer to meet the East on its own terms, and continuing two decades later with his Symphony No. 2 (1957) and Nocturne for Chamber Orchestra (1958). With the first and last of those works, McPhee’s career intersected significantly with that of Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the long-awaited American premiere of Tabuh-Tabuhan in 1953, as well as the world premiere of the Nocturne, which had been commissioned by Stokowski’s Contemporary Music Society at the suggestion of Oliver Daniel.

Written, as it was, nearly two decades after leaving Bali, McPhee’s Nocturne evokes the gamelan with a hint of nostalgia, replacing the vibrant ebullience of TabuhTabuhan with a subtler, more pared-down approach. The piece opens with a limpid flute solo, recalling the sounds of a Balinese suling. Throughout, flute sections alternate with ones for “nuclear gamelan,” a core unit of piano, xylophone, glockenspiel, celesta, and small gong. All of McPhee’s gamelan-inspired orchestral works use this Western approximation of an Indonesian ensemble. Other principles of gamelan construction prevail, from the work’s ever-present multiple layers of activity, so characteristic of Balinese textures, to its use of recurring melodic nodules — the latter a kind of proto-minimalist pattern music. As was typical of his gamelan-inspired works, McPhee based the Nocturne on Western translations of Balinese scales, opening with a four-note unit drawn from the repertory for gamelan angklung, an ancient ensemble which he had helped revive in the 1930s. At the same time, though, he incorporated modernist practices of his youth, especially by combining two or more indigenously inspired scales simultaneously.

Disdainful of impressionistic idealizations of exotic idioms, McPhee sought in his orchestral works to retain the essence of the gamelan’s integrity. Yet he did so with Western instruments. By the late 1950s, when he composed the Nocturne, others had begun taking even bolder steps toward authentic approaches to Eastern repertories, whether John Cage in his brittle experimentations for prepared piano or Lou Harrison in his works incorporating actual Asian instruments. The Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung once said of McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan, “although it might seem outdated, at the time it was one of the most distinguished scores of that nature, using the Western orchestra to express the music of another culture.” Such a historical lens is essential in assessing McPhee, for the same judgment can be extended to his later works, including the Nocturne. Somewhat conservative for the 1950s a decade when serialist orthodoxy consumed American composers and Cage undertook his then-shocking odysseys into chance composition–the Nocturne nonetheless stands out both as an important contribution to the solid center of American symphonic literature and as a major step in achieving a respectful, cross-cultural musical union.

Symphony No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 63 (1911)

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Why do we value an artist? Is it for the vividness with which he mirrors the society he lives in? Or is it rather for his ability to transcend his time and bring an unfamiliar message to the ears of his contemporaries?

The average concert-goer probably thinks of Elgar as a big, swaggering figure of a composer, typifying the brash self-confidence of the Edwardian age, when Britain was still Great and her empire far-flung. In some degree Elgar’s manner–epitomized by his favorite score indication nobilmente–justifies this estimate. It seems to be supported also by the Second Symphony’s dedication “To the Memory of His late Majesty King Edward VII,” and by Elgar’s note that the work, begun before the King’s death, was “designed early in 1910 to be a loyal tribute.”

Yet there is another, vitally different side to Elgar, and a potent hint of it appears right opposite that very dedication page. The symphony’s poetic epigraph is a quotation from Shelley:

Rarely, rarely comest thou,
Spirit of delight!

This hardly sounds like the motto of an unreflecting extrovert. And though the Spirit of delight makes an immediate appearance at the start of the symphony, the atmosphere soon grows complex and shadowed. The first movement and the scintillating scherzo alike incorporate episodes of baleful portent, which invade the mental landscape of the piece like nightmares; the second movement is a full-hearted and throat-catching threnody, less a tribute than a regretful farewell to imperial grandeur; and the finale, at first so confident and firm of tread, ends not with pompous affirmation but with a long, lingering epilogue framed in terms of rapt mystery.

Despite the image many have of Elgar as an assertive public man, this intensely private tone is characteristic of his major works. The Violin Concerto, like the Second Symphony, ends with a contemplative episode of exquisite hushed beauty; the Cello Concerto is saturnine, even tragic, almost throughout; the First Symphony’s apparently glorious A-flat-major peroration is shot through with foreign notes that subvert the key and mock the triumph; and even the grandiloquent ending of the popular Enigma Variations was not a part of the original conception–Elgar added it only after friends persuaded him, with questionable judgment, that the work needed a more emphatic finale.

What all of this perhaps suggests is that the answer to my opening question is neither formula by itself, but rather a bit of both. It would be foolish to ignore or underestimate the proclamatory aspect of Elgar–the part of him that innocently rejoiced to have invented, in Land of Hope and Glory, “a tune that will knock ’em — knock ’em flat.” But the greatest value of that aspect for thoughtful listeners in Elgar’s own time was that it helped them to understand his inward side.

It is not, for an artist, enough just to rebel against your society’s ideas, any more than it is enough to accept them all with meek conformism. The composer who does the first will be merely incomprehensible, the latter kind can have no claim on his audience’s attention. The elements of familiarity are what is needed if we are to make sense of the unfamiliar. But the unfamiliar, thus rendered comprehensible, is what makes the artist valuable in the end. In Elgar’s younger compatriot Michael Tippett, what we value is the gift for creating, “in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty” (Tippett’s own description of his endeavor). Conversely, Elgar’s greatness lies in his capacity to see beneath the splendid generic surface of Edwardian prosperity and penetrate to the depths of the individual human soul.

America’s Musical Pioneer: Homage to Leopold Stokowski

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Fame and success in one’s lifetime do not necessarily ensure respect. Neither do they secure the prospect of a positive posthumous revisionism. The career of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) is a case in point. In his own day, Stokowski was idolized by audiences–particularly in Philadelphia, where he built a legendary ensemble as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He elicited a distinctly silken string sound. He innovated on the style of performance and mesmerized his listeners with the expressive painterly gestures of his hands (he used no baton), his dashing profile, his shock of flowing hair, and his elegant presence.

Stokowski was a showman and a born entertainer. He was a man addicted to the theatrical. He collaborated with Walt Disney and shook hands with Mickey Mouse on the silver screen. He became a world-famous media figure. For all this he was branded by critics and many rivals as a charlatan and a mere popularizer. He was rarely taken seriously as an interpreter. Toscanini, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Walter all were held in higher regard. For connoisseurs of a particular bent, Reiner and Mitropolous were considered, in contrast to Stokowski, musicians’ musicians with a profound command of musical texts.

In our day, record collectors and listeners take an interest in the performance traditions of the past. All the conductors listed above have had their discography re-released in modern formats. Their work has been poured over by critics and emulated by young conductors. The posthumous reputation of Stokowski, however, has lagged behind. Whether it was his penchant for the life of a socialite (including a marriage to a Vanderbilt) or his wide popularity, his work is still denigrated. It remains less known than it should be. Self-conscious sophisticates and those with pretensions to profound insight still continue to dismiss his work, much as Stokowski’s contemporaries once did.

Among the performers of the past who have gained a nearly fanatical posthumous following and authority, few can rival the respect and awe now associated with the work and career of Glenn Gould. Gould was a genuine iconoclast. He was consummately a musician of ideas, whose writings deserve study and rereading, and we still mourn his untimely death. To his credit, Gould was not afraid to differ from his contemporaries. He admired and understood Stokowski. He recorded Beethoven with Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra. At a minimum, Gould’s judgment should lead us to question received wisdom concerning the artistry and achievement of Stokowski.

Leopold Stokowski was a great conductor, an inspired musician, and a tireless advocate of new music. The list of works introduced to the United States and premiered by Stokowski in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Houston, and New York is staggering. It includes Berg’s Wozzeck, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. No other major conductor, not even Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, was as adventuresome, as fiercely eclectic, and as tirelessly innovative. Stokowski rivaled Toscanini in the popular imagination and exceeded Koussevitzky and Mitropolous in his advocacy of new and experimental music.

Stokowski loved life. His vitality was inexhaustible. He lived well into his nineties, conducting concerts in England and making recordings. He founded a new orchestra in New York in 1962–the American Symphony Orchestra–and kept it alive with his own funds. He sought to fill the vacuum created when the New York Philharmonic left Carnegie Hall. He also wanted to show that an orchestra made up of young Americans trained here could match European orchestras and American ensembles dominated by Europeans. He encouraged young American conductors and composers during the 1960s. He premiered Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony with the ASO. At the ASO he developed a program of concerts with low ticket prices in an effort to broaden the audience for concert music.

Stokowski the conductor not only cultivated a lush and rounded sound, but also took risks in creating excitement, showing how music functioned dramatically and utilizing often unexpected (but not capricious) shifts in tempo, color and mood. His ASO performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is a case in point. He tinkered with scores, but he always elicited a distinct and alluring line and sound, and his performances were never boring. Above all, he made many transcriptions, including an innovative version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which the ASO took on tour to Japan in 1994. Perhaps because he had started his career as an organist, he conceived of the orchestra as a single organic instrument, as capable of flights of unique, soloistic timbres as it was of producing huge, integrated sonorities.

This concert pays homage to Stokowski’s legacy and contribution by presenting four works associated with him and reflective of his range of interest. Today’s ASO seeks to honor his example of innovation and his embracing of new audiences. All the works on this program were first performed by him in the United States. Two of them, both by Americans, were given their world premieres by Stokowski. The opening work on the program, the Bach-Stokowski D minor Toccata and Fugue, is perhaps the most famous of his many transcriptions. It was his signature piece.

Stokowski’s example and contributions to twentieth-century musical life in America ought to be an inspiration to future generations of performers and listeners.

J. S. Bach / Leopold Stokowski Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BMV 565 (1952)

By Walter Frisch, Columbia University

Written for the concert America’s Musical Pioneer, performed on March 3, 1996 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Contemporary listeners may recoil in shock when they hear this work. We have become so accustomed to the idea that music from the past must be played in a manner somehow reflective of the performance practices in vogue in the era from which the music dates, that the notions of recasting a work in performance, adapting it to new conditions, or transcribing it for different forces all seem like sacrilege. A work for a Baroque organ is transformed into a twentieth-century orchestral essay designed to underscore powerful sonorities and distinct orchestral sound effects. Stokowski’s transcription is, in this sense, an affront to history.

At the same time, however, Stokowski remained faithful to history and tradition. Mozart made his own orchestration of Handel’s Messiah. Bach himself tinkered with and appropriated the work of others, using different instrumental combinations. Ravel took a work for piano, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and made it a standard repertory piece for orchestra. Schoenberg and Stravinsky both transcribed Baroque music for modern orchestral forces. Wagner rewrote Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris (the overture), and Mahler rewrote all of Weber’s Euryanthe. Strauss made his own version of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

These efforts point to a tradition that followed the notion that audiences from different times possess different acoustic expectations and habits of hearing. If music–defined as the notes on the page–constitutes a script much like that of the text for a piece of spoken theater, then in order to make those notes effective to new audiences, changes may be necessary. We do not object to the fact that every production of Shakespeare in modern times differs not only in staging and acting style but in pronunciation from the so-called “original” practices of the early seventeenth century. In music we have become unreasonably skittish about what is accepted as second nature in the theater.

What motivated Stokowski was the fact that arguably much of Bach’s greatest music–particularly that for organ alone–was falling into obscurity. The audience for music long ago had developed beyond the confines of church attendance. The symphony orchestra concert (assisted by the radio broadcast) reached a much wider audience in the modern era than did the church service. The orchestra could function as the moral equivalent of the church organ for a secular public.

Transcribing Bach was not only a way of bringing his music to a modern audience, but also of remaining faithful to its imposing musical architecture. In Stokowski’s masterful use of theorchestra, the concertgoer experiences sensations perhaps more comparable to those experienced by churchgoers in eighteenth-century Leipzig, rather than those he or she might encounter listening to a performance on a period instrument in a Baroque church. Furthermore, in America there are few Baroque churches. To restrict Bach to performance on an instrument with an archaic aura and in a setting reminiscent of an age gone by seems an unnecessary price to pay, given the greatness of the music.

Stokowski sought to solve the problem of how to encourage familiarity with Bach’s organ music in the context of modern life. His transcription faithfully outlines the counterpoint and the discrete linear dimensions of the music. It also controls the layering of timbres and approximates the special sounds characteristic of the organ. In its ingenuity and its fearless exploitation of orchestral power, Stokowski’s version may be more “authentic” to Bach than a meticulous re-creation on the kind of organ Bach might have had at his disposal. To Bach’s contemporaries, the sound of that organ did not possess an artificial surface of antiquity. Yet to our modern ears, many period instrument performances sound distant and dated, particularly in the physical context of concert halls built during the last 100 years. The expressive power of the music is constrained by instruments whose character as “historical” overwhelms any aspects of the music that transcend the specific material circumstances surrounding its composition and first performances. In its modernized form, in Stokowski’s version, we can respond fully to Bach as more than an artifact of history.

Enough time has passed to make even Stokowski’s version dated. It too is no longer modern but rather emblematic of a mid-twentieth-century aesthetic, before the so-called early music movement. It possesses its own historical patina, from an age of optimism and confidence in the 1920s, when contemporaries in America believed the present and future held out the prospect of progress. Perhaps too much of our attachment to so called “authentic” performance practices mirrors not only a lack of optimism but some disturbing pessimism about the present day. We have become nostalgic and have retreated from the notion that the past might be improved upon. We feel rather too comfortable in an aural museum where we can lose ourselves in our personal images of days long gone by. Stokowski’s transcription therefore evokes not only Bach, but another era–that of America before the depression–an age of brash self-confidence and commitment to the contemporary possibilities of modernism.

This transcription was completed in 1927 and was premiered in Philadelphia. It was used later in the film Fantasia. It is one of many Bach transcriptions that Stokowski did in the years between the mid-1920s and 1940s, and for which he chose not only organ music, but parts of the Bach repertoire for solo violin, piano, and sections of the best-known cantatas.

America’s Musical Pioneer

03/03/1996 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes