Reviving Forgotten Gems Is New Grail For Chicago Critic

You probably know Bernstein. How about the other four composers? The American Music Project aims to introduce you. (From top left clockwise: David Diamond, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives, Irving Fine, Amy Wurtz)
You know Bernstein’s music. How about the other composers? The American Music Project aims to make them heard.
(From top left clockwise: David Diamond, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives, Irving Fine, Amy Wurtz)
By Nancy Malitz

It’s not unusual, these days especially, to find the classical music critic who decides to put on another hat. There are music critics who have become presenters (John Rockwell at Lincoln Center Festival), opera impresarios (Speight Jenkins at the Seattle Opera), program annotators and artistic administrators (Michael Steinberg at the San Francisco Symphony), librettists (Paul Griffiths), and conductors (Will Crutchfield). A few have become novelists, ventured into academe, become editors and publishers. Many have expanded into additional arts beats such as theater, jazz, art, architecture, film and dance.

Some of these changes have been prompted by the limitations imposed on writers employed in the shrinking industry of print. Some of it is simply talent finding its way.

Music critic Lawrence A. Johnson founds American Music Project
Music critic Lawrence A. Johnson

For Lawrence A. Johnson, a longtime newspaper critic in the classical music field who freelanced in Chicago and held two staff jobs with Florida newspapers before returning to the Windy City to develop the Chicago Classical Review and other websites, the motivation for adding his newest hat has been to help fix something he believes has gone wrong in the classical music industry itself.

“I have long been taken with 20th-century American music, especially some of the mid-century music which is magnificent, and never understood why it is not performed,” he said by telephone from his downtown Chicago apartment, which, as he explained between the blurts of sirens, is across from a firehouse he calls the “John Cageian element” of his existence. Johnson, who is 54, has formed the American Music Project and applied for 501(c)3 non-profit status for the specific purpose of helping to subsidize the performances of outstanding American compositions that have been all but forgotten, or not yet heard. His hope is to raise $500,000 by the onset of the 2015-16 season with an eventual goal of a $1 million endowment to sustain the enterprise.

“This has been gestating for a while,” he explained by way of background. “There is quality American music in great variety that is being ignored. We get some of it in Chicago from conductor Carlos Kalmar at the Grant Park Music Festival during the summer.” (Indeed, Kalmar will conduct the world premiere of Millennium: A Concerto-Fantasia for Orchestra, by William Bolcom, at the festival Aug. 15-16, with streaming on the internet site of the classical music radio station WFMT.)

Composer William Bolcom sits on the Project's advisory board.
Composer William Bolcom sits on the Project’s advisory board.

“There are pockets here and there,” Johnson allowed. “But wouldn’t it be great if in five years there would be a William Schuman symphony or a David Diamond symphony every season at the Chicago Symphony or Philadelphia Orchestra?

“My personal bias is 20th-century symphonic music, but I have always realized there is a lot of music, a vast expanse of style — I’m talking about everything from William Billings to the very astringent pieces of the sixties to a wonderful cornucopia of different styles that came after that, and hardly any of it is being heard.” The American Music Project has an advisory board consisting of both Kalmar and Bolcom, as well as the conductors Leonard Slatkin and Susanna Mälkki, to lend credence to the vision.

Johnson has booked a public kickoff concert on Oct. 5 at Chicago’s Ganz Hall, a gem nestled inside Roosevelt University in the heart of the city, to promote his larger plan, and to introduce four pieces he believes in.

From the dustbin - David Diamond
Lingering too long in the dustbin – David Diamond.

The concert will feature the world premiere of a piano quintet that Johnson has commissioned, from 38-year-old Chicago composer Amy Wurtz, as well as three substantial chamber works seldom heard today — Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 4, Irving Fine’s Fantasia for string trio and David Diamond’s String Quartet No. 2.

The timing of the Wurtz commission has apparently created the impression that the majority of the American Music Project grants will be intended for new works, which Johnson sought to clarify: “While some selective commissioning will be done — maybe 25 percent — I want to focus on music that has already been written. What got a little bit lost in the initial announcement is that I would really like to concentrate on the forgotten works by composers of the 20th century and even the late 19th century, to see that their music is performed.”

An enterprising local group called the Chicago Q Ensemble will undertake the Oct. 5 program, having already become a champion of Wurtz’s two string quartets. (Their recording of her quartets was born as a Kickstarter project.)

“Amy’s music is very interesting, very engaging, accessible, but also there is a depth to it,” Johnson said of the 45-minute work. “I wanted to commission a substantial piece. Except for John Adams, where are the commissions for pieces longer than 25 minutes? The other works on the program lead up to her quintet — a duo, a trio, a quartet, a nice mix of American music, all great pieces, all virtually unknown.”

Among the forgotten - William Schuman
Among the unjustly neglected – William Schuman.

If all goes according to Johnson’s plan, the concert will be repeated in Boston and New York in the spring of 2015. Johnson intends to start writing checks in earnest for performances of great American works in the 2015-16 season, and he wryly noted, “Now all I have to do is raise the money.”

The general point of an endowment is to invest the principal and spend only the interest as it accrues annually, which would mean that by the time the American Music Project has raised $500,000, there could be somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 available annually for commissions and underwriting. “The only reason for raising money will be to give it away to organize performances of American music,” Johnson said, adding that his for-profit websites are completely separate, and that he does not intend to draw compensation from the new venture.

“I have no illusions about how difficult it is going to be to raise the kind of money I would like to raise,” he said, “but the initial response has been heartening and I know that in order to do anything I have to grow it responsibly. I am not going to try to underwrite a hundred performances the first season. If we can help out with 10 or 20 performances in addition to Amy’s piece here in Chicago, we will be doing very well.”

On the Louisville shelf - Creston, Cowell
Jewels on the Louisville shelf – Paul Creston, Henry Cowell.

The potential sum may be a drop in the bucket, at least at the outset, given the number of arts organizations with financial need against the cost of producing, say, a mid-century American opera. But the idea is ambitious, and even a few thousand dollars could make the crucial difference to a chamber music ensemble or vest-pocket opera company with aspirations.

It certainly made a difference for Wurtz, an extremely busy free-lancer who is equally well known locally as a pianist, composer, and teacher. She has welcomed the time to write. “The Q already have three of the five movements in their possession,” she said. What’s left is “snipping out a measure here and there” to shorten the rest of the work, and adding bowings, dynamics, and articulation.

Johnson developed interest in this music rather late. He said he was “a rock head” in his teens in the ’70s, although drawn to bands that had some kind of classical element — “Moody Blues, Electric Light Orchestra, Emerson Lake & Palmer,  the post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles.” He heard his first classical-music concert at the Ravinia Festival around 1982 — Kurt Masur conducting the CSO and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, then a teen, in a concert of Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák. “And I was hooked. But I still listen to a lot of rock and popular music today — everything from Taylor Swift to Black Sabbath.”

Worth another hearing - Howard Hanson
Worthy of another hearing – Howard Hanson.

Strictly digital when it comes to collecting, Johnson said he’s a serious fan of mid-century recording projects, including many from the LP era that were transferred to CD. He has devoured the Louisville Orchestra recording cycle, Slatkin’s Saint Louis Symphony recordings from the early ’80s, Gerard Schwarz’s recordings for Delos, the eclectic mixes on Albany and CRI, and still more. “If you go online you can find these often funky little labels that you can buy used,” he said. “All these records had something to do with my interest in Walter Piston and Paul Creston and Diamond. I’d love to hear more Peter Mennin, too.”

A page on the American Music Project website outlines the kinds of programs that Johnson envisions funding — “a festival of American chamber music or a season-long survey of rarely heard American symphonies are ideas worth exploring.” Johnson also mentioned co-productions of American operas or centennial celebrations. Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount and William Grant Still’s Troubled Island were offered as examples, and David Diamond’s centennial, which is coming up in 2015.

“Diamond wrote brilliant music,” said Johnson. “But the stories are legion about his hot temper and the arguments he got into with people. Maybe being dead will be a plus for him here.”

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.

Composer Irving Fine, all but forgotten today, conducting at Tanglewood in 1962. (Library of Congress)
Composer Irving Fine, all but forgotten today, conducting at Tanglewood in 1962. (Library of Congress)