American Classics Resound On Fine CD From Oregon


What's in a Name?: "Spirit of the American Range" or "The American Range of Spirit"?

Piston The Incredible Flutist Suite; Antheil Jazz Symphony (1955 version); Copland Symphony No. 3. Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar (conductor). (Pentatone PTC 5186481). Total Time: 65:21

by Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — I am still scratching my head, trying to figure out what the title of this CD has to do with its contents. The “American Range” suggests frontier times and the opening of the West, themes that have been dealt with by American composers, especially Aaron Copland, in works such as Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Rodeo. Symphony No. 3, the Copland piece on this CD, has nothing whatever to do with the early days of the American West. Walter Piston’s The Incredible Flutist is a ballet score having more to do with the Pied Piper than the “Wild West,” and George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony is an early example of the attempt to bring jazz into the concert hall: jazzy piano, trumpet and clarinet riffs, but nary a banjo or a guitar in sight. Someone at Pentatone appears to have dropped the ball when naming this CD Spirit of the American Range.

Carlos Kalmar is the Oregon Symphony's music director. (Jay Moreau)
Carlos Kalmar is the Oregon Symphony’s music director. (Jay Moreau)

In spite of the confusion engendered by its title, the Oregon Symphony and its conductor, Carlos Kalmar, continue to do their part for American composers with this disc. Under James DePriest, music director from 1980 to 2003, the orchestra made numerous recordings that enriched the catalog, including works by Benjamin Lees, Vincent Persichetti, and Michael Daugherty. The present CD contains three very different American classics, each performed brilliantly by Kalmar and his orchestra.

The Incredible Flutist is a ballet score written in 1938 for the Boston Pops — not the Boston Symphony as stated in the liner notes — and its conductor, Arthur Fiedler. The suite from this piece, which comprises about half the music in the complete score, has become Piston’s most popular work. This is very accessible music, with good tunes and a bouncy Circus March in which members of the orchestra simulate the cheering of a crowd as the circus comes to town. The excellent flute soloist is not identified, but one assumes it is the Oregon Symphony’s principal flutist, Jessica Sindell. There have been fine recordings of the suite by conductors Leonard Slatkin and Gerard Schwarz; with this CD, Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony also deliver the goods.

Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony (1927, revised 1955) is a much more modern-sounding piece than The Incredible Flutist. Apart from the jazz elements, the music is unabashedly in-your-face dissonant. The self-professed “Bad Boy of Music” — the title of his 1945 autobiography — often went out of his way to shock his listeners, and the 1927 version of A Jazz Symphony probably did exactly that. In this brief, seven-minute piece, Antheil’s music suggests the sound of a 1920s dance band gone crazy. The charming little waltz that follows all the provocative jazzy “noise” of the first part of the piece certainly comes as a shock. Note that Kalmar has chosen the revised version of the piece. The original 1927 version is almost twice as long. You can hear it in a fantastic performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP/sound 1033), in which the sound quality is much better than that given the Oregon Symphony by Pentatone.

George Antheil in 1927. (Ballet mécanique Project)
George Antheil in 1927. (Ballet mécanique Project)

In terms of length and substance, the Piston and the Antheil pieces are just warm-ups to Copland’s epic Symphony No. 3. Since its premiere in 1944, this work has been generally recognized as the finest symphony by any American composer. Part of its appeal has to be the composer’s inclusion of his Fanfare for the Common Man, written two years earlier, as the basis for the last movement. This fanfare for brass and percussion has reached iconic status and is often performed today in connection with patriotic events. Its inclusion in the Symphony No. 3 is, in part, what makes that work so quintessentially American, and helps to explain why audiences still respond so well to its nobility and power.

There have been excellent recordings of Copland’s Third Symphony issued over the years, including several conducted by the composer, and several more conducted by his friend and authoritative interpreter, Leonard Bernstein. The unique eloquence of Bernstein’s last recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic (DG 419170) may never be surpassed. Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony give us a performance on Spirit of the American Range that is more careful than inspired.

Pentatone likes to boast about its “SA-CD Hybrid Multichannel” sound, and this CD does have a vast dynamic range, albeit with the shortcomings this description entails. In other words, you may be jumping up and down from your chair to boost the volume in the quiet sections and turn it down for the climaxes.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for,, and