DATE BOOK — In a 2014 article he wrote for the Huffington Post titled “Where Did Our Musical Legacy Go?” conductor Leonard Slatkin issued a call to arms in support of once-famous 20th-century American composers whose music is now largely – and unfairly – ignored.
Surveying the schedules of the 15 largest orchestras in the United States, he noted that there were almost no performances of works by such fading luminaries as Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, and Virgil Thomson.
“Yes,” he wrote, “we see a bit of Ives, Gershwin, Copland and Bernstein, and several orchestras are doing the Barber Violin Concerto. But after that, you have to look very hard to find anyone else represented from our rich classical music heritage.”
Perhaps Slatkin’s admonitions are paying off. Selected festivals across the United States in the summer of 2016 have made a point of including works by notable American composers from the past. Here is a look at some of the highlights:
Aspen, Colo.: Sessions, Piston, Mennin, Harris in a Rocky Mountain high
June 30-Aug. 21: Aspen Music Festival – Full details
The eight-week Aspen Music Festival, one of the largest and most comprehensive such events in the country, almost seems to be channeling Slatkin with a summerlong series of offerings titled “An American Musical Century.”
“These sounds are not new to our ears today,” Aspen president and chief executive officer Alan Fletcher said in a press statement. “These figures, many of whom came to Aspen, invented the sound world we now live in…. But while we all rightly love 20th-century music from abroad, from Stravinsky to Ravel, for some reason we’re in danger of ignoring so much of our own great music, which is to say our own cultural DNA.”
Highlights of Aspen’s American focus include noted soloist Gil Shaham performing Sessions’ Violin Concerto with the Aspen Chamber Symphony on July 22, American Symphony Orchestra music director Leon Botstein leading the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra in a July 13 program that includes both Piston’s Symphony No. 2 and Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 5, and fast-rising conductor James Gaffigan taking on Harris’ Symphony No. 3 in an Aug. 14 concert with the Aspen Festival Orchestra.
Santa Fe: Barber’s Vanessa, now of noble vintage, taken up by Slatkin
July 30-Aug. 24: Santa Fe Opera – Full details
Samuel Barber is well known for his Adagio for Strings and Violin Concerto, but his opera Vanessa has remained on the periphery of the standard repertory despite the ebullient reception that greeted its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1958. Such neglect is unfortunate because this enigmatic, Gothic-tinged psychodrama with its tightly woven libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti and evocative, tension-filled score has much to offer.
As part of a recent effort to spotlight underappreciated American masterworks, the Santa Fe Opera is presenting this engrossing, highly approachable opera for the first time. It’s a perfect opportunity to experience this world-class summer company, which performs in a high-tech amphitheater poised on a panoramic plateau overlooking the New Mexican desert.
The new production is directed by James Robinson, artistic director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and conducted by none other than Slatkin, who is putting his provocative words about American music into action. Acclaimed soprano Erin Wall is making her role debut as the title character, with tenor Zach Borichevsky as Anatol and mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, a winner of the 2016 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, as Erika. An additional lure is the appearance of esteemed baritone James Morris as the Old Doctor.
Minneapolis: Sommerfest delivers tribute to music of MacDowell
July 9: Sommerfest – Full details
Although his often-overlooked musical legacy belongs more to the 19th century than the 20th, Edward MacDowell (1860-1908) deserves to be better known. He is now most recognized as the namesake for a prestigious residency program for writers and composers in Peterborough, N.H., that was founded in 1907 by his wife, Marian. But he was a prolific and well-regarded Romantic-era composer who studied in France and Germany and was briefly touted by Franz Liszt.
The Minnesota Orchestra will offer an unusual tribute to MacDowell with a concert spotlighting two of the composer’s works as part of Sommerfest, its annual urban summer festival running July 8-23 in Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall. Conductor Andrew Litton, an ardent exponent of American music, is back for his 13th season as the event’s artistic director and will be on the podium for this program.
Just weeks after celebrating his 70th birthday, famed soloist André Watts will join the orchestra for MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which premiered in 1889 in New York City with the composer at the keyboard. It will be paired with his Shakespearean tone poem Hamlet and Ophelia (1885).
Lenox, Mass.: Spotlight to shine on William Schuman’s breakthrough work
The summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is host to a broad range of other artists and ensembles, and it stands among the largest and most comprehensive of this country’s summer classical series. With past leaders such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, it is hardly surprising that Tanglewood has long been an important center of American music.
As part of a program that will also include Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and excerpts from Bernstein’s On the Town, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra will perform William Schuman’s Symphony No. 3. In addition to serving as president of the Juilliard School and the first president of New York’s Lincoln Center, Schuman (1910-1992) left a wide-ranging compositional legacy that seems increasingly forgotten.
The composer’s Third Symphony – the best known of his eight works in the genre (two earlier ones were withdrawn) – was a career breakthrough. Premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony, it earned Schuman the first New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1942 and drew considerable attention at the time.
Fish Creek, Wis.: An all-American program off the beaten track
Aug. 16: The Peninsula Music Festival – Full details
Smaller classical festivals can be quite willing to venture off the well-trod path. A good example is the Peninsula Music Festival. The boutique series takes place annually in Wisconsin’s picturesque Door County, and its resident orchestra draws top musicians from such cities as Dallas, St. Louis, and Omaha. Russian-born conductor Victor Yampolsky, former music director of the Omaha Symphony and Northwestern University’s director of orchestras, serves as music director.
As part of its 2016 offerings, Canadian guest conductor Alain Trudel will lead an imaginative All-American program that steers clear of obvious American offerings like Rhapsody in Blue or Appalachian Spring. Instead, it includes less frequently heard selections like Bernstein’s The Age of Anxiety (Symphony No. 2) and the suite from Copland’s opera The Tender Land. Of particular interest are the Peninsula’s first-ever performances of two little-known works by Barber – Music for a Scene from Shelley (1933) and Symphony in One Movement (1936). The latter was first performed in Rome and received its American premiere from the Cleveland Orchestra in 1937.
Chicago: American classical music’s African-American dimension
July 22 and 23: Grant Park Music Festival – Full details
There has been no greater recent champion of 20th-century American music than Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Her devotion to that realm will be richly in evidence as part of a weeklong residency with the Grant Park Music Festival, which runs June 15-Aug.20 in Chicago’s Millennium Park with the city’s panoramic skyline as a backdrop.
At the center of her fascinating American-centered program will be Antonín Dvořák’s ever-popular Symphony No. 9, From the New World. During his nearly three years in this country, the Czech composer promoted the idea of American composers looking to such indigenous musical sources as Native American chants and African-American spirituals for inspiration. “The new American school of music must strike its roots deeply into its own soil,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald.
Two African-American composers who answered his call were James P. Johnson, the father of the stride piano, and Duke Ellington, who were both rooted in jazz but successfully crossed into the classical realm. After six years of sleuthing, Alsop managed to track down and record several lost orchestral works that Johnson wrote for a concert at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s, including Harlem Symphony and Victory Stride. Both will be on this program, as well as several Ellington works featuring jazz violinist Regina Carter.
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.