Irving Fine’s Complete Orchestral Music, a vital addition to his discography


BMOP 1041

BMOP 1041

Irving Gifford Fine (1914-1962) was an American composer.  Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Fine studied with Walter Piston at Harvard earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.  He studied  conducting with Serge Koussevitsky and composition with Nadia Boulanger.  At the time of his death at age 47 he completed only a handful of works for orchestra, chorus and various chamber ensemble and solo works.  But what he lacked in quantity did not lack in quality.  The Irving Fine Society maintains a very useful web page which can be found here.

Fine is sometimes identified with a sort of loose knit group of composers called the Boston School which included Fine along with Arthur Berger, Lukas Foss, Alexei Haieff, Harold Shapero and Claudio Spies.  He taught at Brandeis University which now has an endowed chair named in his honor.  Eric Chasalow currently holds  this position.

fine

Curiously his music, which has a generally very friendly neoclassical feel to it, even when he dabbles in twelve tone writing, has received relatively few performances and even fewer recordings.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the inspired guidance of Gil Rose has stepped in to fill a bit of that void in this very welcome and vital addition to Fine’s discography.

This recording of Fine’s complete orchestral music spans his entire musical career with his Symphony being his last completed work from 1962, the year of his death.  Also included are the 1947 Toccata Concertante, Notturno for Strings and Harp (1951), Serious Song (1955) for string orchestra, Blue Towers (1959), Diversions for Orchestra (1960) and Symphony (1962).

All have been recorded before but the Symphony was a release of a live performance by Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony from 1962 so this is the first studio recording.  The Notturno for Strings and Harp and the Serious Song have received a couple of recordings.  And interested listeners would be advised to locate a recording of Fine’s String Quartet (1952) and Fantasia for String Trio (1957) which I believe to be sort of hidden masterpieces.  Any string quartets out there willing to take on these neglected works?

As usual the BMOP under Gil Rose turn in fantastic performances.  Blue Cathedral and Diversions are among the composer’s lighter fare but deserve at least occasional attention.  But the Toccata, Serious Song and Notturno should be a part of the repertoire with regular performances.  They are masterful and pretty audience friendly.

The big treat here is the Symphony.  As far as I can tell it has not been programmed, much less, recorded, since the Boston Symphony did it under Leinsdorf.  What a shame that this work hasn’t been heard for so long and how wonderful it is to have this great new recording of an American masterpiece.  Cast in three movements (Intrada, Capriccio and Ode) this 20 minute work is one of the composer’s finest pieces and leaves the listener wondering what other works he might have crafted had he lived longer.

Black Classical Part One


Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

In honor of Black History Month I want to bring attention in this blog to black music that is not a part of popular culture. I want to highlight some of the black classical composers whose work I find most satisfying and accomplished.

I will begin with the music of Adophus Hailstork. I had been aware of some of this man’s work for some years but it was when I purchased the Naxos recording of his 2nd and 3rd Symphonies that I came to appreciate the power of his work.

Hailstork was born in 1941. He studied piano, organ, voice and violin. He is another of a long line of composers who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. As one would expect, some of his music is concerned with significant events of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s. ‘American Guernica’ of 1983 is his response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church which killed four little girls. Similarly his 1979 composition, ‘Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed’ is an homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was felled by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

I purchased the Naxos disc to become more familiar with this man’s music. The first work on the disc is the 3rd Symphony of the late 1990s struck me as a highly entertaining and accomplished work that deserves a place in the symphonic repertoire. It is a joyous and inventive work which, to my ears, echoed the likes of orchestral masters such as William Schuman and Vincent Persichetti as well a hint of minimalist repetitive structures. It is a lavish neo-romantic work with a depth and complexity that demands several hearings but one which has an immediate appeal. The somber 2nd Symphony is imbued with the composer’s reactions to having visited the historical slave market areas of West Africa which, I imagine, must be not unlike visiting the death camps of the former Nazi Germany.

As time and finances permit I intend to pursue more of this American composer’s works. There is precious little reference material to be found on the Internet regarding this prolific masterful composer (as is the case with all the black classical composers i have so far encountered) though, thankfully, there are more recordings.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Africlassical.com and its related blog provide some information on about 50 composers and musicians. The now retired daring black conductor Paul Freeman recorded a significant series of music by black composers issued on 9 LPs for Columbia records in the 1970s. He recorded another 3CDs of music by black composers on Chicago-based Cedille records. He founded the Chicago Sinfonietta (billed as the world’s most diverse orchestra) and was its principal conductor for 24 years and continues in its mission of diversity presenting unusual concert repertoire.

More about some of the composers on those Columbia LPs and Cedille CDs as well as others to come in future blogs during this month.

RIP Elliott Carter


ElliottCarter (1908-2012)

Yesterday the music world lost one of it’s longest lived citizens.  Elliott Carter died aged 103.

Many obituaries and appreciations are being written at this moment for this man whose creative career spanned some 80+ years and includes two Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards as well as influence on a great deal of students.  Admittedly he is hardly easy listening and a book length conversation with Carter written by one Allen Edwards was appropriately titled, “Flawed Words and Stubborn Sounds”.    Outside of musicians and the limited audience of fans of new classical music such as myself are likely to be familiar with this man.  And a moments reflection told me that I cannot make him more familiar by citing any one of his musical works.

But his lack of familiarity is a product of his style and vision, not a commentary on his value as an artist.  That said I know of only a handful of friends and acquaintances who would be willing to sit through any performances of his music.  Like his contemporary Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) he pursued his own vision and succeeded very well in establishing himself as a major, if underappreciated, composer.

Carter whose early interest in music was encouraged by Charles Ives was present at the American premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’.  Along with a great deal of 20th century composers he studied with the venerable Nadia Boulanger in Paris of the 1930s.  Boulanger’s circle included the likes of Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky and numerous others of that fascinating period.

Curiously there is yet to be a comprehensive biography of this man and I look forward to reading one when it becomes available.  Anybody know of anyone working on this?

Born into a wealthy family Carter had little reason to be concerned about things financial.  Carter focused on the composing of music.  He was not a performer.  His style initially owed a great deal to Stravinsky and had a neo-romantic sound not unlike that of fellow Boulanger student Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber.

In the 1950s his style began to take on what would become his mature style.  It was characterized by methods related to Schoenberg’s twelve tone system and an idiosyncratic approach to tempo which he called “metric modulation”.  His style was challenging for both performers and listeners but this did not prevent him from twice winning the Pulitzer Prize (for the 2nd String Quartet in 1960 and the 3rd String Quartet in 1973).  His work has been embraced by many of the major performers and orchestras of our time and he was a fixture among the musical cognoscenti of New England.  He was appointed to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981.

His 5 String Quartets (1951, 1959, 1971, 1984, 1995) are likely the most significant development in that genre since Bartok.  Those along with his Variations for Orchestra (1954-55), Concerto for Orchestra (1969), Piano Concerto (1964), Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), Violin Concerto (1989), Piano Sonata (1945-6), Symphonia (1993-96) and Double Concerto (1959-61) all make my shortlist of his best work.

And there are a great deal more pieces with which I am less familiar which Carter wrote in his remarkably prolific later years.  He added about 54 new works to his catalog from age 90 until his death just short of his 104th birthday.  No doubt many of these will also claim a regular place in the repertoire.

Sometimes characterized as one of the “three C’s” of American music (Copland, Cage, Carter) he influenced many composers, performers and, in my case, listeners.  Though difficult at times I find his work ultimately rewarding.  His passing is truly the end of an era and his legacy is rich.