American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


BMOP 1050

Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

Henry Brant?…never heard of him: A Centennial Sketch


Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California

Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in the Sojourner Cafe, my favorite little restaurant/hangout just off downtown in Santa Barbara, California.  I was having one of many conversations with the great and interesting staff and patrons when I mentioned the name of Henry Brant, saying he lived in Santa Barbara.  “I never heard of him” came the response from Chris, a musician when not serving at the restaurant.  No one else showed any signs of recognition either.  I proceeded to tell him about the Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It was then that flicker of recognition came across his face.  He told me that the frail figure using his walker was a familiar sight in the neighborhood, his eyes widened with interest as I told him about this major American musician.

Henry Brant

Henry Brant (1913-2008) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to American parents.  His father was a professional musician. Henry played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments.   Henry went on to study at McGill University and later in New York at a school later named Julliard.  He was the youngest composer mentioned in Henry Cowell’s anthology, “American Composers on American Music” to which Brant contributed an article on what he called “oblique harmony”.

Brant, who had an early connection and affinity with the American experimental music tradition, would go on to develop “spatial music” in which musicians were scattered around the performance space as an essential part of the composition and performance.  He began writing music in the sort of post modern style of the time as in his Symphony No. 1 (1945 rev. 1950) and pithy little jazz inflected pieces like Whoopee In D (1938, Rev. 1984), Jazz Toccata On A Bach Theme (Toccata On “Wachet Auf”) (1940) and Double-Crank Hand Organ Music (1933, Rev. 1984).

He would write for unusual combinations of instruments such as Angels And Devils (1931), a concerto for flute and orchestra of flutes, Ghosts and Gargoyles (2002) also for flute and flute orchestra or Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice.  His first spatial composition, Rural Antiphonies (1953) predates Stockhausen’s famed experimental opus, Gruppen (1955-7).  In all he composed over 100 “spatial” works along with chamber music such as Homeless People (1997) for piano and string quartet.  His composition Ice Field (2001) commissioned by Other Minds and performed in Michael Tilson Thomas‘ “American Mavericks” series won him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Brant had worked as an orchestrator and conductor in Hollywood assisting with scores by Alex North and with the likes of Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore and Gordon Parks.  His extensive knowledge of orchestration led him to write his textbook (published posthumously) ‘Textures and Timbres’.  And one of his last musical works was the orchestration of Charles Ives‘ massive and complex Second Piano Sonata which Brant titled the “Concord Symphony”.  This major opus has been performed several times and recorded twice.  A series of recordings on the Innova label have begun to release new recordings, many of them first recordings, of Brant’s huge catalog of compositions.

Brant was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient several prizes and honorary degrees.  He was and continues to be a great force in music as well as a connection the American experimental traditions of Ives, Cowell and their contemporaries.  There is much to do in researching and documenting the work of this now past master who would have been 100 years old on September 15th.  His archive of over 300 scores is now in the venerable archives of the Paul Sacher Institute in Basel, Switzerland.   But I am left with the image of the frail figure walking the streets of Santa Barbara no doubt followed by more of his industrious efforts when he got back home to his studio.  Happy Birthday, Henry!