Fiesta In Hi-Fi – Eastman-Rochester Orchestra /Howard Hanson – Mercury Records/ Speakers Corner

by | Nov 8, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

Fiesta In Hi-Fi – The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/ Howard Hanson – Mercury Records (1956)/ Speakers Corner (2008) SR90134, 180-gram stereo audiophile vinyl ****:
The Eastman School of Music, founded in 1921, was one of the first universities to foster the proliferation of American composers. Located in Rochester, New York, the institution is regarded with the same acclaim as the Julliard School or the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Among its distinguished graduates was Dr. Howard Hanson. His many achievements included the creation of a “laboratory” for composers. In advance of the publication of many of these manuscripts, the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra (under the direction of Hanson) recorded many of these.
Fiesta In Hi-Fi is an example of this foray into developmental American composition. Recorded at Mercury Records with state of the art 1956 technology (Living Presence Stereo), this technique pioneered the use of two separate audio channels. The purpose of this system was to create a “live” performance recording with three mics and channels mixed down to two for advanced stereophonic results. Four original compositions grace the LP, which has long been one of the most sought-after Mercury titles.
Side 1 opens with Mexican Rhapsody by Robert McBride. Written in 1934-35 as a Masters student, the piece builds its theme from several Mexican folk songs, including “Mexican Hat Dance”, “Alla En El Rancho Grande” and “La Cucaracha”.  Joyous and rhythmic, the percussion section breaks out the maracas, woodblocks and castanets. A muted trumpet adds to the ambiance that reflects the composer’s Tucson roots. Accents on harp, oboe and flute combine with playful woodwind and string accompaniment. The result is a harmonic and accessible work.  Savannah River Holiday follows with cinematic grandeur. Composed by Ron Nelson in 1952, a buoyant, almost Broadway-esque overture energizes the performance. Crashing cymbals bring a boisterous aesthetic to the proceeding. Just as expressive is a moody, poignant second movement with restrained horns, woodwinds and stings. A segue to the last movement is triggered by a xylophone as the opus comes full circle.
Side 2 is represented by Kentucky Mountain Portraits, a three-piece compilation written by Lyndon Mitchell between 1948-1956. “Cindy” starts off the ambitious trio with a brazen folk dance that reflects Mitchell’s deep southern heritage. “Ballad” which follows is based on two distinctly American folk tunes, “Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies” (an Appalachian song, covered by the Carter Family and the Kingston Trio) and “Pretty Polly” (the infamous murder ballad covered by Burl Ives and Judy Collins). Utilizing complexity, it is scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, two bassoons and strings. The final song of this trilogy, “Shivaree” establishes a raucous dance tempo, as it evokes the different atmospheres of a wedding. Transitions from upbeat frivolity to brooding interlude and back again inhabit the music. The finale, “Joe Clark Steps Out” (composed by Charles G. Vardell Jr. in 1934) emulates its organic Virginia mountain influences with orchestral flair. Inspired by another traditional ditty, “Old Joe Clark”, it is another example of the role of folk music in the framework of other genres.
Fiesta In Hi-Fi  is a true glimpse into the populist American classical movement of the first half of the twentieth century. The music is listenable with concise arrangements. Speakers Corner Records has re-mastered the audiophile LP with warmth and scientific precision. To the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester for their supportive role in this endeavor…kudos!
Side 1: Mexican Rhapsody (McBride); Savannah River Holiday (Nelson)
Side 2: Kentucky Mountain Portraits (Mitchell); Joe Clark Steps Out (Vardell)
–Robbie Gerson

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