Remembering JFK = Works of BERNSTEIN, GERSHWIN, LIEBERSON, THOMPSON, MONTAINE – Nat. Sym. Orch./Christoph Eschenbach/ Howard Mitchell – Ondine

by | Jul 21, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Remembering JFK = BERNSTEIN: Fanfare for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy; Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”; LIEBERSON: Remembering JFK (an American Elegy); GERSHWIN: Piano Concerto in F; Bonus CD: SMITH: The Star-Spangled Banner; MONTAINE: From Sea to Shining Sea; R. THOMPSON: The Testament of Freedom: “The God Who Gave Us Life Gave Us Liberty”; GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue – Richard Dreyfuss, narrator/Tzimon Barto, piano (Concerto)/National Symphony Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach, 2011/Earl Wild, piano (Rhapsody)/Georgetown University Glee Club (R. Thompson)/Howard Mitchell (1961) – Ondine ODE 1190 (2CDs), 77:40; 48:34 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
American history celebrates the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and the Ondine label grants us some perspective by juxtaposing the recent (22-24 January 2011) musical festivities with the original Inaugural Concert (19 January 1961)–via the Mutual Broadcasting Network–that occurred in the midst of an Eastern blizzard that all but thwarted the ceremony.  Poet Robert Frost had set the tone of the Kennedy administration with his “Dedication” couplet: “A golden age of poetry and power/Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” The Kennedys–especially Jacqueline–held a special consideration for the arts and the artist in their mutual sensibility, and President Kennedy eloquently expressed his ideal in October 1963: “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”
The previously unreleased 1961 Inaugural Concert, closely monitored by radio reporters, (especially William Evenson and Dorice Bell), gives us a full account of the “social calendar,” from JFK’s tuxedo to the coif and décor Jackie sported on this historic occasion. The inclement weather had musicians appearing even after the program had begun; the Howard University Choir scheduled for the Randall Thompson excerpt never made it to the performance. Mischa Elman never arrived either. John La Montaine’s From Sea to Shining Sea seems a sincere but slight work, with lots of busy filigree that simply delays the fact that he takes “America” and adds flourishes and crescendos. The one movement from the 1943 The Testament of Freedom, with mighty words from another American president, Thomas Jefferson, makes a powerful impression.  A wah-wah clarinet solo, and we are off to the races with the Rhapsody in Blue, having been an Earl Wild staple since 1944 or so. The heat from this reading easily compensates for any chills in the weather at the time, and we can still bask in this swinging, sunny, and exuberant reading which moves in hot licks.
The Kennedy Center concert under Eschenbach opens with Leonard Bernstein’s brief but hortatory 1961 Fanfare. Composer Peter Lieberson (b. 1946) arranged texts (9 January 1961, 20 January 1961, 10 June 1963) by President Kennedy, selected by Lieberson and Ted Sorenson, that comprise a modern “Lincoln Portrait” equivalent, with actor Richard Dreyfuss’ narration of the arranged speeches, of which the famous quote remains that from 20 January 1961, “And so, my fellow American: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.”  Lieberson employs a recurrent descending motive and short, jabbing riffs as through-composed devices, and he employs one of the Brahms Chorale-Preludes of Op. 122 to reinforce Kennedy’s message for world peace, especially after the advent of the Cuban missile crisis. Generally, the tone of the music–despite occasional outbursts from percussion and brass–remains melancholic, especially as so few of the Kennedy projects for and challenges to his nation saw fruition while he lived.
The salute to “Americana” proceeds with Bernstein’s 1961 arrangement of his concert suite in nine movements from West Side Story. The arched theme of this music is reconciliation through the power of love, if we understand Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet well enough. The confrontations between the Jets and the Sharks–ethnic conflict–is no less an adversarial meeting of musical styles, jazz, mambo, and torch-song mixed in the same tritone; angst, passion, and longing in the same harmonic gesture. The perpetual dualism of love and violence culminates in a jazz-fugue Cool of stirring power. After the Rumble, the airy flute solo and high strings attempt to point to a humane resolution, but the tritone sequence endures at the coda, a kind of “Wohin?” in regard to our moral direction, “Somewhere.”
The Concerto in F with Barto and Eschenbach provides one of the broadest approaches to  the first two movements in my experience, obviously an attempt to instill an epic grandeur to this hybrid concerto that incorporates blues, stride, boogie-woogie, and any number of popular folk modes into classical forms. Admittedly, some of the slowed-down riffs become mannered, as if Barto were harmonically dissecting the score in deconstructionist interpretation. But the audience digs it! The somnambulistic, molasses-filled approach works better in the Adagio, perhaps; but having been reared on the likes of Levant and Wild, I like some kick with my Manhattan.  For sheer beauty of melodic line, this reading succeeds, but for me it drags self-indulgently. The Allegro agitato moves, but it’s too little, too late, the “tin pan” of the alley having become lead. The audience goes crazy anyway, so what does my opinion matter?
[Anyone think it odd that Ondine is a Finnish label?…Ed.]
— Gary Lemco

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