The Music of HARL MCDONALD = Symphony No. 1 “The Santa Fe Trail”; Two Hebraic Poems; Cakewalk; San Juan Capistrano – Two Evening Pictures; Rhumba; Dance of the Workers; The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler; From Childhood – Suite for Harp and Orch. – Edna Phillips, harp/ The Philadelphia Orch./ Harl McDonald/ Eugene Ormandy/ Alexander Hilsberg, violin/The Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski/ Boston Sym. Orch./ Serge Koussevitzky (San Juan Capistrano) – Pristine Audio PASC 402, 72:06 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
America composer Harl McDonald (1899-1955) studied music under Vernon Spencer, Ernest Douglass, and Zielinski. He was appointed a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania in 1927 and enjoyed other appointments at the University, including the Director of the Music Department and Director of the University’s Choral Society and the Pennsylvania Glee Club. In addition to his administrative duties with the University, McDonald composed numerous musical works and served on the Board of Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association. McDonald likely met Stokowski through their mutual association with the Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus, and Stokowski began to program McDonald’s compositions, most of which combine American landscape music with Spanish influences. Curiously, despite Eugene Ormandy’s having adopted several scores – he last led The Santa Fe Trail in 1971 – virtually no conductor has engaged McDonald’s music in over 40 years. Producer and recording editor Mark Obert-Thorn for this collation resurrects both the 1935 Hebraic Poems on Aramaic Themes and the 1940 From Childhood for their first CD incarnation.
Eugene Ormandy leads the 1932 Symphony No. 1 “The Santa Fe Trail” in a recording session 20 October 1940. The first movement sub-divides into two sections, “The Explorers in the Desert” and “In the Mountains.” The harmonic syntax reveals some tendencies to hymnal and doxology, but the dissonances remain few and far between, relying rather on instrumental color. The textures, hazy and soft in the strings, convey a slightly exotic flavor. The second movement scherzo, “The Spanish Settlements,” moves more rapidly in martial figures, the colors an amalgam of Mendelssohn and Falla. The trio section suggests a habanera or suave tango. I cannot call McDonald an inspired melodist. The last movement, “The Wagon-Trains of the Pioneers,” also opens with a Spanish flourish, rather in a Hollywood fanfare-mode. The music becomes brooding and processional, until it breaks out into a jaunty dance, rather jazzy, that sounds a bit like inflated Victor Herbert crossed with Alfred Newman.
Ormandy inscribed the Two Hebraic Poems and the Cakewalk from the 1937 Symphony No. 4 on 5 April 1937. The former enjoy a slick glamorized and exotic romanticism for strings, winds, and harp, less melodic than a mix of aromatic colors, perhaps in the manner of Delius or Respighi. The Hebraic Poem No. 2 adds more rhythmic spice, watered-down Borodin but evocative in suave colors. Cakewalk forms the Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony; and while it exerts some rhythmic energy, it has none of the immediate appeal of Gottschalk’s efforts in the same vein. The addition of the players’ clapping in syncopation adds more color but little depth.
Serge Koussevitzky leads his Boston Symphony (8 October 1939) in the two tone-pictures that form San Juan Capistrano, “The Mission” and “Fiesta.” A tolling bell and the famed BSO strings first raise a stately Spanish mission that luxuriates in color combinations, certainly in the Delius mode. The swelling of the image might harken to Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. “Fiesta” provides good energy that borrows from Falla, Albeniz and Granados. The tambourine makes its presence felt. The flute of Georges Laurent is always welcome, heralding a slow habanera (trio) in which the BSO winds and brass strut their colors. The da capo becomes an imitation of Mendelssohn’s saltarello, but it works.
Leopold Stokowski provides a McDonald group that opens with two 25 November 1935 recordings, the Rhumba from the 1934 Symphony No. 2 and the 1932 Dance of the Workers (from Festival of the Workers). This larger-than-life, Spanish-proletarian impulse in McDonald suggests that he had been reading Steinbeck or looking at Diego Rivera murals. The Dance sounds almost like doctored Dvorak, with a heavy bucolic reliance on the bassoon, clarinet, oboe, flute and strings. The 1939 Legend of the Arkansas Traveler Stokowski recorded 27 March 1940, and it comes close to Copland, moody Americana that breaks into a barn-dance in modal colors. Alexander Hilsberg provides a rich though brief violin solo that might have worked for the score of The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Composer Harl McDonald himself leads the Philadelphia Orchestra (15 March 1941) for his 1940 three-movement From Childhood Suite for Harp and Orchestra, which he conceived specifically for Edna Phillips. The writing proves lucid, deft, and idiomatic, based on folk tunes. The sheer, gossamer sound of Phillips’ harp wafts brilliantly in Obert-Thorn’s seamless restoration. A long solo cadenza (that recurs) opens the Molto moderato, soon joined by the winds. The clarity of texture has a touch of the Handel Harp Concerto in B-flat, now American-sentimentalized. The music becomes a transparent march and fanfare, part Victor Herbert, part Tchaikovsky, on “Three Blind Mice.” The last movement, Allegro moderato ma vigorosamente, rides at first at the gallop but slows down for a sly “romantic” interlude. Flute and harp converse, then the solo harp goes her own way. The rhythm suddenly picks up, much in the manner of Debussy’s Danse profane, but once more Americanized, jazzed-up and one step away from “Strike Up the Band.” Suddenly, the harp invokes a folksy gavotte, and the muted horns and then full complement of players takes up the presto finale.