PISTON: Concerto for Orchestra; Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill: Divertimento for Nine Instruments; Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra – Michael Norsworthy, clarinet – Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose – BMOP/sound 1080, 49:41. ****
What stands out in this superbly performed and recorded disc of orchestral music by the American Neo-classical composer Walter Piston (1894-1976) is how beautifully structured and designed his music sounds. His education in architectural drawing at Massachusetts Normal Art School in his early twenties gave him an appreciation of form, clarity, and economy of line. And critics have underestimated the melodic ingenuity that filled these structures. As a saxophone player in a Navy band in World War I he was exposed to marches and other popular tunes. He entered Harvard in his middle twenties and received his BA in composition in 1930. Piston joined other American composers (Copland, Thompson, Harris, etc.) in Paris to hone his craft by studying with Nadia Boulanger and became an advocate of Neo-classicism.
He returned to Harvard in 1932 where he taught theory and composition to the next generation of American composers (Bernstein, Carter, Fine, etc.) and authored four texts on harmony and orchestration that are still used today. He was fortunate that the conductor of the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky, provided a venue for performing his music. They premiered eight of his works, including the Concerto for Orchestra on this disc.
As a composer, Piston lived in academia, but his music did not sound academic. Although his music was primarily instrumental, it always “sings.” It is well crafted and flows easily.
At its best, it is a perfect balance between clarity of design and expression. Piston infuses his polyphonic structures with long-lined melodies in slow movements and shortened (staccato) melodies in quicker segments. There’s often an athletic sense of propulsion in his allegros. After 1950, Piston added more dissonance and even serialism to his musical arsenal. But most of his music expresses a joie de vivre about humanity and life. And there’s a lot of humor in these works.
This is the first recording of Piston’s 1933 Concerto for Orchestra. The bright, opening march-like is a rondo, but it sounds more like a concerto grosso. It’s a model of concise brevity-not a wasted note. The ebullient mood continues in the scherzo, and there’s a sense of wit that brings a smile. The brass saturated opening passacaglia in the Adagio gives way to a fugue in the strings and other clever climactic iterations that amaze and satisfy. Kudos to the BMOP for discovering this gem.
Piston wasn’t a fan of programmatic music, except for his most popular work, the ballet The Incredible Flutist. When introducing the entertaining Divertimento for Nine Instruments to a Boston audience in 1946, he dryly commented, “Now, if I had called this piece ‘Sunday Afternoon in South Boston,’ it would get performed more often.” It’s a more modern, with sophisticated meters and strong rhythms, a beautiful oboe melody in the slow movement and a perky finale. Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill (1963) is a plaintive set of variations on a melody from Piston’s conservative colleague and teacher at Harvard.
The almost thirteen minute Clarinet Concerto (1967) is in one movement with four brief sections divided by solo cadenzas. It begins con moto with declarative and jocular phrases that are manipulated cleverly. A jaunty scherzo continues the mood. A yearning clarinet melody dominates a calm slow movement that leads to a vivo finale that is studded with mixed meters.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is the winner of the 2021 Grammophone Magazine Special Achievement Award. BMOP has been recording American music of the 20th and 21st Century for 25 years. This CD adds significantly to the superbly crafted and melodically inventive discography of Walter Piston. Superb performances and sound.
– Robert Moon
Robert Moon is author of Copland, Gershwin & Bernstein: Celebrating American Diversity.