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ClassicsOnline Home » ROREM, N.: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Cello Concerto (Mulligan, Wen-Sinn Yang, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Serebrier)
Chosen in 1988 as Composer of the Year by Musical America and now recognized as one of the finest song composers in America, Ned Rorem has also written a significant body of music for orchestra, including three Symphonies (Naxos 8.559149), a Violin Concerto and a Flute Concerto (Naxos 8.559278). When Leonard Bernstein gave the première of Rorem’s Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1959, it signaled a significant triumph for his orchestral music, written in a tonal idiom alien to the experimental practices of the day. Composed in Morocco in 1951, the Second Piano Concerto has a distinctly American character. The last movement, ‘Real Fast!’, is a tour de force for soloist and orchestra, with jazz-like rhythms and an exhilarating conclusion. In his recent concertos such as the Cello Concerto of 2002, Rorem has abandoned the usual three-movement pattern. The composer has written: “Although I don’t believe that non-vocal music can be proven to ‘mean’ anything ... it’s still fun to give programmatic subtitles to various sections.”
By Lawrence A. Johnson
By David Hurwitz
Ned Rorem (b. 1923)
Piano Concerto No. 2 • Cello Concerto
Since I had given the world première of his Six Irish Poems with the Curtis Institute of Music Orchestra in Philadelphia, and his Fanfare with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, when Victor and Marina Ledin, who had nurtured Naxos American Classics at the start of the series, suggested I record the three symphonies of Ned Rorem, it elicited from me an immediate positive response. Next, I found myself recording Rorem's Violin Concerto and the brand new Flute Concerto (Naxos 8.559278). Recently Carole Farley made a highly successful recording of Rorem songs, with the composer at the piano (Naxos 8.559084). Almost simultaneously mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and countertenor Bejun Mehta also released recordings of Rorem songs. While Rorem is best known and admired for his hundreds of songs, the rest of his output is just as impressive.
Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana on 23 October 1923. At the age of ten his piano teacher introduced him to Debussy and Ravel, an experience which Rorem describes as having changed his life for ever. At seventeen he entered the Music School of Northwestern University, and two years later the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he now teaches composition, a post he has held for many years. He studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar at Juilliard, and worked as Virgil Thomson's copyist in return for orchestration lessons. He lived in France from 1949 to 1958, a crucial period for his artistic development. Among his many awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship (1957), and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1968). In 1998 Rorem was chosen Composer of the Year by Musical America, and two years later he was elected President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has received commissions from the Ford Foundation (for Poems of Love and the Rain, 1962), the Lincoln Center Foundation (for Sun, 1965); the Koussevitzky Foundation (for Letters from Paris, 1966); the Atlanta Symphony (for the String Symphony, 1985); the Chicago Symphony (for Goodbye My Fancy, 1990); from Carnegie Hall (for Spring Music, 1991), and many others. Among the conductors who have performed his music are Bernstein, Masur, Mehta, Mitropoulos, Ormandy, Previn, Reiner, Slatkin, Steinberg, and Stokowski. After his return to America, after many years in Paris, Rorem began publishing a long series of diaries that attained great notoriety and controversy for their candid tales of his private life and the lives of many famous artists. "Lies" is the latest installment in his diary. Rorem has said: "My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer's present mood which, were it inscribed an hour later, could emerge quite otherwise".
The extensive catalogue of Rorem's orchestral works includes Air Music (1974), commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony and Thomas Schippers and awarded the Pulitzer Prize two years later, a Violin Concerto (1985), the String Symphony (1985), a Piano Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra written in 1991 for Gary Graffman, the 1993 Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in celebration of their 150th anniversary, a Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra (1998), an Organ Concerto (1985), nine operas, ballets, music for the theatre and many works for chorus and orchestra, and large works for solo voices and orchestra. Being recorded at a time close to Rorem's 84th birthday, this CD makes a special statement about an American composer best known for his vocal music.
The Second Piano Concerto was composed in Fez, Morocco, in 1951, for Julius Katchen, and given its première in May 1954 in Paris, conducted by Jean Giardino with the Orchestre de la Radiodiffusion Française. Rorem reminds me that the world première was reviewed in Musical America by Christina Thuresby: "This extremely attractive and lively work, which has a distinctly American character at times, should prove a winner in the concert hall, for it gives the soloist plenty of scope in both lyrical and virtuoso piano playing, and is effectively scored for an orchestra with a large percussion section." However, Rorem adds in his recent note to me "The piece nevertheless lay silent for the next half-century". This seems unfair and absurd, since the work has all the elements of a landmark, written in the mould of the virtuoso romantic piano concerto with early twentieth-century elements, like the concertos by Rachmaninov, Ravel and Gershwin. This does not mean that it is derivative. It has Rorem stamped all over it. It means that it should be immediately accessible to a large concert audience, and a great vehicle for virtuoso pianists. It begs the question as to why some great works of art get forgotten, especially in an era of instant communication.
The first movement starts with a chorale-like piano introduction which builds into a brilliant, happy-sounding allegro movement, full of sparkle. Interrupted by a slow lyrical section, it returns to the allegro with a vengeance, followed by one of the longest cadenzas I have encountered. The slow section returns eventually to the allegro section and the rousing finale of the first movement. While the second movement has the tempo marking "Quiet and Sad", it includes some explosive moments, and rousing mini-cadenzas for the soloist. It is a very lyrical, pensive movement, and quite original. The third movement, indicated "Real Fast!", is a tour de force for soloist and orchestra, with jazz-like motives and rhythms and an exhilarating conclusion. It should have its place among the major American concertos of the twentieth century, and it deserves permanent repertory status.
Regarding the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, written in 2002, Ned Rorem has written: "Although I don't believe that non-vocal music can be proven to 'mean' anything, even when given descriptive names like La Mer or Pictures at an Exhibition, it's still fun to give programmatic subtitles to various sections. Thus the eight movements of the Concerto are more or less literal descriptions."
In his recent concertos, Rorem has abandoned the usual three-movement pattern, using instead multiple movements, with descriptive titles for each one. After Curtain Raise, which is just that, There and Back "consists of 137 rapid measures that are split down the middle from whence they return to their beginning." In Three Queries, One Response, a rambling unison passage is followed by a calm cello solo with piano ostinato, after which these two elements alternate over and over, ending with a cello solo. Competitive Chaos is a real tour de force for everyone involved, a sort of organized chaos, very effectively orchestrated, with the solo cello and a solo violin engaged in a demonic confrontation. The tempo indication for Competitive Chaos is "Quick and Brutal". The fifth movement, A Single Tone, A Dozen Implications, is described by the composer: "While the soloist sustains a single expressionless note (E) throughout the entire movement, the orchestra imposes, separately, a sequence of twelve colours in varied intensities." One Coin, Two Sides is an atmospheric movement that presents two versions of the same sonic play, the second being scored for four cellos. The seventh movement, Valse Rappelée, echoes Liszt's Valse Oubliée, and is an orchestration of Rorem's Dances for Cello, written in 1984. The eighth and final movement, Adrift, has a haunting atmosphere. Rorem writes: "Against a weaving ostinato for harp and strings, the cello sings a long strain which gradually fades into nothing."
© 2007 José Serebrier
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