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ClassicsOnline Home » ROREM, N.: Violin Concerto / Flute Concerto / Pilgrims (Khaner, Quint, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, 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). Written in a refined tonal idiom like so much of Rorem’s music, the 1985 Violin Concerto is notable for its elegiac lyrical invention. The recent Flute Concerto, the first in a series of Philadelphia Orchestra commissions for its principals, was described at its première as ‘not so much a concerto as a surpassingly imaginative fantasy for flute and orchestra’. It is performed on this world première recording by its dedicatee, Jeffrey Khaner.
By Philippe Quint
By John van Rhein
"Concerto" seems a misnomer for the works that share this new Naxos disc. Actually Ned Rorem's concertos for flute (2002) and violin (1985) are more like suites for solo instrument and orchestra than concertos in any traditional sense. Both are cast in six brief movements that bear such titles as "The Stone Tower," "False Waltz," "Twilight," "Midnight" and "Dawn." The soloists typically engage in lyrical dialogues with various combinations of instruments.
Both concertos fall attractively on the ear and are beautifully played by their respective soloists, who are given fine support by the Royal Liverpool Orchestra under Jose Serebrier.
Rorem composed his Flute Concerto on commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra for its splendid principal flute, Jeffrey Khaner, who makes a persuasive case for this inventively quirky mosaic of instrumental songs without words.
The Violin Concerto also eschews overt virtuoso display in favor of a predominantly lyric impulse. The young Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint makes a poised, athletic soloist. The catalog once held a version of the concerto played by Gidon Kremer, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. But DG appears to have withdrawn that recording, so the excellent new Naxos performance has the field to itself.
A first recording of Rorem's luminous "Pilgrims" for string orchestra (1958) rounds out this enjoyable addition to Naxos' valuable American Classics series.
Ned Rorem (b. 1923)
‘Pilgrims’ for String Orchestra • Flute Concerto • Violin Concerto
When it was suggested that I record the three symphonies of Ned Rorem, it elicited from me an immediate positive response. I had given the American 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. More recently Carole Farley had made a highly successful recording of Rorem songs (8.559084), with the composer at the piano. While best known and admired for his hundreds of songs, the rest of his output is just as impressive.
Ned Rorem was born in Richmond, Indiana on 23 October 1923. At the age of ten his piano teacher introduced him to the music of 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.
Upon 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 instalment 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”.
Being made at a time close to Rorem’s 82nd birthday, this recording makes a special statement about an American composer best known for his vocal music. Actually his orchestral output is quite large, as is his list of choral and chamber music works. Besides the three symphonies I recorded earlier (8.559149), he wrote a String Symphony, unnumbered, given its première in 1985 by Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony. Their recording of this work later won the 1989 Grammy award for Outstanding Orchestral Recording. The catalogue of his 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); a Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (2002); several piano concertos, nine operas, ballets, music for the theatre and many works for chorus and orchestra, and large works for solo voices and orchestra.
Victor and Marina Ledin, who had nurtured Naxos’ American Classics at the start of the series, suggested the inclusion of Pilgrims for string orchestra, which had not previously been recorded. It provided a wonderful prelude to the recording of the concertos. Regarding Pilgrims, the composer wrote: ‘The idea was born in 1949, but the actual composition emerged only in 1958 on a single September day at the MacDowell Colony. The name Pilgrims has nothing to do with our founding fathers; it comes, rather, from the recollection of Julien Green’s wonderful little book Le voyageur sur la terre, about the suicide of a schizoid adolescent. The title of this American’s novel (written in French) is borrowed in turn from the following quotation: “These also died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off…and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth…” (Hebrews 11.13). The music is less programmatic than a mood of remembrance’. Pilgrims was first given at New York’s Cooper Union, conducted by Howard Shanet, on 30 January 1959.
The Flute Concerto was composed in 2002, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association for their Principal Flute, Jeffrey Khaner. The première took place on 4 December 2003, conducted by Roberto Abbado. The Flute Concerto helps to fill a void in the orchestral literature. I recall my friend Jean Pierre Rampal inviting me to conduct performances of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto in an arrangement for flute (which the composer made for him), because of the lack of repertoire for flute and large orchestra. We performed the Khachaturian often, touring European capitals.
The composer writes: ‘The hardest part about composing a piece like this lies in finding an accurate title. “Suite” might have seem apt for a series of loosely related movements. “Six Pieces for Flute and Orchestra” could even be more precise. “Odyssey” was my first thought, when I’d planned to use descriptive subtitles from Homer. If I fall back on “Concerto”—which, over the centuries, has as many definitions as definers—it’s from sheer practicality. I don’t believe that non-vocal music can be proved to ‘mean’ anything precise, like Love or Death or Fright, much less Yellow or Tuesday or Lake.’ But sometimes it is helpful and fun to ascribe (usually after the fact) names to the separate movements.
The first movement, The Stone Tower, takes its name from one of Yaddo’s studios (a creative arts colony). Rorem wrote most of the Flute Concerto in that studio at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York. The opening seven-note cluster, unusually marked ffffff, is a recurring leitmotiv, perhaps meaning Fate, like in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. The second movement, Leaving-Traveling-Hoping, is made up of two short tunes surrounding a long poem. Sirens is described by Rorem as an ambling succession of melodies and ripples. Hymn is an interlude, scored for just a few instruments: bassoon, trumpet, piano, viola and the solo flute, a most unusual idea in the midst of an orchestral concerto. The piano here acts as soloist, playing a simple chorale between contrapuntal statements from the other four instruments. False Waltz is a rollicking affair shaped like a pyramid (soft to loud to soft). Résumé and Prayer is described by the composer as a cadenza reviving briefly all the foregoing matter, and closing on a very quiet note.
Rorem’s Violin Concerto was composed in Nantucket during a five-week period in August 1984. In his own words: ‘It could sensibly be called Concertino since it is small scale, or Variations since each movement depends thematically on the others, or Suite since the six titled sections imply a narrative. Certainly it is not conceived in so-called sonata form. I conceive all non-sung pieces as though they were songs—like settings of words that aren’t there. Twilight is formed from a rambling prologue followed by a slow melody for strings, over which the soloist weaves a countertune like lace or velvet. Toccata-Chaconne, built on a 23-times-repeated timpani figuration, rises jaggedly from a purr to a thunderclap, then reverses itself and fades back into a purr. Romance Without Words, the title borrowed from Mendelssohn, is literally a song from which the text has been excised. Midnight, a microsonic variation, is itself a Theme and Variations. Toccata-Rondo is in spirit a false waltz, that is, a waltz in 4/4. As to the story, if there is one unfolded through the six sections, let the sound divulge it. Dawn recalls Twilight, one tone lower, with the solo and orchestral rôles exchanged.’
Rorem composed his Violin Concerto with Jaime Laredo in mind, and he gave the première on 30 March 1985 in Springfield, Massachusetts, with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Gutter. The concerto was composed on commission from the Northeast Orchestra Consortium, of which the Springfield Symphony is one of five members. The first recording, with Gidon Kremer and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, was released in October 1999.
© José Serebrier
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