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August 3, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 4); an American romantic

Call me old fashioned, but I'll always have a soft spot for the romantic repertoire -- and the neo-romantic. Hey, I'm down with atonality, too, and just about every other stylistic language, but I'm still a pushover for a good tune and rich harmony. So, when it comes to considering worthy music we don't hear enough of in our concert halls these days, I'm bound to think of Howard Hanson.

Although he's had his champions in recent years (notably Gerard Schwarz and Leonard Slatkin), the composer still seems to be pretty much ignored by American orchestras. And my guess is that most American audiences have little knowledge of Hanson, or little interest in him.

Of course, there's a long list of other American composers likewise left on the sidelines. Locally, we have barely scratched the surface of the repertoire left by our greatest composer, Charles Ives, for example. Out of sheer patriotic duty, if nothing else, his music should be programmed every season -- and I'm talking about a lot more than just the occasional posing of The Unanswered Question. American concert-goers should embrace his Symphony No. 2 as fervently as Russians embrace Tchaikovsky's Fifth. We need to hear Ives' challenging Symphony No. 4, too.

But I digress. I'll return to Ives in another installment of this riveting what-we're-missing series. For now, back to Hanson. My own favorite, naturally, is ...

his Symphony No. 2, which carries the name "Romantic." The big, recurring theme in this score is one of those melodies that just burrows into you (if you're at all susceptible to this sort of thing), and the whole piece reveals sensitive craftsmanship.

I still remember the first time I encountered this symphony at some tender age, when I switched the dial on the car radio as I was driving. The sound hooked me, so much so that I had to sit in the parking lot after getting wherever I was going and hear the rest, so I could find out what it was. I've been an ardent fan of that symphony ever since.

There's more where that came from, of course -- six other symphonies, for starters. And it's worth noting Hanson's only opera, Merry Mount, which had its stage premiere at the Met in 1934 with no less than Lawrence Tibbett in the cast and Tulio Serafin conducting. The work has much to recommend it, as a recent recording (its first) demonstrates, so maybe that will help spark some renewed interest.

Meanwhile, those symphonies await greater attention. Here are excerpts from the first three, which, I hope you'll agree, demonstrate how much great stuff we've been missing:


Posted by Tim Smith at 5:05 PM | | Comments (6)


Did Slatkin program any of Hanson's music while he was music director of the NSO? I don't remember.

In fact I see that Slatkin is much more adventurous as a programmer when he guest conducts. Look at the works he conducted with the NY Philharmonic - thankfully readily available due to the database search (thing that ALL orchestras should provide, but I digress) - and compare with his NSO programming. Yes, he led some important premieres - Turangalila, Glagolitic Mass, Shostakovich 15 (with Rostropovich's former band!!!) but he could have gone further...

One thing he did is William Schuman 8th which is IMO as good as the 3rd.

I'll have to check out the NSO/Slatkin files to see if Hanson made it. Slatkin certainly did some other great rep with that band. And, when it comes to American music, I seem to recall that Rostropovich, of all people, led the orchestra in works by Chadwick and some other now largely forgotten composers. TIM

Thank you for mentioning Hanson. While taking piano lessons in elementary-high school, my piano teacher rolled out Hanson pieces (miniatures, a sonata, part of the piano concerto) for pedagogical purposes, and they remain some of my favorites.

And thanks again for starting this particular blog theme! The French installment a couple weeks ago inspired me to listen to recordings sitting dormant on my shelves for a couple of years, as well as dig out some melodie to get it back in my voice. I really appreciate it.

Thanks so much being a part of the what-we're-missing discussion. And for the Hanson memory, which reminds me to dig out a book of his piano pieces I got some time ago. I recall they were quite effective (the ones easy enough for me to play, that is). TIM

I just received a CD from Japan of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch which contains three less played pieces, two of them by American composers.

The first work is a true masterpiece, Martinu's 6th Symphony, "Fantaisies symphoniques". Munch's interpretation is perhaps the best version of this work. Fortunately, the NSO and the Philadelphia Orchestra will play some Martinu next season, and the Baltimore Symphony did so in the past year.

The Piston Symphony no. 6 is for me a let down- the first two movements, at least. But the 3rd part, the slow movement is wonderful, and the vigorous finale is certainly effective, if little more.

The 3rd work is the delightful Violin Concerto of Menotti, soloist being Tossy Spivakovsky. This is a work in the same vein as the Barber concerto - indeed, Ruggero Ricci couples both concertos on one CD - and should be more often heard.

I don't expect to ever find that Menotti concerto in a concert hall, but I'm glad you reminded me of it. TIM

I know of at least two performances of Menotti's Violin Concerto in the last 10 years or so. One was with the NY Philharmonic under Masur with the concertmaster Glenn Dichterow as soloist, another by the New Jersey based Symphony in C under Rossen Milanov, soloist being Jennifer Koh - who will play Szymanowski (yes!) next season with the NSO.

So there's hope for me, after all. Cool. TIM

I love those database searches. I see that the NY Philharmonic, during Masur's tenure, offered a lot of American Romantic music. True, Masur only conducted few of these works - including incidentally Hanson's 'Romantic' symphony - but still, during his tenure one could hear William Schuman's 3rd, Randall Thompson's 2nd, Roger Session's 1st, etc.

I first encountered Hanson in a wind ensemble transcription of the Merry Mount Suite during my freshman year of college. While it has never been my favorite of his works, the music was infectiously fun and well written, something that we are often afraid of in the music business.

Hanson wrote a second work based on themes from his Second Symphony, "Song of Democracy," for Chorus and Orchestra. It was designed for youth orchestras and choruses, having been commissioned by MENC and the National Education Association. The text was from Whitman.

Thanks very much for the comments. I think we're missing a lot by keeping Hanson and others on the sidelines of programming.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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