In this American Journey, violinist Arnold Steinhardt performs some of his favourite twentieth-century works that contribute to the delightfully rich and varied landscape of American classical music.
The journey begins with Robert Russell Bennett, a composer remembered foremost as an orchestrator of over three hundred Broadway and London musicals, including Oklahoma and South Pacific. For Bennett, who studied under Nadia Boulanger, the bright lights of Broadway were only a way to pay his bills, and never outshone his love of composing serious music. While Abraham Lincoln Symphony may be his most ambitious work on the classical side, Hexapoda: Five Studies in Jitteroptera is assuredly his greatest crowd pleaser. First performed in 1940 by the violinist Louis Kaufman (and later played by Jascha Heifetz), the work was written in a weekend in response to Kaufman's assertion to Bennett that 'the low-down music of the day was worth saving by a serious-minded composer'. The joyful, schizophrenic energy of this modest suite is impossible to resist.
Lukas Foss was born in Berlin in 1922, fled to Paris in 1933 to escape the Nazis, and left for New York City in 1937. He studied under Paul Hindemith from 1940 to 1941 and discovered the music of Stravinsky in 1942, the same year he became an American citizen. Three Pieces, written for violin and piano in 1944, was Foss's gift to America. The sketches have a neo-classical bent and pit European sensibility against rough-and-tumble Americana fiddling, particularly in Composer's Holiday. Foss would later arrange the entire work for flute and piano (Three Early Pieces) and orchestrate it for violin/flute and orchestra (Three American Pieces).
Leonard Bernstein's Sonata for Violin and Piano was penned in 1939, when Bernstein was only 21, four years before his celebrated and unexpected début conducting the New York Philharmonic. The work was written for Raphael Hillyer, co-founder of the Juilliard String Quartet, and Bernstein accompanied Hillyer in the 1940 première. This sonata is rarely performed, but the brothers Steinhardt, with their intelligent and transparent interpretation here, have made a case for boosting this ruminating work's profile within the repertoire.
The early Bernstein piece is followed by an early work by Aaron Copland: Nocturne from Two Pieces. Written in 1926 when the composer was 26 years of age, Two Pieces was first performed by Copland and the violinist Samuel Dushkin that same year in Paris at an all-American concert made up largely of students of Boulanger. A quiet, solitary study in economy of means, Nocturne calls to mind an Edward Hopper-like cityscape, drenched in rain and (here) dipped in jazz.
The African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh is largely remembered for having convinced his teacher, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, of the worthiness of 'indigenous' American music. Burleigh also helped establish a place in the concert hall for negro spirituals and folk melodies, and was able to bridge art-song with music from his own heritage. His suite, Southland Sketches, is a perfect example of that bridging, possessing a firm reliance on the Negro spiritual with an overtly pentatonic pitch field, instilling a conscious air of sophistication in the melodies, and employing large sweeping contours in a unified direction, each movement ambling toward its conclusion.
The final three stops on our American Journey include two tangos and a rumba written for Arnold Steinhardt. The first is by his brother, Victor, whose Tango turns the dance form on its head, supplanting expected traditional progressions with a post-Debussy aesthetic. The work's return to more traditional harmonies near its conclusion acts as a zoom lens, bringing the tango back in focus. The complex rhythmic interplay between violin and piano in Lincoln Mayorga's sunny Bluefields, A West Hollywood Rumba for Arnold is disguised by an ultra-cool South American disposition, as are the added ninths and sixths in the seemingly simple chord progression.
Dave Grusin describes his Three Latin American Dances as a 'mini-suite', rooted in a benefit performance with Steinhardt for Roberta Guaspari's East Harlem violin programme, Opus 118, in the summer of 2000. Tango de Parque Central takes liberties toward the direction of 'New Tango', a rather generic description of the work of Astor Piazzolla, who used original tango to develop a more contemporary point of view. Danzón de Etiqueta has its roots in late nineteenth-century Cuba, originally a somewhat polite salon tradition, but developing later into very popular and energetic dance forms, including the cha-cha and the charanga. The rhythm of Joropo comes from the high plain (Llano) of Venezuela, and is marked by a strong 3/4 or 6/8 metre. While not attempting to be perfectly pure, Grusin's suite shows great respect and love for the originals. 'And of course', he notes, 'the aim, as always, is to have a good time'.