BSO's Half-Baked Slice of Americana

Mark O'Connor, who played his
Mark O'Connor, who played his "American Seasons," showing varied fiddle styles but no depth of ideas. (Columbia Festival Of The Arts)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008


When used by a symphony orchestra, the term "American music" generally signifies the uneasy welding of the vernacular to formal concert tradition. The joining is made all the more uneasy by its affiliation with the concept of "crossover": Americana, on a concert program, seldom applies to works by Christopher Rouse, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis or other American composers whose names have grown familiar to Washington area concertgoers through determined repetition by local music directors. Rather, it's the kind of thing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented over the weekend, led by Marin Alsop. The program at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall brought together Copland's "Appalachian Spring"; "The American Seasons," an empty fiddle of a piece by Mark O'Connor; and "Harlem," a tone poem by Duke Ellington.

All too often, American music has come to denote this kind of aggressively red-white-and-blue assemblage that basically signals easy listening on the horizon.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. When Ellington made his forays into orchestral writing, he was seeking legitimacy. "Harlem" was, after all, commissioned by no less a figure than Arturo Toscanini, though the great conductor died before he was able to perform it. The idea that the involvement of an orchestra somehow made music more serious was reinforced by, for example, the Pulitzer Prize board, which refused to consider jazz "serious" enough for its music awards until 1996 (and infamously denied Ellington the prize in 1965, though the jury had voted for him).

In the long run, this appears to have given the orchestra a role as signifier rather than instrument for many so-called popular musicians. It is the obligatory medium for well-known artists seeking to make an Important Statement beyond the mere album of songs: think Paul McCartney with "The Liverpool Oratorio" and "Ecce Cor Meum," or Roger Waters with his opera "¿a Ira" (16 years in the making but hardly accorded even 15 minutes of fame).

But because it is a signifier, and because "orchestra" to many contemporary listeners is practically equivalent to "a string section," the orchestra is not used in an interesting way in these pieces. Where Ellington was straining to find a way to express himself in new, expanded terms, Wynton Marsalis's oratorio "Blood on the Fields," which in 1997 became the first jazz or at least jazz-tinged piece to win the Pulitzer, evoked the watered-down aspects of crossover: pretty, rather than challenging, music. Ellington himself famously said (and Alsop quoted) that there are two kinds of music, good music and bad music. The peril of this kind of genre-challenging music, however seriously it is conceived, is that the resulting work remains balanced on the knife edge, not between styles, but between the two sides of Ellington's equation.

The Baltimore concert, heard Friday night, led from the nascence of crossover (Ellington) to what it has become for many musicians. O'Connor, who performed his own piece, evidently subscribes to the idea that classical music is supposed to have big ideas. His piece grandiosely addresses the four seasons and the seven ages of man, but with a facile approach -- it boils down to a few different fiddling styles -- that amounts to Hallmark sentiment writ self-importantly large. It is notable that the prime of life, the serious years of middle age, were represented by the most "classical" style of playing. Listeners may be relieved to know, however, that old age represents a respite in the form of Celtic fiddling.

Copland, as so often happens, was caught in the middle, the victim of his own popularity. But his piece was also an interesting contrast in that it displayed what an orchestra can actually do: the nuance and variety this collective instrument can produce, beyond mere swaths of tonal color.

There may well be a place for Ellington's music in the symphonic repertory. Simon Rattle made a case for it with his earnest and well-meaning all-Ellington album with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra a few years ago -- a project that spawned the fine Luther Henderson arrangement that Alsop used on Friday.

But the music usually comes off sounding like the collision of two traditions, evoking now one, now the other, reasonably pleasing in both, and never fully satisfying in either. Coming from the classical camp, I find myself struggling with a puritanical sense that this is all very well, but not quite right. It feels slightly inauthentic. And there is an underlying frustration that the composer felt compelled to pursue other avenues in search of accolades he should have gotten simply for being himself.

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