In making any judgments about music written for the Bicentennial, or indeed any music written for a special occasion, it is wise to remember something Benjamin Britten said in his Aspen, Colo., speech. He noted that "some of the greatest pieces of music in our possession were written for special occasions, grave or gay. But we shouldn't worry too much about the so-called permanent value of our occasional music.A lot of it cannot make much sense after its first performance, and it is quite a good thing to please people even if only for today."
With these cautionary remarks out of the way, let's take a look at some of the new music heard during the last year and a half. "Year and a half?" Yes. You remember when Antai Dorati pointed out, quite rightly, that the Bicentennial year was a part of two National Symphony season: 1975-76 and 1976-77. For that reason, he and the orchestra began to play some of the 10 works they commissioned in the fall of 1975, the others being heard in the spring of this year, and the last of them recently, in the opening months of the new season.
In a very popular vein, "The Fun and Faith of William Billings," by Robert Russell Bennett, drew upon music by the tanner of Revolutionary Boston which Bennett made into a kind of suite for large chorus and orchestra. It was recorded by the National Symphony and the Maryland University Chorus within days of its premiere. It is catchy, neatly put together, a bit long for its own good. It may prove a popular piece any time orchestras and choruses want to get into the early Americana patriotism bit.
The most touching moment of the Bicentennial works came the night the orchestra played a fragment from "Monadanock" by the late Robert Evett. The composer, one of the best ever to live and work in Washington, died before he could do more than sketch out the beginnings of music that was fully formed in his mind. Russell Woollen, a longtime friend of the composer's, finished the fragment from Evett's notes.
Of the works that I heard, by far the most impressive was Gunther Schuller's Concerto for Orchestra. Here is an impressive display of technical control over the largest orchestral forces, with expanded winds, all of which Schuller uses to explore and exploit new sonorities, while casting the whole thing in a very attractive idiom. The work was born in a rather unusual way, since Schuller says that he conceived it after writing a new work for the American Guild to Organists. It would be good to hear the organ work as well. There are complexities in the music that were not fully clarified in the orchestra's very presentable initial performance. The work should be brought back soon and often, and taken up by other orchestras as well.
Benjamin Lees, who has been a regular visitor to National Symphony programs during Dorati's regime here, was heard during the Bicentennial in the Passacaglia which they wrote on an NSO commission. Even more than the Five Etudes for piano and orchestra that James Dick played here recently, the Passacaglia has a conciseness in form combined with unusually rich thematic material that makes it the most attractive work from Lees in many years.
The one commission the orhestra awarded to a non-American composer, other than that which went to Frank Martin, who died before he could being a new work, went to Richard Rodney Bennett of England who rewarded NSO listeners with a fascinating score called "Zodiac." Drawing upon the signs and creatures of the Zodiac, Bennett wrote in what could be called a contemporary romantic vein, to create music of power and originality. It is certainly another of the works from the centennial year I would want to hear again very soon.
Ulysses Kay set himself what may have been an impossible task when he decided to write "Western Paradise" for his commission. Using a narrator, he reached out to tap the rich vein of comments by our friends and supporters in England during the Revolution, William Pitt, Edmund Burke and Lord Effingham. A fine idea, it somehow failed to catch fire. The music sounded like a pleasant background for a TV documentary.
The disaster of the commissioned series - and that there was only one disaster in such a project is remarkable - was, unhappily, the longest work of the entire list. It was Juan Orrego-Salas's oratorio on the subject of The Creation. Requiring about an hour and 20 minutes to describe God's creation of the world, it brought out the understandable comment, "Thank heaven he did it in seven days and not 40!" Let us draw a curtain.
One of the reasons I did not hear all the new music that was played in Washington during the Bicentennial is that, from time to time, there was new music being played in other parts of the country. A cross-section of those that stand out in memory would certainly include John LaMontaine's operatic pageant, to which he gave the Billings title, "Be Glad Then America." It was seen and heard on the campus of Penn State University at University Park, Pa. under the direction, both stage and musical, of Sarah Caldwell. Immediately after the premiere, some people went around saying, "Well, you would certainly have to have Caldwell to make it work." That is a very specious form of criticism. It has seemed to me that LaMonatine's large-scale work would be ideal at Wolf Trap.
Gian Carlo Menotti enjoyed premieres of his two newest operas, "The Hero" and "The Egg," when those were heard within a couple of weeks of each other, the former in Philadelphia, the latter in Washington Cathedral. It is a mark of vitality that "The Hero" is returning to Philadelphia within the next few weeks, and I suspect that "The Egg" will soon establish itself also among the popular shorter operas by Menotti.
One of the new orchestral works Washington heard during the Bicentennial year was a gracious gift of the British Bicentennial Commission. Entitled "Epiphany Variations," it was played here by the London Symphony Orchestra for whom Gordon Crosse wrote it. It shows Crosse, an open devotee of Britten's, in a complex style in which his purposes are excellent but their working out does not wholly convince.
One of the major events of the year, though it was not an official project of the Bicentennial but rather the result of long years of planning, was Sarah Caldwell's production, long-awaited, of Roger Sessions's panoramic opera, "Montezuma." It should have been brought to the Kennedy Center for our national birthday. Its appearance there at any time would be a pleasure and an honor.
Wilmington, Del., was glad when its venerable Opera House reopened after complete renovation. Alva Henderson's operatic version of "The Last of the Mohicans" is much too long, but if the composer, who adamantly refused to cut a single note of it prior to the premiere, would take a leaf from a certain Giuseppe Verdi and make it shorter, he has enough material to make a stronger case for himself.
Finally, even though it can be only on the basis of reports, the word is that Andrew Imbrie's opera, "Angle of Repose," which had its premiere with the San Francisco Opera only a few weeks ago, is an important and highly successful addition to the American operatic repertoire.
So the Bicentennial is over. Nothing would shame our big year more than to follow it with a reversion to Beethoven as usual.