Works for organ and orchestra tend not to be the kinds of works that composers write just because the spirit moves them--at least not since Handel. It can be an unwieldy combination and such works aren't performed very often. So mostly they are compositions commissioned for special occasions.
Such was each of the four American pieces that made up last night's opening concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall for the 2,200 members of the American Guild of Organists convening here this week.
Two, by Stephen Douglas Burton and Paul Creston, were commissioned for the concert. Another, John LaMontaine's "Wilderness Journal," was written for the dedication 11 years ago of the Concert Hall's Filene Organ. And the most famous of the works, the Copland Organ Symphony, was created as a solo vehicle for his teacher, Nadia Boulenger, during an American tour.
The Burton, which opened the evening, was a suite in five parts called "Homage to Johann Sebastian Bach." It is in the newly popular neo-romantic mode in which, as Burton has written, he has "intertwined my own musical thoughts with threads of themes and fugue subjects from the works of Bach . . . The organ and the modern orchestra function as equal partners in this tug-of-war between Bach's ideas and my own."
Well, Burton may think it's Bach he is struggling with, but to this listener it sounded at best like it was with Bach-Stokowski, as in those opulent orchestrations of Bach's biggest moments that were about all of Bach you heard from symphony orchestras until after World War II. On paper it may look like a Bach suite, with its prelude, passacaglias, fugue and so on. But basically it sounded like a superficial exercise in the fancy techniques of the modern orchestra, written, no less, by a composer who just published a textbook on the subject. The playing, by members of the National Symphony under Philip Brunelle (in all the works), with organist Marilyn Keiser, was suitably athletic.
Next was the LaMontaine, which is a powerful cycle of 14 songs set to nature texts from Thoreau's Journals. This a piece to put to lie anybody's assertion that serial music is by definition unlistenable. These songs, sung by Howard Sprout, are not only accessible, but moving and delightful. They are full of the most imaginative nature painting, using the large percussion vocabulary developed in serial music. There is the series of clicks and grunts in the song called "Frogs." Or the sequences of intervals high in the organ for the dew dropping on the cobwebs in "Cobwebs." There is also considerable range of mood--elegaic in "I Sit in My Boat on Walden" or the credo to nature of "In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World." Paul Callaway played the organ with virtuosity, especially in the early interlude portraying the fevered wildness of nature. Sprout sang with sensitivity to the music and the text.
Then came Creston's new Sixth Symphony. Creston is one of the venerable names in American music, but this seemed to these ears modest and bland, a well-crafted work that had nothing particular to say--very tonal but not doing anything striking with its harmonies. Be it noted that this listener's response was apparently in the minority last night, for the symphony got quite an ovation, especially when the composer came out for bows.
Then came the Copland. By Copland's standards this is one of his lesser works. He later turned his back on it as "too European" for his idiom, but now he has decided that that conclusion was wrong. The Copland style is all over it; it's just that he was very young then and was still feeling his way toward the most distinctive idiom in American classical music. Just listen, for instance, to the pounding, swaggering syncopations of the big theme for brass; percussion in the scherzo and "Rodeo" and "Billy the Kid" come to mind. Throughout, there are also Coplandesque jagged intervals, crossrhythms and spareness of texture. Last night's performance, with Randall Mullin the organist, was splendid. The clarity of line and the precision of the rhythms was much better than the recent one at the Inter-American Music Festival. The main reason seemed to be the difference between the National Symphony's level of playing and that of the festival orchestra.