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Looking at classical music

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Looking at classical music

Who says art music can be written only by dead Europeans? In the 1990s, the boundaries of so-called classical music have expanded radically, especially in America. Just take a look at these four discs:

John Zorn: Naked City (Elektra/Nonesuch; all formats) Ace sax player Zorn is a mainstay of Manhattan’s Soho scene, a classy art-rocker who inhabits terra semi-firma between the anguished shores of Lou Reed and the minimalist plain of Philip Glass. Zorn has long exhibited a fondness for film scores, and this album finds him in familiar territory: Henry Mancini’s ”A Shot in the Dark,” Jerry Goldsmith’s ”Chinatown,” Ennio Morricone’s ”The Sicilian Clan,” and even John Barry’s hoary James Bond theme. Still, this is hardly a movie-music disc. Zorn and his band violently deconstruct the originals and reassemble the elements in ever-weirder ways, until the music explodes in a frantic cacophony; think of it as a kind of musical Texas Chainsaw Massacre, done as performance art. At last, a concept album you can dance to! A

The All-American Music of Irving Berlin Dwight Thomas at the Paramount Wurlitzer Organ (Newport Classic; CD, T) Thomas is a church organist in Indianapolis; the mighty Wurlitzer he plays was the original organ for the fabulous Paramount Theater in Oakland, Calif. Put them together with Berlin’s immortal melodies, played in High Ragtime style, and you have a must-buy. The infectious rhythms of ”Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and ”Puttin’ on the Ritz” jump out in a blaze of quasi-orchestral glory; the love songs, like ”Always,” have just the right amount of schmaltz. At the end, in the ”Give Me Your Tired/God Bless America” medley, Thomas and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir head off into the sunset in a blaze of glory. The thanks of a grateful nation go with them. A-

Walter Piston: Symphony No. 2, Sinfonietta, Symphony No. 6 Gerard Schwarz conducting the Seattle Symphony and (in the Sinfonietta) the New York Chamber Symphony (Delos; CD) Piston was a member of an important generation of tonal American composers whose lot has been to be spurned by their musical grandchildren. (Others include Howard Hanson and Virgil Thomson.) Born during the last decade of the 19th century, Harvard professor Piston literally wrote the book on Harmony, still probably the most widely used textbook of its kind. His music deserves equally wide attention. The magisterial Second Symphony (1943) is one of the most important symphonies ever written by an American, a rich, brooding work of overwhelming power and passion. Almost as formidable are the substantive Sinfonietta of 1941 and the Sixth Symphony of 1955.

Schwarz and his musicians handle the color and expansiveness of the two works nicely, but the rhythmic underpinning is not as firm as one would wish. Still, the performances make the case for Piston almost as persuasively as the music does. If only some of the bored Eurocrats who run America’s major orchestras would get with the game plan. B

Richard Blackford and Maya Angelou: King, A Musical Testimony Simon Estes as Martin Luther King; Cynthia Haymon as Coretta Scott King (London; CD, T) Hard on the heels of this heavily promoted and highly troubled musical, which ran in London for just six weeks this spring, comes the cast album of King. The civil rights movement and King’s assassination are big subjects, and it would require the talents of Verdi in his Don Carlos mode to do them justice. Instead, Blackford serves up a bland mix of bogus boogie and boilerplate Broadway that sits lightly upon the ear and allows the mind to go on holiday. A pity, because bass-baritone Estes and soprano Haymon handle their assignments well. In all, a nice try, but it would be interesting to see what someone like John Adams (Nixon in China) and his librettist Alice Goodman could do with the material. C-

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