America: The Musical Melting Pot

In January 1938, Samuel Barber, a young American composer mailed a movement of his new string quartet, arranged for string orchestra, to conductor Arturo Toscanini. The score was returned without comment. Barber was furious. But Toscanini replied that Barber had no cause to be angry with him for the perceived slight. Quite the contrary: Toscanini he had liked the piece so well that he intended to perform it on national radio; he had returned it unmarked because he had already memorized it. And perform it he did, on November 2 of that year. So began the American public’s love affair with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a work which has enchanted audiences since Toscanini’s radio broadcast, and which Utah audiences will get to enjoy on NOVA’s May 22 concert.

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1910, Barber showed a prodigious talent at a young age. At ten, he composed an operetta, The Rose Tree, to a libretto by his family’s Irish cook. At fourteen, he began attending the recently-founded Curtis Institute of Music; this was followed by extended periods of study in Europe. Barber’s career reads like a “who’s-who” of the American artistic landscape at the time: his ballet Medea was composed for Martha Graham; his Piano Sonata, commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, was first performed by Vladimir Horowitz. He would receive two Pulitzer Prizes (for his opera Vanessa, and for his Piano Concerto), a Rome Prize, and numerous other honors and awards. Yet throughout it all, the Adagio for Strings has retained a special place in the hearts of music lovers in America and abroad.

The career of American composer William Bolcom (b. 1938) has been marked a voracious appetite for eclectic influences. His style imitates, merges, and parodies everything from Stravinsky and Berg, to Romantic symphonies, to cabaret songs, marches, folk tunes, foxtrots and rags. Bolcom’s career followed a trajectory shared by many American composers of his generation: although they studied at conservatories in America, their training was in a European style of arch-modernism, specifically the “serialism” developed by Arthur Schoenberg (featured on a NOVA concert last season), and, later, Pierre Boulez (featured on NOVA’s concert of April 3). Yet many of these composers soon grew disenchanted with this hyper-rationalized, extremely dissonant music, and turned toward alternate sources of inspiration; Bolcom stands a supreme example of composers who returned to their American roots in crafting new musical languages. This tendency is monumentally exemplified in Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a three-hour setting of the entirety of William Blake’s collection. Bolcom’s Suite for Violin and Cello (1997), which will receive its Utah premiere on NOVA’s concert, offers a similar multitude of colors and sounds, on a much smaller scale.

Morris Rosenzweig, a professor of composition at the University of Utah, writes music that is often infused with the sounds of both his native New Orleans (where he “grew up among the tailors, merchants, and strong-willed women of an extended family which has lived in southern Louisiana since the mid 1890s”), and his adopted home of Utah. His 2010 composition 2005 and Counting, which will be featured on NOVA’s concert, offers a “rumination on the great damage” done to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and merges the live voice of a solo clarinet with recorded voices of New Orleans residents reflecting on their displacement after the storm. “This is a personal composition,” writes Rosenzweig. “I don't live in New Orleans anymore, but it remains the only place that makes sense to me.”

In this group of composers, then, it is Ludwig van Beethoven that seems the odd man out. The final work on NOVA’s concert will be Beethoven’s youthful, vivacious Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The year 1800 was, in certain regards, the zenith of young Beethoven’s career. He had traveled to Vienna in 1792 to study with Franz Joseph Haydn and, thanks to his remarkable skills as a pianist and improviser, had quickly become the darling of Viennese musical circles. On April 2, 1800, his first public concert featured, along with works by Haydn and Mozart, his First Symphony, First Piano Concerto, and the Septet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, and strings. The Septet was dedicated to Empress Maria Theresia, one of the most powerful rulers in Europe and a great patron of the arts. Local and foreign publishers were expressing interest in Beethoven’s compositions, his income was good, and his fame increased by the day. By the following year, Beethoven would have to admit to his friends that which he had suspected for some time: he was gradually losing his hearing. But in 1800, Beethoven could still enjoy the glittering musical life he had built for himself, and in the Septet NOVA audiences will have a chance to hear the young master at his creative, charming best.

Composer and bass player Jacob Rosenzweig

NOVA’s program additionally features two exciting young talents, both with roots in Salt Lake City, who are now major players on the national and international musical scenes. Jacob Rosenzweig, a bassist in Los Angeles and son of Morris, will be featured when NOVA performs a movement of his Music for Bass Quartet. Cellist Matthew Zalkind, another SLC native and currently a professor at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, is performing on Sunday; his mother, Roberta Zalkind (Associate Principal Viola of the Utah Symphony), will also perform.

Cellist Matthew Zalkind

––Kamala Schelling

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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