Friday, November 22, 2013

a JFK memorial concert

I was interested by the news that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, biting the bull with the teeth (or whatever the metaphor is), is playing this weekend a JFK memorial concert, and I was no less interested by the program.

Of course they're playing Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, without whose Funeral March no orchestral memorial concert for anyone would be complete. (And here's proof from the day itself.) They're also playing Sibelius's Violin Concerto, apparently for "its brooding Nordic character," a quality for which it is not at all outstanding among Sibelius's works. It's actually an ironic choice, as, the day after the assassination, the great violinist Isaac Stern abandoned a scheduled performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (in San Antonio, Texas, by the way) and played the Bach Chaconne instead.

Also on Dallas's program are a newly commissioned work by a very young composer in memory of JFK, and they're also resurrecting Darius Milhaud's Meurtre d'un grand chef d'état (Murder of a Great Chief of State). Now that interests me as a curiosity, because such specific pièces d'occasion rarely get revived. So I found it satisfying that I could dig out recordings of five JFK memorial works written by well-known composers in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Somehow these have a tang of immediacy that works written in longer retrospect lack. So here they are: two by foreign-born composers who lived in the US, one from England, and two by composers who were natural-born US citizens. Between them, they typify the conventional music styles of the 1960s. Most are not particularly ingratiating, but then, the assassination wasn't an ingratiating event.

They're all quite short, and it'll take just over half an hour if you want to listen to the lot.

1. Darius Milhaud, Meurtre d'un grand chef d'état
First out of the gate, Milhaud was a French composer who, because he was Jewish, spent the World War II years as a refugee. He came to California and began teaching at Mills College in Oakland, and spent half his time there for most of the rest of his life. He happened to be back in France, though, when Kennedy was shot. Always a fast and prolific composer (this is his Op. 405), Milhaud wrote this mournful little elegy the Monday after the shooting on commission from the Oakland symphony, which performed it one week later.

2. Igor Stravinsky, Elegy for JFK
Stravinsky commissioned a text from W.H. Auden, with whom he'd collaborated before, and set it for voice and three clarinets in his most uncompromising late style. This performance is sung by Cathy Berberian, the indispensable soprano for anything avant-garde in the 1960s.

3. Herbert Howells, Take him, Earth, for cherishing
This unaccompanied motet, setting a translation of an early Christian hymn, is probably the finest and certainly the most often performed of these immediate JFK memorial pieces. Howells was an English composer, an associate of Vaughan Williams and Holst, who specialized in choral music, usually of an elegiac quality already.

4. Roy Harris, Epilogue to Profiles in Courage: JFK
Though born in Oklahoma, Harris spent most of his life in the Los Angeles area. Mostly self-taught in music, he was one of the composers who shaped the American nationalist style in the 1930s. This orchestral elegy, of a similar mood as Milhaud's but in a distinct musical dialect, is typically rugged Harris stuff. It's in three sections: dramatic, anguished, and more quietly mournful.

5. Roger Sessions, Piano Sonata No. 3, "Kennedy"
The epitome of a 20th century American academic composer, Sessions spent most of his life teaching at Princeton. This is typically bristlingly formidable music from him, but I have to admit it grew on me.

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