Favorite American Symphonies

Copyright © Fred Flaxman, 1997

After many years of being sent by my parents each summer to all-male athletic camps, I finally convinced them, when I was 15, to let me go to the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. Turned out I wasn't much better as a musician than I was as an athlete, but, at least there were girls at Interlochen. So I was happy.

The National Music Camp, as you might imagine, had rehearsals every day and concerts under the stars every night. But holding hands, never mind necking, was strictly forbidden. So, despite all my efforts to the contrary, I learned more about music that summer than I did about women.

Symphonic concerts always began with the Star Spangled Banner--which was the one musical composition I learned in elementary school-- and ended with the Interlochen theme song: an excerpt from Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2 ("The Romantic") -- which I had never heard before.

One of the first things I did when I returned from camp that summer was to go out and purchase the recording of Howard Hanson conducting that symphony, performed by the Eastman Rochester Symphony Orchestra. It was then that I first heard the complete work, and it has been my very favorite American symphony ever since.

Although everyone who ever went to Interlochen in those days, and since, certainly knew, and probably loved, that romantic melody, most other fans of classical music don't seem to know that it exists. And I don't understand why it isn't as popular as the symphonies of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Dvorak. It certainly is as beautiful and well-crafted.

The original Mercury "Living Presence" recording is still available, reissued on CD (432008-2). It is combined with two rather boring compositions: Symphony No. 1 ("The Nordic") and "Song of Democracy" for Chorus & Orchestra. But at least you can place the disc under "H" on your shelf, if you organize your collection alphabetically. That's more than I can say for the two Leonard Slatkin recordings on Angel: CDC 47850, which comes with the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber, and CDM 64304, which is coupled with Aaron Copland's Symphony No. 3.

I have the Seattle Symphony's CD (Delos DCD 3073), conducted by Gerard Schwarz who, like Hanson himself, is a major champion of recording American music. This fine all-digital CD is also paired with the Nordic Symphony.

Some 18 of Hanson's compositions, including all seven of his symphonies, are now in the CD catalog, thanks in large part to Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. It is good to see the works of this long-time head of the Eastman School of Music undergo a revival, although I have never heard a composition by Hanson that I like half as much as the Romantic Symphony.

Slatkin's Hanson/Copland CD is part of the St. Louis Symphony's "Great American Symphonies" series. But if I were choosing another great American symphony to pair with Hanson's Second, I would pick the Symphony No. 2 by his contemporary, Randall Thompson (1899-1984). Incredible as it may seem once you hear this piece, there is only one CD currently available, and it isn't even performed by an American orchestra. It is an all-digital recording by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Schenck, on Koch International Classics (3-7074-2).

This highly accessible, rhythmic, tuneful masterpiece, with its exciting opening and brilliant climax, was composed in 1930-31. It was written, like almost all of Thompson's work, under commission. In 1944 Thompson boasted that he hadn't composed a piece "out of the blue" since 1927. Perhaps that's why his works, unlike those of many of his "serious" contemporaries, are so easy to appreciate. He was not writing for fellow academics in a university. He was writing to please the music-loving public, and please them he did.

When this work premiered on March 24, 1932 (with Howard Hanson, not so incidentally, conducting the Rochester Philharmonic), "its direct, lyrical, almost pop simplicity," to quote from the program notes accompanying the CD, endeared the work immediately to the audience. Music critic Virgil Thomson, a well-known composer himself, praised the piece, writing that "it grows in musical interest from the first movement to the end."

Following the symphony's New York debut, the Herald Tribune critic wrote: "Mr. Thompson was present last evening and after the resounding conclusion of his symphony he was acclaimed by the audience with a fervor that is seldom bestowed upon an American composer--unless, of course, he happens to be Mr. Gershwin."

Within ten years Randall Thompson's Second Symphony had received hundreds of performances. Now, for some unknown reason, the work and its composer have fallen into near-obscurity.

Thompson's Third Symphony, written from 1947 through 1949, which shares space on this CD, was never as successful as the Second was initially. And I can see why. It just isn't as good.

The dirge-like tune which introduces the first movement is better than many, but not something you go away whistling. When it repeats in development, dissonant, disagreeable notes are added. But the second movement shares the rhythmic drive of the Second Symphony, and has a very pleasant theme. However, here too, some dissonance is introduced in the middle which I could have done without. The third movement is slow, soft and daydream inducing, but the fourth is mostly light, spirited, tuneful, piccolo-pinching fun, and comes to a quick, humorous end.

In any case, you can place this CD under "T" in your classical collection, and the Third Symphony is not at all a bad piece, when all is said and done.

As I mentioned up front, I have never been a good athlete. I have never been a good musician. But, I've always been a good music listener. So, if you like melodious, romantic music as much as I do, and you don't know the Second Symphonies by Howard Hanson and Randall Thompson, take my word for it--go out and buy these CDs. They'll help make your July 4th a most enjoyable and very American holiday, and give you many hours of listening pleasure for the rest of the year as well.

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