Three Cheers for Yeh!
Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.
I can never find anything when I am looking for it, but the effort usually proves worthwhile nevertheless. I often come across something I wasn't searching for which is more interesting than whatever it was that I was trying to find. Months later, of course, when I'm looking for something else, I find what I was seeking to begin with, but can't find whatever it was that I was looking for then!
Recently I have been looking for compact discs by the American composer Morton Gould (1913- ) for a column I plan to write. This is how I discovered the delightful Hillandale Waltzes of Victor Babin (1908-1972) and the jazzy Concerto for Clarinet by Artie Shaw (1910- ). On the same CD (Reference Recordings RR-55CD) I also rediscovered the Ebony Concerto by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and the Prelude, Fugue and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). And, oh yes, lost in the middle of all this are the Derivations for Clarinet and Band by - guess who? - Morton Gould.
If compact disc producers did what I wanted and put only one composer on each CD so I could easily place the CDs on my shelves in alphabetical order, I would not have discovered and rediscovered all the other exciting music on this recording. And I'm not sure I would have come across the amazing artistry of clarinetist John Bruce Yeh, or be introduced to the extraordinary young musicians of DePaul University's wind and jazz ensembles.
So the column about Morton and his music will have to wait while I tell you about the gold I found while searching for Gould.
The music on the Ebony Concerto CD has a great deal in common, even if it wasn't by the same composer. It all features a clarinet soloist. It is all by 20th Century composers who didn't abandon tonality. It is all very well orchestrated, highly rhythmic, colorful and exciting. And each selection is so well recorded, this CD could be used as a demonstration record to show off your stereo system.
But there is one other, less positive attribute these pieces share. With the possible exception of the Hillandale Waltzes, none of these works contains what I would call a really first-class tune - one that you can't stop whistling after you've heard it just once or twice. And the pretty, very classical theme in the Hillandale Waltzes was written by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, not Victor Babin, who composed eight waltztime variations on Hummel's melody.
Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto was commissioned by jazz clarinetist Woody Herman (1913-1987) in 1945. According to the informative and well-written program notes by Richard Freed which accompany this album, Herman hoped to initiate a more pronounced fusion of classical and jazz than had been evidenced in earlier efforts.
The concerto was completed in Hollywood on Dec. 1, 1945, and Herman and his band gave the world premiere in New York less than four months later. Shortly after the premiere, which was conducted by Walter Hendl, Herman recorded the piece with Stravinsky himself conducting. Many years later Stravinsky made another recording, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist.
Though the work is a real concerto in three separate movements, it is very short, lasting only a few seconds over nine minutes. It is highly rhythmic - reminiscent of sections of Stravinsky's earlier L'Histoire du soldat, which I love - but less tuneful. I'm not going to claim that this is a major work worthy of being in every classical collection, but it is fun!
Victor Babin was a pianist and director of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1961 until his death in 1972. He and his wife, Vitya Vronsky, were born in Russia. They both studied with Artur Schnabel in Berlin, came to the U.S. in 1937, and toured together as a piano duo into the 1950s.
But Babin also composed. He wrote two concertos, numerous songs, and a great deal of chamber music. He wrote his Hillandale Waltzes for clarinet and piano in 1947. The piece was a present for Anne Archbold, a Washington, D.C., patron of the arts, whom the Babins visited just after World War II at her home, Hillandale. Dennis Nygren, a professor of clarinet at Kent State University, brilliantly orchestrated the version presented on this recording.
In 1949 Woody Herman also commissioned the young Leonard Bernstein to write what became Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. But the Woody Herman band disbanded by the time Bernstein finished the piece, and Herman never performed it. The music sounds like Bernstein, with all its drive and energy, but without the great melodies that have since made Leonard Bernstein a household word.
Artie Shaw wrote the Concerto for Clarinet for himself and his band to use in a movie called "Second Chorus," with Fred Astair, Paulette Goddard (George Gershwin's flame), and Burgess Meredith. (He later called the film "one of the most preposterous movies ever made.") The Concerto, which sounds much closer to jazz than to classical, is in one movement and lasts only seven-and-a-half minutes. The piece has never been published, so this recording was made by transcribing a score from the original materials, substituting saxophones for the strings used in Shaw's own 1940 record.
This CD is a real tour de force for Los Angeles native John Bruce Yeh, a Grammy Award-winning clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1977, when he was 19. He makes his ebony instrument sing, dance and scream with such energy and excitement that I imagine I'm hearing Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, and Artie Shaw all rolled up into one. I feel like applauding at the end of each selection and shouting "Yeh! Yeh! Yeh!"
Yeh is a faculty member at DePaul University, which explains his familiarity with the professionalism of DePaul's music students. He says the school's jazz and wind ensembles are "second to none," and, judging by this CD, he's not exaggerating.
As for the Derivations for Clarinet and Band by Morton Gould, I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the column I plan to write about Gould. I haven't gotten my hands on all the other Gould CDs yet. I'm sure I'll find them… when I'm looking for other music by Victor Babin!
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