BBC NOW Americana: Thomson, Barber, Copland, Piston

Steph Power attended BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Hoddinott Hall for a night of Americana with Thomson, Barber, Copland and Piston.

I don’t suppose that Billy Bragg had classical music in mind when he wrote in a recent blog for the Guardian that ‘Americana is a broad church’. Rather, he was looking towards Nashville, Tennessee and the Americana Music Association, which defines Americana music as ‘contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw.’ But, whilst Americana may now be an established generic term in popular music – and applicable to artists both sides of the Atlantic – Bragg’s seeming statement of the obvious resonates further afield. For ‘Americana’ is also a term which has bearing across a wide spectrum of 20th century classical, jazz and film composers, whose music is often amorphously described as ‘sounding American’. This season, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has set out to explore various such strands within classical music, in an enterprising series of four afternoon concerts devoted to American composers both familiar and lesser-known.

Three of the four composers in this opening concert (conducted by Garry Walker with great flair and feel overall), went independently to Paris to study with the remarkable Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s, in lieu of homegrown opportunities to learn their craft – and two came to be better known for activities beyond their composing. Virgil Thomson, whose Three Pictures for Orchestra (1947-52) opened the programme, scores on both counts, for he is today still more widely remembered as a music critic. This is despite Rodney Lister having described Thomson in 1990 as ‘one of the great undiscovered frontiers of American music’ and albeit that his musical style is as plain-speaking as his prose (Thomson firmly believed that ‘in art the doers are the knowers’ and scribed accordingly). But simplicity can be deceptive and this afternoon’s performance of the Three Pictures showed how tricky it can be to elucidate Thomson’s idiosyncratic blend of Parisian wit and Kansas innocent; a combination which prompted the renowned music writer Wilfrid Mellers to describe Thomson with fondness (and some personal projection) as a ‘slightly malicious cherub’.

Each of the Pictures (The Seine at Night, Wheat Field at Noon and Sea Piece with Birds) was broadly evocative as Thomson intended, and many aspects of his style were brought to life across the suite with some lovely playing by the orchestra – from big, ‘American’ rolling themes to the slow ticking of a xylophone and flurries of almost Ravel-tinged woodwind taking flight, so to speak, within Thomson’s third, oceanic canvas. And yet, the lush, but oddly spartan homophonic writing didn’t quite persuade as it might have; not helped by a four-square phrasing that undermined a potentially fluid – and quietly pre-minimalist – cinematic scope.

For me, a slightly reined-in feeling took a while to shake off, even in the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber (1939, rev. 1948) which followed; a piece famous world-wide for the romantic expansiveness of its opening melody and heart-stopping second movement, as well as the fierce virtuosity of the final Presto in moto perpetuo. But orchestra and soloist Elena Urioste (an American BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist with an appropriately diverse heritage for this concert spanning Mexico, Italy, Russia, Hungary and the Basque region!) eventually settled together to produce a spirited reading; something to be thankful for, as performances of this work too often give in to nostalgic indulgence. In this case, the orchestra supported without overwhelming the soloist and Urioste’s playing was notable for its candid simplicity as well as its warmth, subtlety and singing tone.

Rather than Paris, Barber looked to Milan and elsewhere outside the States for inspiration, going backwards to Brahms and Schumann (as well as sideways to Sibelius according to researcher Howard Pollack). For many years, Barber enjoyed unprecedented fame as an American composer, helped by the widespread popularity of his Violin Concerto and the still (somewhat drearily) ubiquitous Adagio for Strings. But he never reconciled himself to the lukewarm reception of his later music as other, less conservative styles gained favour; his declaration in 1935 that ‘the universal basis of artistic spiritual communication by means of art is through the emotions’ being typical of his dismissive response to the innovations of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and other European pioneers, which seeped into American musical consciousness before and after World War II.

Notwithstanding the many American classical composers of Barber’s generation and earlier who were pioneers in their own right – people like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch and others – these currents from Europe were scooped up and embraced by some surprising figures, including none other than Aaron Copland long after his Paris sojourn; creator of such quintessentially ‘American’ pastoral fare as Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring but who, in his late works, somehow managed to utilise a 12-tone method of composition and a far knottier musical style without losing that native, vernacular character. Indeed, in many ways, Copland can be said to have epitomised the ‘American sound’ – ultimately a quality impossible to define in words, but which is usually associated in his earlier music with a broad, sweeping approach to melody, and sparse but spacious chordal textures utilising harmonies based upon ‘open’ intervals such as fourths and fifths. Copland’s final symphonic work Inscape (1967) – given a rare and electrifying account here by Walker and the BBC NOW – was named after Gerald Manley Hopkins’ word for a universal, unifying principle which describes how each thing or being in the world has its own unique character, and how inward nature is reflected by outward appearance and vice versa. Accordingly, there is not one wasted note in Copland’s work, which is both monumental and quietly thoughtful, and framed by an eleven-note chord which was equally stunning here at Hoddinott Hall in its opening power and gentler, closing translucence.

In this performance, Walker and orchestra did a particularly fine job of delineating Copland’s masterfully clear orchestration, so central to the wide, open spaces of his continued ‘Americanism’, as well as the crucially tight-woven structure of this fascinating work. Orchestration also played an important role in a less obvious way for Walter Piston; the final composer on today’s programme, and whose Symphony No. 6 (1955) also received an excellent account in an altogether transfixing second half to the concert. Piston, indeed, is better known today for his important treatises on orchestration, harmony and counterpoint (and his rosta of famous pupils, like Leonard Bernstein), than for his own music, which is nevertheless still widely respected for its integrity and subtle imagination; a product of his own legacy as a Boulanger pupil for which he was always grateful, once admiring how ‘she never taught composers particular styles, but rather she influenced them to find their own.’

In some ways, Piston was not so much a conservative per se as simply a formalist, and his music was always beautifully crafted. But here, Walker brought out aspects of playful humour as well as Piston’s sheer quality as a composer, and there were many striking details of compositional virtuosity as well as wonderfully contrasting moods across the traditional four-movement span (the Symphony starts with an unusually introspective Fluendo espressivo). Piston delighted in writing for orchestra (he wrote eight symphonies and this sixth was dedicated to the memory of that great champion of American music Serge Koussevitsky and the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and he firmly believed in writing music that instrumentalists would enjoy playing. His Sixth Symphony is a fine example of music which carries its rigour lightly and the BBC NOW played it with superb, understated panache.

Piston himself disliked any talk of national characteristics or an ‘American’ school and once declared that, ‘the plain fact is that American music is music written by Americans’. He may well have shuddered to find his music presented under the umbrella of ‘Americana’; indeed, this concert alone demonstrated the huge diversity amongst even the most supposedly ‘American sounding’ of composers – and without roaming into more progressive musical territory or to other composers straddling jazz and popular American styles during the same period, like the vitally important George Gershwin. In addressing the question of what constitutes any national sound, it can be all-too tempting to resort to cultural stereotype in the frustration of being unable to grasp the music through the medium of words. So perhaps we should return to Virgil Thomson for the ultimate summary of what really constitutes Americana in classical music: ‘The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.’