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Symphonic Music, American Style: 3 Must-Hear Albums

By Tom Huizenga | NPR
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Throughout the summer we're searching for the "Great American Symphony." It's not exactly a popularity contest. Instead, we're pondering American symphonic music from both the past and the present. Some composers like the young Kevin Puts and the veteran Martin Boykan, are labeling their pieces as symphonies. Others, like Michael Daugherty, can prefer more playful titles.

Either way, hear excerpts from three albums of recent, symphonic-sized works that we're excited about - - including an advance preview of the Kevin Puts album, which is being released on Sept. 10.

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Kevin Puts: Symphony No. 4 'From Mission San Juan'

 Harmonia Mundi

With his Symphony No. 4, the 41-year-old Pulitzer winner Kevin Puts tells a uniquely American story on several levels. It starts at the San Juan Bautista Mission in California, where founding friars, in the late 18th century, began baptizing the Native American Mutsun people, teaching them to sing church music. Learning how the Mutsuns stuck to their own songs sparked Puts to organize a symphonic encounter between the DNA of their music with his own orchestral tradition. After the two cultures collide in a raucous crescendo, the final movement, "Healing Song," unfolds with breathtaking grandeur. Winds slowly take up the Mutsun-inspired, vaguely pentatonic melodies while warm strings caress those tunes and spin out into new ones, reminiscent of Mahler and Britten at their most tender. The final music builds majestically in shimmering percussion, capped by a thrilling, radiant chord, brilliantly realized by conductor Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Daugherty: Radio City


Composer Michael Daugherty, like Puts, conjures his music from a particular American place and time. The era is 1937-1954 and the locale is studio 8H in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center where the legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini ruled the symphonic airwaves, leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra in live weekly radio broadcasts. As an homage, Daugherty's Radio City tells the Toscanini story in three fantastical movements — from landing in New York after being exiled from fascist Italy, to a melancholic, homesick central panel to a tour de force finale, inspired by Toscanini's 1944 broadcast of Tchaikovsky's symphonic fantasy The Tempest. Here Daugherty imagines the maestro as Shakespeare's Prospero, unleashing his magical powers on the orchestra, as a mischievous flute and harp figure ignites a tornado of percussion and brass. The music is fun, frenzied and should be terrific to hear live judging from this energized recording by the Pacific Symphony and conductor Carl St. Clair.

Purchase Album

Martin Boykan: Symphony for Orchestra

 BMOP Sound

Martin Boykan may not be a household name, but judging from the nuanced orchestration and structural integrity of his Symphony for Orchestra, he should at least be better known. The 82-year-old Manhattan-born composer learned his craft under mid-century giants including Aaron Copland, Walter Piston and Paul Hindemith and later taught at Brandeis University. Boykan is fascinated with time. We listen to music sequentially, he says: "And since time passes slowly in music, we are immersed in a world that is richer and more eventful than ordinary life." And so goes this symphony. Boykan packs a lot into short spaces in the opening movement, yet he keeps the orchestration transparent. Colors and textures are in constant flux, but the pace is unrushed. Beginning with a slow rustling of strings and winds, Boykan envisions the movement as a musical dawn — one that opens wide to a kaleidoscope of sonic possibilities. Chalk this concentrated, committed performance up as another winner — and important discovery — from conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

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