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Finding Nature, Rage And Humor In Modern American Symphonies

By Donald Rosenberg | NPR
Thursday, August 29, 2013

The symphony after World War II appeared to be headed for extinction as composers took divergent paths to experiment with musical language and forms. But the evidence of recent decades shows that the genre was never really on the verge of disappearing.

Dozens and dozens of symphonies — or works of expansive ambition that make generous use of the orchestra or large ensembles — have emerged in the past half-century from composers eager to stretch themselves. Some of these pieces adhere to European models without sounding at all European. Others stray from the rules entirely, establishing fresh means of expression that may or may not have roots in American sources.

As expensive as works of symphonic persuasion may be to bring to performance, they continue to challenge and fascinate composers, more than a few of whom return to this daunting endeavor again and again. Philip Glass has written 10 symphonies. Kevin Puts' Symphony No. 4 is being released Sept. 10.

What's clear from the examples below is that Mahler came close to being right: "The symphony is the world; it must contain everything." These works may not contain everything, but they abound in diverse ideas that reach out in unexpected and affecting directions.

Donald Rosenberg is former music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: Second to None (Gray & Company, 2000). He served four terms as president of the Music Critics Association of North America.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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William Bolcom: Symphony No. 5

Perhaps no American composer is as comfortable in his eclectic skin as William Bolcom, who has written eight symphonies of wildly varied content. His Fifth Symphony (1989) acknowledges tradition in its four-movement format, but most backward gazing ends there. Bolcom traverses a range of techniques and expressive worlds, melding avant-garde roots with ardent and witty rhetoric. His command of the orchestra is always something to behold: Just listen to the inventive use of instruments and sections as Bolcom packs quotations from famous pieces into the zany second movement, marked "Scherzo Mortale."

John Corigliano: Symphony No. 1, 'Of Rage And Remembrance'

The outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s inspired John Corigliano to scream out in musical dismay and pay tribute to lost friends in his Symphony No. 1 (1988-89). It's a massive, haunting score, with four movements that run a gamut of emotions. Corigliano's fury is often apparent — he later expanded the third movement, Chaconne, into a striking work for orchestra and singers, also titled Of Rage and Remembrance. Also striking is his ability to balance modern elements with wisps of nostalgia (an Albeniz-tinged tango, a tarantella). Like Mahler, Corigliano holds nothing back here, and in so doing shows the enduring relevance of the genre.

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony No. 60, 'To The Appalachian Mountains'

Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was one of the most prolific composers of recent times, with more than 500 works in his catalog, nearly 70 of them symphonies. What sets him apart from many other American composers are his mystical serenity and unabashed love for folk- and nature-inflected material. The aura of Hovhaness' Symphony No. 60 (1985) can be discerned in the subtitle, "To the Appalachian Mountains," although he quotes an actual song only in the third movement. The writing is tonal and richly hued, imbued with a grandeur that emanates from another era.

Aaron Jay Kernis: 'Symphony In Waves'

A composer of bountiful skill and resource, Kernis has written three symphonies, the most recent in 2009. Here is his first, Symphony in Waves (1989), a five-movement essay in soaring, animated and vibrant utterance. Kernis touches upon many styles without sticking in any groove for too long, or hardly at all. At the end of the Scherzo, for example, there's a single bar of boogie-woogie. Elsewhere, the music undulates (the waves of the title), embraces lyricism and basks in rhythmic jocularity. It's an orchestral feast of sensuous and captivating personality.

Charles Wuorinen: Percussion Symphony

The most audacious work on this list is Charles Wuorinen's 1976 composition for 24 players, including keyboards. The music is at turns bracingly modern and serenely beautiful. In three of the five movements, Wuorinen explores a galaxy of timbres, atmospheres and layers, setting up dramatic confrontations and probing textures on the extremes of sound. But not all of the music is new. In two short interludes flanking the central movement, the composer summons the ghost of 15th-century Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay, whose setting of Petrarch's "Vergine Bella" is transformed through the magical colors and interactions of instruments subtly struck, brushed and bowed.

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