Music » Music Features

RPO highlights American music in new festival


American music is like America, says Ward Stare, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's music director.

"It's a melting pot," he says, "a diversity of sounds and influences, and a tremendous breadth of styles. And Rochester has been an important center for American music for nearly a hundred years."

Stare will prove his point in the next couple of weeks, when he inaugurates the RPO's first American Music Festival. Stare will lead three concerts' worth of music from a variety of American composers, from a piece written at the turn of the 20th century by Charles Ives to large-scale works written in the past decade by Jennifer Higdon and John Adams. In between are American classics by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and David Diamond, to name a few.

There are some big works on the programs, but Stare is beginning his series on a modest scale this Sunday afternoon at Hochstein Performance Hall. Two of the program's works have a Rochester connection: the energetic "Rounds" by Rochester-born composer David Diamond; and the dark, moody "Iscariot" by Christopher Rouse, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who taught at the Eastman School of Music for many years.

Stare knew Diamond (who was born here in 1915 and died in 2005), and took several composition lessons with him while he was a high school student. "He was the first big-time musical name I ever encountered in person," Stare says. "He was a friend of all these great figures, like Bernstein and Copland, and he lived right here in Rochester. That made a huge impression on me."

The Hochstein program also includes George Gershwin's early "Lullaby" for string orchestra, and Aaron Copland's suite from his opera "The Tender Land," a sterling piece of Americana in the vein of his classic "Appalachian Spring." And there is a work by a contemporary composer, Alan Fletcher, whom Stare met at the Aspen Music Festival. "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" will be a live soundtrack to a short film by Bill Morrison; the synchronization is controlled by the conductor.

The festival's second concert, part of the RPO's regular subscription series, features John Adams's "Doctor Atomic Symphony," the major piece on the October 27 and 29 programs. Dr. Atomic is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the main character of Adams's 2005 opera; the symphony, like Richard Strauss's "Rosenkavalier" suite or Berg's "Lulu" suite, is a synopsis of the opera — and a virtuoso piece for the orchestra, as it depicts the violence of the first atomic bomb blast and Oppenheimer's reflection on the forces he unleashed.

The "Dr. Atomic Symphony" was recorded by the St. Louis Symphony when Stare was its assistant conductor, and so, he recalls, "I got to sit with John Adams during rehearsals, go over the score with him, and pick his brain."

He is prefacing the "Dr. Atomic Symphony" with Charles Ives's brief, enigmatic "Unanswered Question." Stare likes the idea of juxtaposing Ives — whom he calls "one of the first truly American composers" — with Adams, as both pieces, in their ways, deal with existential questions. The first half of the concert, "Stage and Screen," is definitely more lighthearted, with "For New York," a three-minute work by John Williams (yes, the "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" John Williams, whom Stare calls "one of our greatest composers, period"); variations on "I Got Rhythm" by George Gershwin, featuring pianist Andrew Russo; and Leonard Bernstein's film score for "On the Waterfront."

The last festival concert (November 3 and 5) follows a "slightly more traditional overture-concerto-symphony program," according to Stare. The "overture" is "Medea's Meditation and Dance of Vengeance" by Samuel Barber, a composer Stare admires greatly and has performed several times with the RPO last season. Barber's score for a Martha Graham ballet based on the Greek legend of a woman who punishes her unfaithful husband by murdering their children, "it's a tone poem really," Stare says. "It covers the gamut of emotions — jealousy, heartbreak, betrayal."

"In keeping with the theme of diversity, I also wanted to feature a female composer in the festival," Stare says. He chose a work by one of the most-performed of all contemporary American composers, Jennifer Higdon, whose Percussion Concerto won a 2010 Grammy Award. The soloist will be Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was written.

"I think this concerto is an excellent symbol of American music in its diversity of instruments and musical styles," Stare says. "Colin is the percussionist right now, and he plays an amazing number of instruments in this piece."

The culmination of the festival is Aaron Copland's grandiloquent Third Symphony, a work that one of its great interpreters, Leonard Bernstein, called "a monument, just like the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument." It was premiered soon after the end of World War II, and was immediately accepted as a quintessentially American work — not least because it incorporates Copland's best-known piece, "Fanfare for the Common Man" (a recommendation, by the way, of his friend David Diamond).

"I believe Copland wanted to elevate the mood of the country and reflect the general euphoria at the end of the war," Stare says. "But the symphony also has all the elegance and depth we associate with Copland's music."

Stare hopes the American Music Festival will be popular, and possibly return, but he adds that it is part of what he calls an "American music thread throughout the 2016-17 season." For example, the RPO's opening concert began with Ron Nelson's "Savannah River Holiday," and almost every program includes music by an American composer, new or old.

"Awareness is improving," he says, "but audiences still don't know all they should about American music ... It is the responsibility of RPO to present American music to its audiences. And Rochester has been an important center for American music for nearly 100 years."