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The Pulitzer Project
William Schuman: A Free Song
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (suite for full orchestra)
Leo Sowerby: The Canticle of the Sun
Grant Park Chorus (in the Schuman and Sowerby) and Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Kalmar

Review By Joe Milicia

  It would be a splendid idea for Carlos Kalmar, Chicago's Grant Park forces, and the Cedille label to continue their "Pulitzer Project" by eventually recording all the orchestral and choral works that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Music since the inaugural year of 1943. Of course, with over three dozen winners up to the present time, not counting chamber music and opera (or the notoriously few winners from the realm of jazz or other music outside the "Academy"), this would take quite a few seasons to prepare. Even if not all the winners are immortal masterpieces — after all, a number of Best Picture Oscars went to what most people now consider duds — it would be fascinating to revisit them with fresh performances.

For now, we have the present disc, taken from a concert in the summer of 2010, offering us three of the earliest winners, including two cantatas: William Schuman's A Free Song, based on a Walt Whitman text, and the 1946 The Canticle of the Sun (text by St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Matthew Arnold) by Leo Sowerby, both works receiving their world premiere performances here. In between, we hear what is unquestionably the most popular work to win the Pulitzer to date, Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, though in the form of the 1945 orchestral suite rather than the 1944 original ballet score for 13 instruments which actually won the award. (The 1944 winner, Howard Hanson's Fourth Symphony, is skipped over; it would be an excellent piece to inaugurate a Volume 2 of the project.)

William Schuman was fairly young, 33, when he received the first Pulitzer ever for a new work of American music, but he had already composed what is still one of his most performed works, the Symphony No. 3, and was working on his String Symphony (No. 5). The words of A Free Song are taken from Whitman's Civil War poems, Drum Taps, and apply all too well to the world of 1943 (or many another time): "Long, too long, America/Travelling roads all even and peaceful, you learned from joys and prosperity only,/But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish." Through Whitman's words, and with the chorus dominating, Schuman paints a somber picture—with moments of both anguish and stunned immobility — of the "sacred moon" shining down on the corpses of the battlefield. At one point a kettledrum beat suggests a funeral dirge; a mournful oboe duet closes the movement. Next, a fugal orchestral passage, starting with a trio of clarinets and leading on to the composer's trademark jagged brass fanfares — indeed, every bar of this interlude is unmistakably Schumanesque — takes us to the triumphal final section, as we hear "the tramp of armies... the drums beat and the trumpets blowing,/A new song, a free song.... We hear Liberty!" There are colorful effects like the chorus repeating the word "flapping" (of the banners) and percussion punctuating the text with explosive snaps, until we reach the brief but excitingly energetic final passage. Less than 14 minutes in length, the cantata is quite succinct, and with its patriotism, professional skill, and both tragic and triumphal passages, it's easy to understand why it won the prize.

Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) was a Chicago composer who is still far too little known even to fans of American classical music. He wrote a good deal of orchestral music (Cedille provides a sampling on CDR 90000 039), but is best known as a "church musician." According to the helpful program notes by Francis Crociata (president of the Leo Sowerby Foundation), the composer wished to keep the 32-minute Canticle of the Sun before the public as a concert work rather than strictly a "church piece," and indeed it fits the bill, with massive orchestral effects accompanying the chorus's outpourings of praise for the "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon," wind and water, fire and earth, and Christian souls of St. Francis' near-mystical poem. I found it a difficult work to grasp on the first few hearings, though it's always of interest, beginning with an ecstatic orchestral introduction and continuing with passages that are sometimes rousingly dramatic, sometimes fleet with scherzo rhythms, occasionally quietly lyrical. Crociata's notes point out some of the work's tonal and thematic complexities.

In both choral works the Grant Park Chorus sings with tremendous authority and commitment. I can't say I could follow the words without the texts that Cedille provides, but whether that's a problem of the chorus or the recording I'm not sure. In regard to dynamic range, balance of chorus with orchestra and general sonic fidelity, Cedille's recording is superb. The choral climaxes in both the Schuman and Sowerby are grand indeed but not in the least distorted, while the more tender passages have the intimacy one wants. In works with such extreme contrasts of volume and sonorities, it cannot have been an easy job to balance the forces so that all can be heard, but Cedille's engineers have accomplished a great deal.

Separating these sometimes thorny "new" works, but still sharing a certain "American" sound, is Appalachian Spring. I prefer the sweetness and piquancy of the original orchestration (just flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and nine strings), but there is something to be said for the richer sound of the suite for full orchestra, which is only eight minutes shorter than the full ballet. Of course, there are many competitive performances of the suite, beginning with versions by the composer himself and by Leonard Bernstein, but Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra offer a quite satisfying rendition, with especially fine woodwind solos and a rousing brass variation on the "Gift to Be Simple" tune. I found some of the more energetic dances to lack a little of the bounce and sprightliness of the best recordings, but the slow sections, notably the duo of the Bride and her Intended and also the final pages, have a kind of enchanted beauty. Again the sound is excellent in the way it vividly brings out each instrument in a clearly defined orchestral space.





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