New Americans left a legacy to be heard

The NSO celebrates the resounding impression made on the nation's musical life by immigrant and visiting composers.

Classical Music

January 27, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Some of them came here to live, others just to visit. Some were drawn by the prospect of money and maybe a crack at glory, others simply had nowhere else to go.

Whatever the circumstances of their arrival or length of stay, these composers left a substantial mark on this country's cultural life. This legacy will be celebrated by the National Symphony Orchestra in a festival called "Journey to America: A Musical Immigration," running Thursday through Feb. 9 at the Kennedy Center.

It's a typically adventurous NSO festival -- tons of music performed over a short span, much of it rarely, if ever, encountered in a concert hall these days. For good measure, there's even a world premiere.

NSO music director Leonard Slatkin, who has an unusually keen ear for putting together such enticing events, will focus on several broad themes, including patriotic pieces by emigre or visiting composers, and the fertile musical ground of the Hollywood studios.

As if this lineup were not novel enough, Slatkin has come up with a kind of icing for the festival -- more than a dozen arrangements of the national anthem, most of them done by immigrants, too.

"I thought it would be kind of fun if we played two different versions on each program, one to begin each half," Slatkin said the other day from London, where he was preparing to conduct the British premiere of John Adams' controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

"The audience can stand for the first one, if they wish," he said, "but they can just sit and listen to the second version. We'll even have a third version at some concerts, added as a surprise."

Slatkin would give away only one of those surprises in advance.

"I found a version of the national anthem concocted for the Glenn Miller Band," the conductor said. "We'll play that as an encore after Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto."

So many versions

Among the more traditional arrangements of "The Star-Spangled Banner" scheduled are those by some of the 20th century's most significant conductors.

German-born Walter Damrosch led the New York Symphony Society (which his emigre father had founded) and conducted the first U.S. performances of major works by Wagner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. His arrangement from 1918 is probably the most often performed one to this day.

The Hungarian-born Antal Dorati, a former NSO music director, "just made some rhythmic alterations to the Damrosch arrangement," Slatkin said; this version was prepared for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Polish-born Stanislaw Skrowaczewski provided a similar service for the Minnesota Orchestra's new hall in 1972.

Italian-born Arturo Toscanini prepared his version of the tune for the NBC Symphony Orchestra's 1940 South American tour. The next year, Hungarian-born Eugene Ormandy arranged the anthem for his beloved Philadelphia Orchestra, which still uses it.

Leopold Stokowski, born in London of Polish and Irish parents, created yet another version in 1956 for the American Symphony Orchestra.

As for Hungarian-born George Szell, famed director of the Cleveland Orchestra, his was found inside a score of Wagner's Siegfried at the Metropolitan Opera, suggesting that he conducted the arrangement there at some point. "But the Cleveland Orchestra never played it," Slatkin said.

Still more takes on the national anthem, both written around 1940, will come from Russian-born Igor Stravinsky and German-born Kurt Weill.

"They're both very strange," Slatkin said of those composers' arrangements.

Weill's is one of several American patriotic songs he gave large-scale treatment for voices and orchestra; two others, "America" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," will be featured on one of the festival programs.

Stravinsky's version was so startling to some folks that it got him in trouble with the law. The story goes that police in Boston (where else?) once confiscated the orchestral parts because of reports that the arrangement was disrespectful.

"I didn't realize there were so many arrangements out there until we started looking," Slatkin said. "I thought about doing one myself, but there really was no reason to add another one. For me, what's so fascinating is the whole matter of people from another country adopting our national anthem."

'An adopted homeland'

In a way, the entire festival reflects an interest in this phenomenon of cross-cultural pollination.

"It is important to realize the meaning of an adopted homeland to these composers," Slatkin said. "They had more fervor for their adopted country than a lot of composers who were born here. Where are the patriotic works of [Samuel] Barber or [Leonard] Bernstein?"

The festival will open with three bursts of nationalistic fervor.

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