Festival takes note of rich American piano repertoire

CRITIC'S CORNER

Critic's Corner//Music

March 07, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Do the names Anthony Philip Heinrich, William Mason, Arthur Farwell, Homer Bartlett and Arthur Foote ring any bells? No?

Then how about Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach and Henry Cowell?

Sounding a little more familiar?

Add Charles Ives and Aaron Copland into the mix, and the bell rings loudly - we're talking about American composers.

Starting today and running through Sunday, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park will present works by these composers and several more as part of a remarkable festival called The American Piano.

"It struck me that the keyboard repertoire that American composers have produced is the outstanding achievement in any genre," says Joseph Horowitz, originator and artistic director of the festival and author of such provocative books as Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall. "It is something that I had never properly appreciated."

Horowitz set about correcting that. With prominent participation of two pianists who have put American music at the forefront of their careers, Anthony de Mare and Steven Mayer, he has built an ambitious festival that promises extraordinary discoveries.

In addition to several concerts offering an extensive sampling of classical and jazz pieces, there will be panel discussions, master classes and informal conversations with audiences, all aimed at revealing and reveling in the richness of American keyboard repertoire.

Rarities will be everywhere, including Adagio and Polacca by the "Beethoven from Kentucky," as Heinrich was nicknamed in pre-Civil War America, and, from recent times, Frederic Rzewski's De Profundis, which requires the pianist not just to play, but recite from the eponymous text by an imprisoned Oscar Wilde.

You'll find showpieces by Gottschalk, the first American classical superstar, and a rag by Scott Joplin, along with such seminal 20th-century masterworks as Ives' Concord Sonata and Copland's Piano Variations - not to mention transcriptions of brilliant improvisations by Art Tatum and Fats Waller. "The piano is a democratic medium," Horowitz says, "as comfortable in a nightclub as in Carnegie Hall."

This may be the only country whose classical music listeners routinely ignore classical music written by their own citizens. Horowitz traces that neglect to long-standing attitudes.

"It originated after the First World War," he says, "when a lot of American composers, typically trained in France, saw themselves as the first indigenous composers and unfairly denigrated [those] from before 1920." The earlier composers were frequently dismissed as "European clones."

Even Ives, the furthest thing possible from such a clone, has not enjoyed the attention he deserves. "I can't think of a single American pianist of international reputation who played the Concord Sonata," Horowitz says. "But I can think of Canadian, French and Russian pianists who play it. How can you justify that? One of the things we'll discuss at the festival is whether American piano music is being adequately served by American pianists."

Another topic on the agenda: Why music by jazz guys like Waller and Tatum, who typically didn't write down their compositions, should be included alongside that of Ives or Copland.

The American Piano opens with a jazz concert by pianist Steve Kuhn this afternoon. Tomorrow, "Copland, the Piano and Politics" will include not just music, but readings from the composer's appearance before Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous hearings in the 1950s and from Copland's FBI file.

Saturday includes a marathon of "maverick" composers. Piano-based chamber works by Ives, Beach and Foote will be on the final program Sunday.

That's just a small portion of the schedule. For more information, call 301-405-2787 or visit claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.

Handel Choir

The Handel Choir of Baltimore, the city's oldest choral organization (70 years-plus), added its voice to the celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday with an interesting, vibrantly delivered program Saturday night at the Cathedral of the Incarnation.

In her second season as artistic director, Melinda O'Neal has been a boon to the ensemble, which had been on shaky musical ground. She essentially rebuilt the choir, taking the proven quality-over-quantity approach, and that effort paid off nicely on this occasion.

The chorus, about 40 strong, delivered a disciplined, smooth-toned account of Mozart's Coronation Mass, with contributions from expressive guest soloists (Emily Noel, Leneida Crawford, Matthew Heil, Phillip Collister) and a more or less on-target orchestra of period instruments.

A Coronation Anthem by Handel also found the choir in sturdy shape. A mix of pieces for various combinations of voices and/or instruments by Haydn, Mozart and his father filled out the evening.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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