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Morton Gould – American Ballads, Foster Gallery, American Salute
Theodore Kuchar – National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine – Naxos CD 8.559005
By Keith Barrett

     Morton Gould was a major figure in American Music for over 70 years. He was a composer, conductor, arranger, recording artist, pianist and head of ASCAP from 1986-1994. He received the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1994. Often drawing from American popular music, the vernacular as he called it, his music is often challenging and rewarding to the performer and listener. You just listen and enjoy. This is not to say that he did not have a serious side to some of his compositions. It’s just that, as the program notes on this disc state, "Even in his ‘serious’ vein, Gould’s music is full of easy-listening melody, his orchestral colors vivid and atmospheric."
     This excellent disc, part of Naxos’ American Classics series, offers three works all based on pre-existing American Tunes. Only one other composer comes to mind, who could so thoroughly absorb and work over a well known tune, kneading and blending it and infusing it with their own personal style and that other composer is Percy Grainger. These are decidedly not mere arrangements of pre-existing tunes, but new works in their own right. A perfect example is Gould’s most famous work, American Salute. This piece from 1947 is a brilliant working out of the Civil War tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Patrick S. Gilmore. It presents many of the trademark Gould sounds, including brilliant orchestral writing, highly rhythmic power and a visionary grand sweep. This piece takes you for a quick exhilarating ride and its continuing popularity is well deserved. I’ve known this and played this for years and never get tired of it.
     With the other two works on the disc, Gould takes the principles of American Salute and works them out on a much broader canvas. Here he gets to flex his muscles and create two highly successful musical pictures. American Ballads and Foster Gallery are both multi movement works around 35 minutes long, based completely on great American tunes. The first, American Ballads was a Bi-Centennial composition. Here Gould has the audacity to press into service some of our most cherished tunes - "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." How much more can be done with these tunes? Again I say, "Listen and enjoy." Making up the first two movements "Star Spangled" is fast paced tour de force, and "Amber Waves" is the most powerful and heartfelt working of America the Beautiful" I’ve ever heard. Movement three uses a song of Henry Clay Work, "The Year of Jubilo," and movement five has "The Girl I Left Behind Me" as a basis. Quick movements both. The middle piece is called "memorials" and has "Taps" as an underling theme. Wow! It goes right to the heart. The final movement triumphantly sets "We Shall Overcome." I say it’s about time we dump that Russian anthem, The 1812 Overture at the Fourth of July celebrations and use Gould’s work instead!
     The Foster Gallery uses a whole slew of well-known and not so well known Stephen Foster songs written in a similar style as American Ballads. He uses "Camptown Races" as a sort of musical glue to this 13-movement work. The tune reappears in different forms between movements, much as the "Promenade" reappears in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Many of the settings of individual tunes are short and sweet, and brilliantly creative. Several sections, such as number six "Old Black Joe" and "My Old Kentucky Home" are longer, thoughtful workings of their subjects and quite moving. The work adds up to a grand and glorious whole and should be heard on American Symphony programs much more often. Sure to be a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
     All these works have been recorded before, two by Gould himself; however, this disc is the first to couple all three together. The orchestral playing is of high quality and full of vim and vigor. You’d think this was an American orchestra, so thoroughly do they "get" the style. The sound is excellent as is usually the case for Naxos. Finally at its budget price, there is really no reason not to get this disc! One final note, it is quite interesting to compare Gould’s working of Stephen Foster with Percy Grainger’s Tribute to Foster. This extraordinary Grainger work uses Foster’s "Camptown Races" as a base. Tribute to Foster evokes some of Grainger’s earliest musical memories, that of his mother singing him to sleep with Foster’s tune. He sets Foster’s verses and then adds four of his own to create an unforgettable musical experience, emotionally overwhelming and exquisitely haunting. Here Grainger manages to out-Gould Gould! Anyway, check it out on a Philips CD of Grainger Choral Works, with John Elliot Gardiner conducting. I hope you’ll join me as I feature both the Gould and Gardiner recording along with more from the Naxos American Series on Monday, September 25 on Monday Evening Classics.

Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 2000

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