“Anyone can be drunk, anyone can be in love, anyone can waste time and weep, but only I can pen my songs in the remaining years or minute.” So wrote one of America’s most irreverent and individualistic composers of the 20th century – Ned Rorem. Winner of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his set of variations for orchestra, Air Music, Rorem is still best known for his art songs. Still with us at the age of 96, Rorem has a storied life as a premier artist, whose music has been performed by the likes of Bernstein, Mehta, Masur, Ormandy, Previn, and Stokowski, among many others. Rorem’s first influences were Debussy and Ravel. In fact, he lived in Paris from 1949 to 1958, studying with Arthur Honegger, further cementing the Gallic flavor of his music.
Rorem studied for two summers under Aaron Copeland, and it’s not difficult to hear that esteemed composer’s presence throughout Rorem’s many songs, symphonies and chamber pieces. Rorem’s status in the American press was anything but dull. Two critical excerpts will serve to illustrate this: Lawrence Johnson of The South Florida Sun Sentinel, wrote of the Composer’s music: “There is a 1950s Americana feel in this music with its lean melancholy and some deft French elements.” And concerning the man, himself, Jake Stockinger, of The Capitol Times (Madison), wrote: “[Rorem] is an American Bad Boy composer.” I will assume that Mr. Stockinger was referring to Ned Rorem’s penchant for calling out the 12-tone serialists who populated the American musical landscape at the time, fearlessly calling them, “serial killers” in his voluminous and topical diaries. And now to the music:
Symphony No. 1 (1950) – Our attention is immediately captured by the blaring brass, quickly followed by the winds and strings. Rorem, a veritable cinematic composer knows how to bring his listeners to heel. The ensuing lush strings – sinuous in their expression – call to mind the color of Debussy and Ravel. Serebrier’s Bournemouth players are skilled in the clean spacious execution here. Things become more syncopated with the introduction of a dialogue between the flute and french horn, overlaying a line from the harp. Rorem inserts several climaxes before leading us to the 2nd movement.
In the 2nd movement, which, according to the liner notes, Rorem later made into an arrangement for solo organ, Rorem provides a serene, joyous andantino that is as emphatic in its own bucolic way as it is charming. The largo is altogether more pensive and displays a sensitive and expansive side of Rorem. Marked by occasional flourishes from the winds and strings, the 3rd movement is a substantive declaration of, if anything, peace of mind. The last movement is chock full of rapid interplay by all members of the orchestra. The liner notes make mention of Rorem borrowing an Arab wedding tune he heard in Morocco as part of the second motive wthin this movement.
Symphony No. 2 (1956) – Episodic in its beginning, the 2nd Symphony, audibly clears its throat a few times before embarking on the central theme by the violas and cellos. Spacious and uncluttered, it becomes more jaunty, festive, first by the bassoons, after some orchestral splashes. This movement, twice as long as the following two movements. The 2nd movement, tranquilo, led by solo flute, allow the influence of Copland (and even Dvorak) into view. This is burnished, American music at its best. The 3rd movement, full of timpani and syncopated strings, features the piano, eschewing the use of the harp.
Symphony No. 3 (1958) – The five movement 3rd Symphony was premiered by Leionard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in April of 1959. It’s overwhelmingly warm reception belies its sporadic performances over the ensuing decades. This Naxos disc was released in the 80th year of the composer’s birth, making it a treasure of a disc; especially when you discover Rorem’s 1st and 2nd Symphonies weren’t recorded until this release. It’s a shame that such monumentally important music should have fallen into the shadows of neglect, but that just makes this Naxos release all the more essential for your collection.
The first movement opens, as the notes read, with a “passacaglia in C”, noted by the Composer, himself. The melody is a twisting, haunting exploration of brooding, mournful sound. It morphs, eventually, into more exalted, dramatic territory, a drum roll ushering us into the second movement. This is the movement that channels Bernstein in his most jazzy moments, though jazz was an idiom not far from the minds of either Composer. Jose Serebrier, the conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony who assayed this music, is also the writer of the notes, and he stated that the third movment had “all the charm of a Rorem song”. It is a busy movement, and Rorem’s favorite, if the notes are to be trusted. The fourth movement is a gentle, lilting andante that is all the more winsome for the presence of some agile English horn playing. The final movement plays with a triumphant mood, and does so repeatedly, interspersing moodier elements throughout. There is a grand cresecendo near the end followed by pizzicato strings.
Don’t miss this music, It’s perfect partner for the Summer nights we are gifted with. In fact, it is perfect for anytime. At Naxos prices, this disc is a steal. Notes are in English and German.