Jamestown Concerto - American Music For Cello And Orchestra

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PERRY Jamestown Concerto. SCHUMAN A Song of Orpheus. THOMSON Cello Concerto • Yehuda Hanani (vc); William Eddins, cond; RTÉ Natl SO • NAXOS 8.559344 (72:09)...
PERRY Jamestown Concerto. SCHUMAN A Song of Orpheus. THOMSON Cello Concerto Yehuda Hanani (vc); William Eddins, cond; RTÉ Natl SO NAXOS 8.559344 (72:09)

And here is another side of William Perry. The Jamestown Concerto (2006) begins with a beautiful solo cello segment that sits halfway between solo cadenza and folkish musing, described as a “cello overture” in Douglas Bruce’s notes. Written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent colony in America in Jamestown, Virginia (1607), it is a poignant work that integrates Perry’s trademark filmic qualities into a concert framework. It also includes musical material derived from a madrigal published in 1501 by John Milton (father of the poet). There is a detailed program (trumpets in the second movement, “Settlement Along the River,” announce the arrival of Captain John Smith to quell an uprising, for example), but it is one that strikes me as optional. Yehuda Hanani is a most eloquent soloist. My colleague Lynn René Bayley found this work rather wanting in her review ( Fanfare 32:3). I find the work’s almost childlike sense of wonder and its clear impression of ongoing narrative, beautifully scored, rather compelling. The playful “Pocahontas in London” fourth movement is enchanting; the fifth bustles while faithfully evoking time and place. Skillful, eminently musical, and poignant pretty much sum up this piece.

Good to see William Schuman’s music here, too. The rest of the music will get less of a say on the grounds that it appears in the context of an article on Perry, but it is good to hear Schuman’s A Song of Orpheus (premiered 1962), especially prefaced by a reading (by Jane Alexander) of Shakespeare’s “Orpheus with his Lute.” I agree with Bayley on every count here (except that I actually do like the idea of the reading of the poem). Superbly atmospheric music, yet at the same time sophisticated, especially in harmonic terms. Finally, Virgil Thomson’s Cello Concerto, a remarkably strong and powerful work, is given a proud and muscular account here by Hanani (which is not to underplay Hanani’s deftness in the finale).

The placing of Perry here is important. He justly takes his place with two giants of American music.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke


PERRY Jamestown Concerto. SCHUMAN A Song of Orpheus. 1 THOMSON Cello Concerto Yehuda Hanani (vc); William Eddins, cond; Jane Alexander (spkr); 1 RTÉ Natl SO NAXOS 8.559344 (72:10 Text and Translation)

These three works, tied by their American heritage and syntax, though not entirely by subject matter—the Schuman is, after all, based on verses by Shakespeare—are given intelligent, sensitive, highly musical performances by renowned cellist Yehuda Hanani, conductor Eddins, and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. The only things they really lack are a more clearly focused sound and a bit more excitement.

William Perry’s concerto is the newest, written in 2006 and premiered in January 2007 by Hanani with the Musica Nova Orchestra in Scottsdale, Arizona. It is also, alas, the weakest. There are some splendid moments in all five movements, depicting the embarkation of the Virginia Company from London in 1606, settlements along the James River (including the introduction of Pocahontas), harsh winters of the colony, Pocahontas in London, and Jamestown 400 years later on; yet in each of these movements the music either began or deteriorated in interest for me, evidencing a style I would charitably describe as populist tonal banality. I don’t know if Perry purposely chose this route or if inspiration failed to connect the more imaginative sequences of his work (the third movement, the opening of the first, and the closing pages of the second), but for all its workmanlike qualities I felt it failed to gel.

Also, perhaps, the populist feel of this concerto was too much in contrast to the more serious and imaginative Song of Orpheus by Schuman. I’d almost forgotten what a truly splendid composer he was! None of this music is unattractive, yet none of it can be called easy listening. Not a note or phrase seems banal, prolonged, or unnecessary. Though perhaps more carefully crafted than written in a flash of insight, this concerto was nevertheless finished in only 11 months, premiered by the excellent American cellist Leonard Rose in 1962. The music is very close in concept to Berlioz’s longer and more familiar Harold in Italy , employing long stretches where the orchestra takes the lead and the cello amiably adds its commentary. Schuman wanted Shakespeare’s poem to be either printed in the concert program or recited from the stage. Of course, the brief text is included in the liner notes, but Naxos felt a need to hire actress Jane Alexander to recite the poem anyway. It’s a nice touch but, to me, an unnecessary extravagance.

I found Thomson’s Concerto (sometimes subtitled “Rider on the Plains”) to be perhaps the crown jewel of this collection. Quite in contrast to both the populist (but not popular ) style of his film scores, which I feel are the finest ever written by an American, or the rhythmically dense, polyphonic style of his operas, the concerto strode a peculiar middle ground. Charming if not-quite-catchy melodies based on hymns, circle game tunes, and even a snippet from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 6 were seamlessly woven into a rich tapestry. The cello definitely takes center stage here, with some of the most extraordinary and complex music Thomson ever wrote. At one point he even sends it flying up into the violin range, much like Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise for cello but for a much longer period of time. Hanani, great virtuoso that he is, handles this with astounding aplomb if not quite the firm control of pitch that Emanuel Feuermann displayed in his Victor recording of the Chopin piece. But how many cellists are Feuermann? Answer: one. Feuermann! (It may also be of interest to note that, in this Concerto, Hanani is playing the same instrument that Paul Olefsky, principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, used in the 1950 premiere. Emmanuel Feldman also does a splendid job with this Concerto on the Albany label, but the more interesting pairing of the Schuman—not available elsewhere—makes this, for me, a more arresting disc.

This is certainly a splendid release, and should by no means be passed up, despite my few disappointments regarding sound and the Perry concerto.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 26, 2008

  • UPC: 636943934425

  • Catalog Number: 8559344

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: William Shuman, Virgil Thomson

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Hanani, Eddins