CRESTON: Janus, op. 77 (1959). Violin Concerto No. 2, op. 78 (1960). Symphony No. 4, op. 52 (1951).
Gregory Fulkerson (violin), Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller.
Albany TROY 737 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:14

Major-minor, minor-major. My first exposure to Paul Creston's music came early in my classical-music listening, roughly around 1960. Eugene Ormandy and the Fabulous Philadelphians televised a concert of American music. In those days, classical music was a regular Special Treat on network television. Ormandy played excerpts and short pieces: Cowell's Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3, the finale from Macdowell's second piano concerto, the party scene and "Promise of Living" from Copland's Tender Land Suite, the second movement from Session's Black Maskers, and the finale to Creston's Symphony No. 2. I can't imagine a program like that today, either on television or in a concert hall, and it counts as one of the most enjoyable of my life. At any rate, all these composers became people whose music I began to seek out.

One of the things that impressed me most about Creston was his name, strong, euphonious, and extremely cool (I plead my extreme youth), but it turns out an invention. Christened Giuseppe Guttovergi, the composer fashioned a name that would sound more American -- much the same reason why Peter Schickele dropped his given name, Johann. In a sense, Creston's name symbolizes his career. Creston formed not only his name, but his own distinct idiom, largely without help. You can't hear a Creston work and not know he wrote it. His characteristic sound, which sounds so natural and so "easy," came about from a lot of hard work, in contrast to many autodidacts, who hit on their path right away. He started out with a strong, modern idiom, very similar to early Copland (a work like the Passacaglia, for example). Copland, indeed, wrote of the abstract, slightly forbidding nature of Creston's music -- a judgment that probably strikes most of the composer's fans as bizarre -- but it was certainly true enough of the music Creston had produced at the time of Copland's article. There followed a period of "assemblage" from various sources, including Ravel (for the harmony), and then, sometime in the late Thirties, the miraculous breakthrough to the Crestonian.

With Creston, distinctions between Modern and Romantic don't make much sense to me. He stands outside movements and by himself. I think of him -- along with composers like Cowell, Holst, Hovhaness, Varèse, and Harrison -- as a maverick, someone too much like himself to be like anyone else. Even Creston's neo-classicism, found in works like the Partita, is interesting to the extent that it doesn't sound like Stravinsky or Hindemith. One doesn't discuss Creston in regard to neo-classicism; one considers neo-classicism in regard to Creston.

Yet, while Creston saw true, he also saw narrow, the fate of a lot of mavericks. His music doesn't display much range. I'd compare him to, say, Walter de la Mare as opposed to William Butler Yeats. De la Mare wrote some of the finest lyric poetry in the language, but the world of the poems comes across as definite and concise, even artificial (that is, as artifice) and parochial. Yeats's vision is far messier and ultimately, I believe, more central to our lives. In the same way, I'd compare Creston and Copland. Creston speaks to a special sensibility. Copland speaks to many. Nevertheless, this doesn't deny the considerable virtues of Creston's music.

To me, Creston's strengths come down to an idiosyncratic sense of harmony and an affinity for powerful cross-rhythms, seen in something like the finale to the second symphony. All the works here -- although they vary in quality -- show these traits pretty clearly. The scores come from the height and the tail end of Creston's glory days, the decade of the Fifties. The latest work, Janus, so named because it falls into two parts (a lyric prelude and a wild dance), succeeds the best -- a single idea generating a long movement, a concentration of energy that builds from almost nothing to a pyrotechnical explosion. The fourth symphony, on the other hand, seems way too loose and too stolid, as if the composer tried like the dickens to get something going and failed. Creston wanted gaiety and brilliance, but for me the symphony, light as tissue paper, relies too much on ideas we hear too often from the composer. It lacks the concision of the Partita, for example, and the last movement especially sounds padded.

The Violin Concerto No. 2 interested me the most. In mood and underlying psychology, it resembles the Barber violin concerto, essentially lyrical but without the great tunes. Unlike Barber, Creston relies for his effects less on melody and more on rhythm and rhetoric. The composer writes a solo part for a star performer (Michael Rabin premiered the work), but the music fits a singer more than a hero. The work has many gorgeous moments -- the slow opening of the middle movement, for one -- but nothing seems to gel quite convincingly. It never gives you the sense that this has been said as well as it can be said, as, say, the Bartók second or either of the Piston concerti do.

The question becomes whether it needs to. I've often felt that minor composers, especially those with strong artistic profiles, give us something valuable, if not strictly speaking necessary to our lives. I don't dump on Bruch because he's not Brahms or on Françaix for failing to reach the level of Ravel, but I do feel a difference in level of achievement. In literature or visual art, I have an easier time identifying the value of a work to me. It comes down to a sense that I've learned something about how to live or how to think about my life. With music, necessarily more abstract, the nature of my attachment becomes more abstract, though no less ardent. In some way, it's the sense that the rhythms of my mind and my emotions come into synch, that I live through a profound experience that I can't articulate. Of course, the problem is that I can and do fall for the cheap and often ignore the great. Also, Schumann's Träumerei affects me, in its way, as much as his second symphony, although "objectively" I recognize that the latter achieves more. Creston's violin concerto may not rise to the Beethoven, but I'd certainly hate to be without it. If Beethoven tells a radiant truth, Creston, less luminous, tells a truth nevertheless.

The performances are, for the most part, decent without passing through to the revelatory. They will do. I make exception for violinist Gregory Fulkerson, who delivers a fiery, first-class reading of the concerto. I say this, while admitting I was a friend of his in his Wunderkind, Oberlin days. Funny thing is, I really never heard him play then. A brilliant kid (he was fifteen or sixteen at the time), he was interested in lots of things, music among them, in contrast to most of his classmates, who knew only their instruments. So I can't tell you how or even whether he improved. Here, he fully steps into the role Creston provides: a mature hero who understands both bravado and subtlety. A terrific reading of, when you come down to it, a fairly delicate work.

S.G.S. (March 2006)