AMERICANS IN ROME: Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome. BEASER: 4 Dickinson Songs. BARBER: Songs. THOMPSON: Siciliano. LADERMAN: Songs from Michelangelo, No. 1. BERMEL: Spider Love. BEESON: Prescription for Living. NAGINSKI: Look down, fair Moon. SOWERBY: The Forest of the Dead Trees. RAKOWSKI: For Wittgenstein. GIANNINI: There were two swans. LINDROTH: The Dolphins. SESSIONS: 2 Tableaux and Malince's Aria from Montezuma. CARTER: Songs. KERNIS: Mozart en Route. MORAVEC: Passacaglia. LEVERING: Tessarae. LENNON: Sirens. STEINERT: Violin Sonata. BRESWICK: 3 Intermezzi. HARTKE: Beyond Words. FOSS: Fantasy Rondo. INCE: My Friend Mozart. ROCHBERG: Bagatelles #4, #5. HELFER: Nocturne. DIESENBRUCK: Sound Reasoning in the Tower of Babel. WINGATE: Sombras. LAYTON: 3 Studies for Piano. RUSH: Oh, Susanna. WYNER: Commedia. LANG: Vent. IMBRIE: Dandelion Wine. HYLA: Pre-Amnesia. Mythic Birds of Saugerties. LAM: - (solo). = (duo). MOBBERLEY: Beams. HANSON: Pastorale for Oboe and Piano. SHAPERO: Six for Five Wind Quintet (#1, 2, 6).
Hila Plitmann (soprano); Susan Narucki (soprano); Chris Pedro Trakas (baritone); Donald Berman (piano); Curtis Macomber (violin); Fred Sherry (cello); Tara Helen O'Connor (flute); Charles Neidich (clarinet); Daniel Druckman (percussion); James Baker (percussion); Jeffry Milarsky, conductor; Tony Arnold (soprano); Colorado College Festival Orchestra/Scott Yoo; Ida Kavafian (violin); Steven Tenenbom (viola); Peter Wiley (cello); Trio Solisti; Jonathan Bagg (viola); Sunghae Anna Lim (violin); Ole Akahoshi (cello); Opus One Piano Quartet; Richard Stoltzman (clarinet); Yehudi Wyner (piano); Patti Monson (flute); Collage Music Ensemble; Tim Smith (alto sax, bass clarinet); John Leisenring (trombone); Laura Ahlbeck (oboe); The Curiously Strong Wind Quintet.
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9271AD (F) (DDD) TT: 284:16 (4 CDs)

There's no place like Rome. Founded in 1913 mainly by the robber barons, the American Academy in Rome offers stipends to liberal scholars and to artists. It seems to have been founded on the model of the Academy of France in Rome, on the grounds that Americans were artistic boors and needed help. As far as its support of great artists is concerned, it has surpassed its model by far, especially in music. Donald Berman, the artistic director of this recording, has devoted the program to some of those who have passed through. The four-CD set breaks down as follows: vocal music; music for strings and piano; music for piano solo; music for winds and piano.

Like most collections, you'll probably like some of the selections better than others. The well-known figures in general tend to do well, but then so do some of the lesser-known ones. On the other hand, the first three winners of the Rome Prize (Hanson, Thompson, and Sowerby) are not shown by their best work. Also, there are lots of surprises. For example, Elliott Carter, whom I, for one, don't normally think of as a vocal composer, blows everybody else out of the water (including Samuel Barber) with two magnificent settings: Whitman's Warble for Lilac Time and Hart Crane's Voyage. I'd known the latter only in its piano-vocal accompaniment, but Carter orchestrated it in 1979 -- at the Academy, as it turns out. In the orchestrations, the songs gain immeasurably in beauty and power, and they were already pretty wonderful to begin with. Jack Beeson (with text by lyricist Sheldon Harnick) provides a moving aria from his opera Dr. Heidegger's Fountain of Youth, based on a Hawthorne short story. The Barber interests me because three of them weren't published in his lifetime. They're professional, but you can see why he held them back. "Sleep now," from his settings of Joyce's Chamber Music and a favorite of baritones, has the stamp of something special. So does Derek Bermel's "Spider Love," which to me owes something to William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs. The poem, by Wendy S. Walters, wittily discourses on bad relationships, and Bermel matches her breezy, vernacular touch. Robert Beaser's Dickinson songs also surprised me in that they actually held my interest, something I can't say for any other work of his I've heard. To some extent, they take something from Copland's Dickinson songs, but have their own poetry. Dickinson's typical "hymn-meter" style can trap a composer in rhythmic monotony, but Beaser doesn't fall into the trap.

Of the works for strings, with or without piano, I greatly enjoyed Aaron Jay Kernis's brief but very funny Mozart en Route. Kernis imagines what it might be like were Mozart to travel the United States, with its rich array of idioms and styles. He takes ideas from a Mozart string trio and has fun dressing them up in bluegrass, jazz, and other togs. Furthermore, Kernis writes beautifully for string trio. Paul Moravec, a composer I find uneven, scores big here with his Passacaglia for piano trio. It may very well be a passacaglia on paper, but a listener hears it more as a giant arch. It reaches a very powerful climax indeed. Stephen Hartke's piano trio Beyond Words takes off from Thomas Tallis's Lamentations of Jeremiah, without actually going so far as to make a big deal of those themes. Tallis's themes suggest other ideas, Hartke's own. In its way, it stands up to the very different Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia.

To tell the truth, the remaining works (with, of course, a few exceptions) fell either into the irredeemably bland or the irredeemably just-too-precious. Of the piano works, Lukas Foss's 1944 neoclassic masterpiece, Fantasy Rondo, combines Stravinsky and an evocation of jazz that Leonard Bernstein also exploited. Foss was a piano virtuoso, and it shows in the bright and beautiful sonorities he comes up with. George Rochberg's Bagatelles show a precise aural imagination and pack a lot into their roughly two-and-a-half minutes. Mark Wingate's Sombras ("shadows") use live delay at pre-determined intervals to create something both intriguing and expressive. It's a cutting-edge mix of electronics, minimalism, and something of Wingate's own -- taste, perhaps (although that implies a negative), or a sense of mesure. This is one of the few acoustic-cum-electronics works I've heard where the composer hasn't thrown in the kitchen sink, and it's all the better for it. Howard Hanson's Pastorale appears in its oboe-piano incarnation (the composer orchestrated it) -- old-fashioned, perhaps, but with a gorgeous tune in the middle section. Harold Shapero's three excerpts from Six for Five show good humor and gently tease older vernacular forms. James Mobberley's Beams! -- for solo trombone and tape -- features the incredible playing of John Leisenring, the dedicatee. The piece itself has shape and drama. How Leisenring coordinated with the tape, I have no idea, and, as opposed to a laissez-faire sandbox in which the soloist can wallow, the work depends on synchronicity between human and machine. The tape sounds themselves are handsome, not something I ordinarily say about such things.

The performances are uniformly excellent, in some cases with the composers' participating. Not every Fellow or Resident of the Academy made it into the front rank, but many of them did. Furthermore, not all of them came from one or two of the main musical currents. We get Boulangeristes and dodecaphonists, to be sure, but we also get conservatives, neo-Romantics, avant-gardistes, Seventies' mavericks, and so on. The American Academy showed catholicity of taste. It seems to concern itself only with the encouragement of quality. Art, after all, is a hit-or-miss game, even with the best intentions. Nevertheless, commitment counts.

S.G.S. (March 2009)