CARPENTER: Symphony No. 1 (1940). Symphony No. 2 (revised
1947). Adventures in a Perambulator (1947).
Like his contemporary Charles Ives (1874-1954), John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) was a businessman who composed. But Ives, if he knew the other's music, would likely have dismissed him as a mere "Rollo." Carpenter had pedigree, wealth, two famous wives (the second, Ellen Borden, left her dairy-heir husband for Carpenterone of Chicago's juicier Society scandals of the prewar period), and two brothers who ran the ship-supply business founded by their father while John Alden traveled a lot. Carpenter studied with John Knowles Paine at Harvard and Elgar at Rome ( briefly), but most notably with Bernard Ziehn, a celebrated Chicago theorist of the time.
He composed a good deal of music about which Virgil Thomson wrote in American Music since 1910: 20th Century Composers, "Carpenter was an impressionist composer of superficial but perfectly real charm. His works embodying whimsy, gentle sentiments, and the picturesque are more striking than his monumental ones." Fair enough. His most famous piece remains the six-movement suite from 1914, Adventures in a Perambulator, a baby's view of the world, which is best in the section entitled "The Lake" (Michigan, that is). His two other most popular works, then if not today, were the ballets Krazy Kat in 1922, based on a famous and very funny comic strip of the '20s and '30s, and Skyscrapers, which the Metropolitan Opera produced in 1926. The latter was recorded by Kenneth Klein for EMI in 1987 along with "other music of the American East Coast School" (obviously the coinage of a geographically naif Brit). Krazy Kat can be enjoyed on a New World CD conducted by Calvin Simmons, the most talented African-American conductor we have yet produced, who died tragically young of a heart attack while swimming.
Both are better works in their entirety than Perambulator, while neither symphony (composed in 1940 and 1941, respectively) stays in the ear longer than the time it takes to play, in both cases just over 19 minutes. This is not to impugn the conducting of John McLaughlin Williams, also African-American, who graduated from the Cleveland Institute and has performed as a violin soloist and string quartet leader despite his comparative youth. This is Williams'third Naxos disc of American music with the Ukrainian National Symphony, produced by a resident team that knows its business well enough for the works at hand. Except in the fanciful middle movements of Perambulator, Williams does seem a far more cautious conductor than Theodore Kuchar, who has led the lion's share of Naxos CDs from Kiev to date. And both symphonies need more than a third-tier foreign orchestra's generic response to unfamiliar music, conducted by a serious but self-effacing visitor, to leave any mark.
R.D. (June 2001)