American Orchestras: Beyond the Big 5

Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

Despite the wretched economy and a shrinking classical market, American orchestras other than the nominal "Big Five," or Six or Seven--such rankings, meaningful only as P.R. ploys, have more to do with budgets than quality--are making recordings in unprecedented numbers for a variety of upstart labels.

They are not as expensive to record as the fat, often flabby cats, and often there are local subsidies to help out in those cities that still believe that a symphony orchestra enhances the community's image and "quality of life" (if that expression remains current).

So bless 'em all, up to a point--that point having been reached when these orchestras' boards, conductors and recording labels conclude that legitimacy can be achieved only through direct competition with the presumed Big Ones and in the most overworked, catalogue-bloating repertory.

To wit: the 56th(!) CD edition of Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, via the Houston Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach (Virgin 91476); the similarly over-recorded Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" from Yoel Levi and his Atlanta Symphony (Telarc 80296), and the Rachmaninoff Second and Third Concertos from pianist Horacio Gutierrez with the Pittsburgh Symphony under Lorin Maazel (Telarc 80259).

Forget about "good" or "bad," competitive or non-competitive performances. The operative adjective here is unnecessary . Or, in the case of less hackneyed material, overreaching , as with Bruckner's Sixth Symphony in the hands of a thin-stringed Cincinnati Symphony under Jesus Lopez-Cobos' bland direction (Telarc 80264).

On the other hand we have three model, gap-filling enterprises from what were once called, condescendingly, regional orchestras.

There are several remarkable aspects to the San Diego Symphony's recording debut, not least that the orchestra, moribund four years ago, is playing at all. So, bravo to the influential San Diegans who decided they couldn't and shouldn't live without an orchestra.

Bravo to music director Yoav Talmi for whipping the revived orchestra into a cohesive unit in the brief time he has been there and to the tiny Atlanta-based Pro Arte label for suggesting to Talmi that he and orchestra showcase their talents with a work, cultishly beloved in some quarters, passionately reviled in others, that would certainly attract attention: Reinhold Gliere's vast, lushly scored, gloriously blowzy and rarely performed Symphony No. 3, "Ilya Murometz," completed in 1911 and one of the last blooms of the Russian nationalist tradition of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, along with a strong hint of Scriabin's plush mysticism (Pro Arte 589).

Programmatic work dealing with the exploits of its legendary, eponymous medieval hero, the uncut "Ilya" is at 90 minutes' playing time at least 20-odd too long. Talmi has honed it to a negotiable 66 minutes.

The San Diegans' playing under Talmi's surgingly dramatic and finely detailed direction--Gliere's textures tend to be thick--is admirable in all respects, with all praise due the heroic, highly accomplished (and very large) brass section.

Similarly, Milwaukee-based Koss Classics (a subsidiary of the headphone manufacturer) can hardly be accused of pandering to a mass public with its release of the first recording of an idiomatic, clever orchestration by Raymond Leppard of Schubert's decidedly symphonic Grand Duo for two pianos, along with Schubert's lovable and hardly overworked Third Symphony and Overture in C, "In the Italian Style" (Koss 2221).

All are zestfully, elegantly presented by the Indianapolis Symphony--with its outstanding solo winds and sweet-toned violins--under Leppard, its music director since 1987.

We expect offbeat programming from Gerard Schwarz and his Seattle Symphony and continue to get it in another ear-stuffing helping (on Delos 3105) of the archconservative but by no means unimaginative American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981).

This latest program comprises his shades-of-Sibelius-and-Vaughan Williams "Requiem" Symphony (No. 4) of 1943; the earlier, grandly rhetorical and quaintly barbaric "Lament for Beowulf," in which the Seattle Symphony Chorale makes a brave, if almost consonant-less noise, and the terrifically snappy suite from the 1934 opera "Merry Mount."

Rounding out the program are two intimate, delicately Gallic works from the late 1940s: the Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings and the Pastorale for Oboe, Harp and Strings, both from Schwarz and his other orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony.

The Seattle Symphony's performances of the three big works go well beyond the merely skillful, achieving a level of engagement and virtuosity of which any orchestra might be proud.

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