Virgil Thomson once defined American music as music written by Americans. It is the only possible definition. Yet, we want more. The Los Angeles Philharmonic spent the Thanksgiving weekend with three works that were quintessentially American, and it was hard not to look for connections.
Christopher Hailey posed, in the program book, a communality of purpose in the three composers. Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Charles Ives found their materials in the culture all around them, not in Europe, and all were bit by a show-biz bug that also seems brashly American. But the unusually eloquent performances Kent Nagano conducted Friday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion brought to these composers a near-European polish.
Nagano’s American papers are entirely in order. He’s a Californian and he surfs. But his career has been greater in Europe than in this country, and he also has a special affinity for French music, for its colors and its poise. And there is also the sensibility of his Japanese heritage. All of these qualities, however, distance him ever so slightly from the brazen East Coast music he chose to conduct. But with that distance came perspective.
Bernstein made one foray into Hollywood, in 1954 for Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront.” And it was through an act of sheer symphonic will that Bernstein then wrenched his atmospheric themes into something far grander, a symphonic suite, which the composer would conduct with an overpowering insistence. Nagano was less pushy, even a little French in bringing out details of piquant color and the lovely majesty he gives a melodic phrase.
Gershwin did something similar with his Concerto in F, cobbling a lavish structure around inspired themes, often not knowing quite when to stop. Still, the work is full of marvels, especially in the piano part, and Wayne Marshall may make the best case for it since the composer himself.
More national confusion. Marshall is a British pianist and impossible to pin down. He is a jazz improviser. He is an organist who plays Baroque music with period practice bands who also likes the juicy French Romantic organ repertory. And he has something fresh to teach Americans about American music.
In the Concerto in F he demonstrated a phenomenal technique, the fleet kind that Gershwin had. Like Gershwin, he lingered over nothing. Like Gershwin his playing was understated yet dazzling at the same time. As an encore he offered an improvisation, first ethereal then up tempo, on “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Marshall, whose first appearance with the Philharmonic this was, is as well.
Ives’ Fourth Symphony is an event. The symphony, completed in 1916 (sort of; Ives never stopped tinkering), looms large in American music history. It is the best candidate for Great American Symphony, but it seemed so impossible to perform that it was not premiered until 1965. It includes just about everything, from a spiritually intense churchly fugue to a wild, jokey scherzo that is a collage of music, popular and classical and folk. It uses a chorus. It asks for four keyboards, including organ, a piano tuned to quarter tones and celesta. An option is an “ether organ,” which may mean Theremin, and the Philharmonic managed to get one of those.
The Fourth is often thought of as wild experimental music and an ambitious portrait of an enterprising America at an optimistic time in its history. It is also a cautionary symphony, exhorting spiritual values. Usually, though, it is the bold insolence, the utter wildness of the music, that most impresses.
Nagano focused on musical values. The scherzo was particularly amusing. The last movement didn’t make its serious spiritual points with overbearing obstinacy. What one found instead was beauty. The textures, so impenetrably thick at times, sounded lush but never overgrown. This was a clean performance and a secure one. And Nagano never let the orchestra forget that everything--be it a variant of “Turkey in the Straw” or a hymn made weird through Ivesian harmony--was not just peculiarly American, but downright extraordinary, music.