For the Election: Simple Gifts of American Music

Simple Gifts, a new live recording from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS), is filled with eminently accessible, decidedly optimistic American music written between 1854 and 1993. Its frequently dance-worthy melodic beauty makes for a most lovely 77 minutes of pure pleasure, and is conducive to both focused listening and background enjoyment. Available as both a 24/48 download from HDTracks (which I auditioned) and other sites, as well as in CD form, the recording reflects the positive, "new world" outlook that inspired many of its compositions.

Simple Gifts begins with Louis Moreau Gottschalk's blatantly patriotic and more than a little amusing The Union, Concert Paraphrase on National Airs for Piano. Written in 1862, during the Civil War, this rallying cry for all things patriotic (well, at least for the Union side) predates John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever by 34 years. Rousingly performed by Gilles Vonsattel, in an echt cheerleader meets grand-dame cutting loose style, it weaves together several patriotic tunes, including "Yankee Doodle," "Hail, Columbia," and "The Star-Spangled Banner," in a manner far more literal than anything that great American maverick composer, Charles Ives, ever composed. Everyone save for those deathly allergic to patriotism will find it lots of fun.

Gottschalk's high-spirited, 7-minute romp benefits from the atmosphere generated by staging the concert in the tobacco barn of the historic Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill. You can literally feel the positive energy as the audience eats up selection after selection. While the Shakers who inhabited the 34 historic structures and surrounding 3000 acres of the National Historic Monument may not have lived lives as simple and non-controversial as the liner notes for the Live from Lincoln Center recording suggest—their staunch emphasis on celibacy and the single life, for example, certainly didn't contribute to a sustaining vision—the movement did produce the touching song, "Simple Gifts," which Aaron Copland used as the centerpiece for his great ballet score, Appalachian Spring (1944).

Written during WWII, Copland's moving affirmation of American life was commissioned by the great dancer, Martha Graham, who wanted a ballet with "an American theme." Copland initially intended Ballet for Martha as the title, and imagined "a pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the [19th] century." Graham in turn, inspired by a phrase in Thomas Hart Crane's poem, "The Dance," renamed the work Appalachian Spring. CMS's ensemble of 13 does a beautiful job with the 25-minute masterpiece, whose enduring power to evoke feelings of warmth, nostalgia, and inclusiveness via deceptively simple means confirms Copland's greatness.

It's fun to go back 90 years from Appalachian Spring to Stephen Foster's three short dances from The Social Orchestra for Ensemble (1854), as newly arranged by flutist Tara Helen O'Connor. They, too, sound authentic, even though Copland had far, far less Main-Street American roots than did Foster. Then again, did Antonín Dvorák really understand American culture when he was brought over from Czechoslovakia in 1892 to help inspire American composers to create their own national musical identity, or did he instead create an idealized mix of "Negro" spirituals, "Indian" songs, and cowboy melodies that he interwove with a melodic inspiration whose roots lay in the Bohemian countryside?

Be that as it may, Dvorák's Sonatina in G major for Violin and Piano (1893), the last work he wrote in America, is quite lovely. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann and pianist Wu Han, she co-director of CMS with her husband, cellist David Finckel, do a lovely job with it. Wu Han also joins Vonsattel for one of Samuel Barber's ligher works, Souvenirs for Piano, Four Hands (1951–1952). In some sense a party piece, its neo-romantic take on dance rhythms draws its inspiration from visits for tea to the Palm Court of New York's Plaza Hotel and music played at the Blue Angel Club. No all-American pretense here.

Mark O'Connor's short F.C's Jig for Violin and Viola (1992–93) returns us to Appalachia. He wrote the tune for Appalachia Waltz, the album he created with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and double bassist Edgar Meyer. (Couldn't someone play their music at audio shows rather than yet another round of adagios from Gary Carr?) Here performed on violin and viola by Sussmann and Paul Neubauer, the jig is as joyous and authentic sounding a romp as Stephen Foster's three tunes.

As a vehicle for music that reflects the lives and aspirations of a genuine aspect of American culture, Simple Gifts is a joy.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for sharing- JVS.

dalethorn's picture

Interesting and informative. I've discovered Dvorak, Barber and others through Stereophile reviews, so I vote for more of the same!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you for voicing your preferences. My goal is to present a diversity of music, from the brand new to medieval, Renaissance and baroque. I am a romantic at heart, so I certainly promise more Dvorak and Barber along the path. But my thoughts for the next review will take us down a very different road. You shall see...

pbarach's picture

There was a documentary about this music venue broadcast this summer, including full performances of everything on the CD. Very enjoyable. And you can see that the audience enjoyed themselves.