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Music review: 'The Greatest Generation' by Pacific Symphony

February 5, 2010 |  3:30 pm

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Hard times can produce great art.

So writes Joseph Horowitz, the artistic advisor for the Pacific Symphony's annual American Composers Festival, to introduce “The Greatest Generation,” this year’s theme. Hard times can, indeed, inspire greatness. But there are no guarantees.

The centerpiece of this admirable festival, Thursday night in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, was the celebration of stalwart Americans who endured the Great Depression, embraced the New Deal and fought in World War II. Some are still with us and came to listen and to accept honor. A few veterans wore their splendid uniforms, which still, impressively, fit after nearly 70 years. This was, thankfully, one orchestral concert where no one dare bemoan an aging audience.

Patriotism was, of course, on parade. For the first half of the program, wartime photos submitted by the audience were projected on a large screen while the orchestra played Copland’s stirring “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Bernard Herrmann’s somber “For the Fallen.”  Among the soldiers were music director Carl St.Clair’s father. For an evening at least, a divided country had no cause for dispute.

There were lessons to be recalled. A video interview with Tom Brokaw began the program. He coined the term Greatest Generation and spoke of thrift as one of its defining qualities. The Pacific Symphony took heed. It can no longer afford to publish a glossy companion book and DVD, as it did for the earlier festivals. Still, it has properly maintained its priorities for educational ancillary events and the commissioning of new American works. The concert ended with the world premiere of Michael Daugherty’s lavish “Mount Rushmore” for orchestra, chorus and organ.

But there is also artistic danger in such a program. Hard times can also fuel excessive populism and propaganda. A populace obviously needs encouragement. And during the Depression and Second World War, American artists had neither the resources nor the support to experiment. Music, in particular, was asked to forgo idealism and work to lift spirits and inspire effort.

America has no wartime symphony, as Russia has Shostakovich’s Seventh, that lingers. Even so, there were surely more options than some of the odd choices of all-purpose nationalism Thursday. Gould’s “Amber Waves,” which opened the second half of the program, is a sentimental elaboration of “America the Beautiful” that was written in 1976 for America’s bicentennial.

On the other hand, Kurt Weill’s little known "Four Walt Whitman Songs," which were given their West Coast premiere in their orchestral version, proved a genuine discovery. In response to Pearl Harbor, the German composer who had fled Nazi Germany set Whitman’s Civil War poetry in a style somewhere between that of his bittersweet Broadway songs and his more acerbic earlier work. In “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Whitman’s exultation to battle takes on sarcastic Brechtian overtones. In “Dirge for Two Veterans,” the composer of “Alabama Song” now evokes a silvery moon that shines light on the dead.

Douglas Webster was the baritone, and he may now feel like a veteran himself, wrestling with an orchestra stronger than he. But a situation in which the many crush the valiant individual was not inappropriate.

“Mount Rushmore” was the evening’s most confused offering. Daugherty is a flamboyant symphonist with a flair for revitalizing pop icons. Clark Kent, Elvis, Jackie Kennedy and UFOs have been among his irresistible subjects. 

A suitable subject for Daugherty might well have been the quixotic Gutzon Borglum, who carved four presidents on a South Dakota mountainside during the Great Depression. But Daugherty chose instead to focus on Borglum’s subjects, using texts taken from the writings of the presidents.

Daugherty knows how to make a sensational splash, but this was pretty much all sugar, be it the pseudo-shake singing for Washington, a Jefferson who seemed to step out of “Carmina Burana” or the flashy outdoorsy Theodore Roosevelt. 
 
A setting of the “Gettysburg Address” ended the work. This was an adaptation from Daugherty’s “Letters From Lincoln,” for baritone and orchestra. Puccini and “Dixie” and heaven knows what else collide grandiloquently. 

Daugherty can be contagious, and he had quite a time with the Pacific Chorale and the hall’s big organ. Orchestra and chorus were vibrant. But a curiosity of classical music is that a Hollywood Lincoln is tacky, whereas a symphonic Superman really does seem a new deal.

-- Mark Swed 

"The Greatest Generation," Pacific Symphony, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $25-$185. (714) 755-5799 or www.pacificsymphony.org  

Related: 

Students help make history for composers festival

Photo: Carl St.Clair conducts the Pacific Symphony at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Thursday night. Credit: Micharl Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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