The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Reuben Blundell release American Discoveries, a continuation of their series of promoting previously unrecorded orchestral repertoire unearthed at the Fleischer Collection in Philadelphia. This collection features music by three female composers whose work merits more attention: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandra Pierce.
|02||For A Beautiful Land|
For A Beautiful Land
Behemoth, in five short movementsAlexandra Pierce (b. 1934)
|03||I. quarter note = 80|
I. quarter note = 80
|04||II. Delicately, yet assertive, eighth note = 128|
II. Delicately, yet assertive, eighth note = 128
|05||III. quarter note = 63|
III. quarter note = 63
|06||IV. quarter note = 63|
IV. quarter note = 63
|07||V. Jazzy, quarter note = 112|
V. Jazzy, quarter note = 112
The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Reuben Blundell release American Discoveries, a continuation of their series of promoting previously unrecorded orchestral repertoire. This collection features music by three female composers: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandra Pierce.
Priscilla Alden Beach’s City Trees reflects her studies at Eastman School of Music in the 1920’s and more specifically the influence of composition mentor Howard Hanson. The work is in a ternary form, with languid outer sections and a heroic internal più mosso. Beach’s writing is evocative and colorful, painting vivid scenes with lush orchestration.
Linda Robbins Coleman’s Copland-esque For A Beautiful Land is an homage both to her home state of Iowa but also a general paean to the natural world. Heroic, expansive gestures are contrasted by playful sections featuring sections of the orchestra. The overall tone is extroverted, alternating between rhapsodic and rhythmically taut material.
Alexandra Pierce’s five movement Behemoth is the most ambitious work in this collection. A tone poem that utilizes the rich colors of the orchestra to their fullest effect, Behemoth is inspired by the Book of Job from the Old Testament, and by humanity’s struggle with existence. The first movement features ominous textures framed by dark harmonies and insistent snare drum punctuations. The second movement is scherzo-like, with short gestures on the temple block imitating passagework in the orchestra. The work’s only slow movement is the third, a melancholy unfolding of melodic ideas that are split between the oboe and horn. The short fourth movement fuses the temple block and snare drum material from the first and second movements, creating anticipation by keeping the pitched instruments mostly at bay before the final movement. The fifth and last movement takes an unexpected turn towards the burlesque, placing much of the melodic material in the bass instruments. Instead of resolving the built up tension that has accumulated throughout the work, Pierce chooses instead to layer it with subtle sardonic humor, closing this piece in a cloud of ambiguity.
Throughout, Blundell leads the Lansdowne Symphony admirably, coaxing vibrant colors and spirited playing from the group. This collection continues Blundell’s admirable work advocating for corners of the American orchestral legacy that have not been exhaustively explored.
– Dan Lippel
Recorded at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, Drexel Hill, PA
November 2, 2019 (Beach)
December 7, 2019 (Coleman)
February 4, 2020 (Pierce)
Producer: Reuben Blundell
Engineer: Chris Gately
Editing & Mastering: Zach Herchen
Program Notes: Reuben Blundell, Linda Robbins Coleman
Graphic Design: Masataka Suemitsu
Artwork: Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, The River at Concord
The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1946 to provide music for the First Presbyterian Church of Lansdowne. Belgian-born conductor and publisher Henri Elkan led the orchestra from 1955 until his passing in 1980.
He initiated collaborations between the orchestra and area dance and choral ensembles and incorporated children’s concerts into the annual concert series. Elkan also featured prominent area musicians as soloists at LSO concerts. Dr. Jacques Voois, of West Chester University, took over the podium in 1980. He undertook the most ambitious venture to date in the orchestra’s history: performing live at a midnight concert broadcast around the world from within the United Nations in New York, in celebration of Earth Day. This performance was the first by a symphony orchestra within the UN.
Irving Ludwig, a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist for many years, was appointed Music Director in 1991, raising the orchestra’s capabilities until his passing in 2012. Maestro Ludwig’s tenure was marked by an uncompromising pursuit of excellence, as well as the involvement of colleagues from the Philadelphia Orchestra, including current LSO concertmaster Herold Klein, and two talented sons, Mark Ludwig (violist with the Boston Symphony), and the violin soloist, recording artist, concertmaster and conductor Michael Ludwig.
One of the most distinguished community orchestras in the world, the LSO performs a regular season of five concerts at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center, and other various projects. Led by its sixth Music Director, Reuben Blundell, the orchestra continues its traditions of musical excellence, service to the community, and promotion of area talent.
Reuben Blundell is currently in his seventh season as Music Director of the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. With the musicians and board, he has overseen an expansion of repertoire to include contemporary composers including John Adams, Jennifer Higdon and Mason Bates. The orchestra’s community outreach now includes children’s concerts, collaborations with the Lansdowne Theater, Lansdowne Friends School, Lansdowne Public Library, and the Twentieth Century Club. The orchestra recently received the Borough of Lansdowne’s inaugural Sycamore Award for community engagement.
Additionally, Reuben is music director of the Riverside Orchestra in New York, and performs regularly with the Chelsea Symphony as both a violinist and conductor. In demand as a performer and educator, Dr. Blundell has served as an Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University and New York’s Hunter College, and taught for the US State Department and nonprofit American Voices in Lebanon and Iraq. While studying violin in Melbourne and Sydney he was a regular substitute violinist with several Australian orchestras, and was a violin fellow at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center and the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida. Following summers at the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors and Orchestra Musicians, he earned a doctorate in conducting at the Eastman School of Music with Neil Varon. Currently, he is a faculty member at New York’s Trinity School.
He lives with his wife, oboist Karen Birch Blundell, daughter Elizabeth, and their cat, Gracy, in Manhattan.http://www.reubenblundell.com/
So gratifying listening to the Lansdowne Symphony, a community orchestra conducted by Reuben Blundell, performing three American female composers’ previously unrecorded orchestral works. City Trees (1928) by Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) is an under five-minute work in ABA ternary form. This is a tonal walk through the woods, with romantic and impressionistic genre, lush orchestral harmonies and outer sections enveloping a louder intense winds section. Many of Beach’s works have been lost, so thanks to editor Clinton Nieweg and the Philadelphia Free Library Fleisher Collection for producing this new orchestral edition.
Linda Robbins Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land (1996) pays homage to her Iowa home state in three episodes. Love the very dramatic and contrasting playful sonorities such as the percussion roll opening and closing crash, first episode waltz’s quiet bird-like wind instrument twitters, faster 6/8 section flute duet, and happy rhythmic repeated melodies building to an unexpected silent pause.
Behemoth, in five short movements (1976) by Alexandra Pierce is a unique modern tone poem inspired by the Book of Job from the Old Testament, and by humanity’s struggle with existence. The opening more-atonal, full-orchestral scary movement repeats snare “pops/clicks” throughout. The second movement is bouncy and delicate with contrasting temple blocks. Colour change in the fourth, mainly featuring the percussion section, which leads to a fun final movement with a jazz-tinged full orchestra build with closing horns.
Blundell leads the orchestra to top-notch performances. Short (30’22” minutes in length) but sweet!
— Tiina Kiik, 10.28.2021
As time keeps moving forward we continue to be surprised by music we previously knew nothing about. Just lately I've been lucky enough to be sent a volume of such things, orchestral music from the last century by US women composers that turn out to be worthy of our consideration. American Discoveries (New Focus Recordings FCR 286) is the matter-of-fact title of the album.
The music is quite nicely and respectably performed by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra under conductor Reuben Blundell. Each of the three works presented here have something distinctive about them, something individual and memorable.
There is an evocative miniature that has a feeling of pastoral Americana without being obvious about it--Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) and her "City Trees" (1928). It is rhapsodic without being especially Romantic, descriptively noble, lyrical and rugged like trees, perhaps. It was premiered by the Rochester Philharmonic under Howard Hansen in 1928 while Ms. Beach was getting her MA from Eastman. Tragically most of her compositions have been lost.
That opener is followed by Linda Robbins Coleman's "For A Beautiful Land" (1996), which has a kind of pastoral Impressionistic Americana that goes quite well with the opener and refreshes with an inventive lyrical melodic sense like a sunny day in late spring.
The final work is longer, more modern in harmonic expansiveness--the 1976, five movement "Behemoth" by Alexandra Pierce. There is a kind of crisp post-Varesian logical inevitability to the music, and happily so. But it does not really sound like Varese so much as it partakes of sometimes similar spatio-temporal ideas of sound and silence.
I was not sure what to expect when I first put this one on. After a bunch of listens it feels like music well considered, maybe not always at the edge of Modernity but not looking backwards either. And all told the three works are a worthy addition to our ear-time activities. Nice! Thank you Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and Reuben Blundell for taking care that we hear these works done properly. Happily recommended.
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 6.17.2021
As he did with the three-volume American Romantics project, Reuben Blundell shows himself to be as much archeologist as conductor with this presumed inaugural chapter in the American Discoveries series. Once again the Manhattan-based Music Director of the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra (LSO) has unearthed previously unrecorded material from the Fleischer Collection in Philadelphia, for this recording orchestral works by three female composers, Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-70), Linda Robbins Coleman (b. 1954), and Alexandra Pierce (b. 1934). One imagines Blundell's already assembled a short-list of candidates for the next instalment, given that the Collection currently boasts more than 22,000 titles.
Any one of these well-crafted works would be a rousing and energizing addition to a symphony's concert programme, and they collectively benefit from the LSO's exuberant handling. The two single-movement pieces, Beach's City Trees (1928) a four-minute scene-setter and Coleman's For A Beautiful Land (1996) an oft-rhapsodic ode to her home state of Iowa, are joined by Pierce's Behemoth, in five short movements (1976). While the works span nearly seventy years, they form a complementary trio, the result a pleasingly cohesive presentation. The three were recorded at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center in Drexel Hill, Philadelphia between November 2019 and February 2020. As the accomplished performances suggest, Blundell has built a strong rapport with the LSO, which he has led as Music Director for seven seasons.
Written in an A-B-A form, Beach's City Trees frames its heroic central section with languid episodes. A peaceful pastoral scene is evoked at the outset before the music rises majestically, with the orchestra's horns, strings, and woodwinds giving luscious voice to the composer's writing. Opening with a fanfare, Coleman's For A Beautiful Land celebrates the richness of Iowa's land and people with rhapsodic music that, similar to Beach's, conjures images of nature in all its resplendence. Allusions to birds appear when woodwinds intone against a backdrop of strings, but For A Beautiful Land isn't a one-dimensional portrait: turbulent moments also arise during this rather Copland-esque creation, as do waltz sequences in 6/8 that infuse the homage with a careening, Bernstein-like feel.
Drawing for inspiration from The Old Testament's "Book of Job," Pierce's five-movement Behemoth distills timeless questions about human existence and struggle into dramatic musical form. Consistent with text that describes a creature as having bones “as tubes of brass” and limbs “like bars of iron,” the music is sometimes powerful and darkened by ominous chords and aggressive percussion gestures. The short second movement lightens the mood with a scherzo-like rumination, percussion heavily featured as strings and woodwinds establish a querulous tone, after which the tremulous central movement emphasizes the timbral richness oboe, French horn, and harp bring to an orchestral arrangement. The brief fourth part features percussion prominently, with flourishes of timpani, cymbals, snare drum, and temple block laying the ground for the final movement, which is both predictably agitated and robust and unpredictably tinged with burlesque character and irreverence.
Admittedly, one aspect of the recording does puzzle: at thirty minutes, the release is more mini-album than genuine full-length and could easily have accommodated the inclusion of another work by a fourth female composer. Regardless, multiple parties clearly benefit from American Discoveries, starting with Blundell and the LSO: in pursuing such a project, the conductor instantly distinguishes his ensemble from others; the composers naturally benefit in having their works rescued from obscurity; and the listener is gifted with heretofore unfamiliar material entirely deserving of attention.
— Ron Schepper, 6.22.2021
It's always nice to see the appearance of one world premiere recording. But three on the same CD is highly unusual. It's the equivalent of winning a trifecta or scoring a hat-trick in hockey. And we might get more of the same since this is part of the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Reuben Blundell's ongoing project to promote previously unrecorded orchestral works salvaged from the archives of the Edwin A. Fleischer Collection in Philadelphia, the world's largest collection of orchestral scores. It boasts over 22,000 titles including many out-of-print works by 20th century American composers.
Like tall, immovable, silent sentient sentinels, the trees watch over a city and its denizens. From the waking calls of birds at dawn, through the hustle and bustle of the city's business, to when darkness beckons all to sleep once again, the trees are always present providing beauty, shade and shelter. This is the image evoked by the delightful, arch structured tone poem City Trees by Priscilla Alden Beach (not to be confused with Amy Beach). Composed while she was a student at the Eastman School of Music in 1928, it retains the elaborate, romantic orchestral textures of the late 19th century.
On the other hand Linda Robbins Coleman's For A Beautiful Land sounds more like typical American "big sky country" music. For something written as recently as 1996, it certainly seems to offer a respectful 'tip of the hat' to earlier composers who pioneered the "American" sound, like Aaron Copland for example, but with its own cinematic feel and gestures anchored in tradition.
The most progressive work of all three is the 1976 Behemoth by Philadelphia born Alexandra Pierce. Its many contrasts and colors, percussion driven rhythms, and slightly jazz tinged final movement lend it an edgy, Central European sound reminiscent of Bartok for example. It won first prize in two separate Music Composition events in 1977 and 1986.
Founded in 1946, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is one of the oldest community orchestras, located in the Delaware County suburbs of Philadelphia. This is currently conductor Reuben Blundell's seventh season as Music Director of the LSO. Along with many other community projects and this, their new recording endeavours, they provide a season of five concerts. It's reassuring to see this 80 member ensemble and conductor make the extra effort to introduce us to newly uncharted music.
— Jean-Yves Duperron, 6.21.2021
There’s a new recording shedding light on a much-neglected area of American music—orchestral music by women composers.
The history of American orchestral music is full of names like Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein – men whose music is as timeless as it is enjoyable. But, as conductor Reuben Blundell puts it, “there’s this whole other history of American music that’s just terrific.
In his most recent recording with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, American Discoveries (New Focus Recordings), Blundell is shedding light on that music.
American Discoveries features world-premiere recordings of underperformed works by three American women composers – Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman and Alexandra Pierce. Blundell discovered the music in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, home to works by more than 100 American women composers.
The works on American Discoveries span a range of musical styles. Priscilla Alden Beach composed City Trees while a student at the Eastman School of Music during the 1920s. The piece is redolent of the lush, neo-Romanticism of her teacher Howard Hanson.
Contemporary composer Linda Robbins Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land is full of rich harmonies and expansive gestures.
“One of the instructions that she writes to performers is that ‘this phrase should be played in a very Coplandesque way.’ So that’s the kind of musical language that she’s very attracted to,” Blundell said.
Alexandra Pierce served on the faculty of the University of Redlands and, alongside composing, had a career researching the connections between music and movement. Her tone poem Behemoth, in five short movements writhes with sinewy melodies and tense harmonies.
You can hear excerpts from these pieces in my interview with Blundell, posted above.
In addition to bringing underperformed works by American women composers to light, Blundell’s work on American Discoveries has made some of those works useable for other orchestras for the first time.
Beach’s City Trees was available only in handwritten parts when Blundell came across it. With support from the Fleisher Collection and with the expertise of music editor Clinton Nieweg, the score and orchestra parts for City Trees have been professionally typeset in an edition that is available for loan from the Fleisher Collection.
American Discoveries is the first of a planned three recordings showcasing underperformed works by American women composers. Blundell plans to feature music by Joanna Brouk, Radie Britain, Frances McCollin and Ulric Cole on the next disc in the American Discoveries series, with a planned release in 2023.
Beyond the additional recordings, Blundell says he hopes the American Discoveries project will inspire concert planners everywhere to consider programming and performing this repertoire.
“I encourage people to check out this music,” Blundell said. “None of it’s music that I have the only copy of, and I hope that what we’re doing is able to encourage people to perform it and share it with their public, too.”
Transcript of interview with Reuben Blundell:
Jennifer Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick midday host of WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101, in Columbus. I’m speaking with conductor Reuben Blundell about his recording American Discoveries with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. Your recording American Discoveries was released just this year, 2021, and is entirely devoted to music by American women composers. How did this recording come about?
Reuben Blundell: Well, I’m very lucky in that the orchestra that I conduct in Philadelphia, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra – it’s in the Delaware County suburbs of Philadelphia – because I live in New York, I go to Philadelphia, and it’s the only thing I have on my calendar when I go there. So if I can get away earlier in the day, I go to the Fleisher Collection. It’s part of the Philadelphia Free Library. And they have 23,000 pieces of music there. And it’s not solely the scores. For most of those pieces it’s also the full orchestral sets. They have a lot of the standard repertoire. You can certainly get a Beethoven symphony. They have Shostakovich, Prokofiev. But 23,000 pieces is a lot. It would take years to play that music end to end. So I had the opportunity to explore. And I put together my first CD with a small string orchestra, the Gowanis Arts Ensemble, in 2016. And that was all new recordings of previously unrecorded pieces for string orchestra. And that came out, it went pretty well. And that was all American composers. And then a second CD of that repertoire. And with the Lansdowne Symphony, we recorded also music for the third CD in that series. But one of the things you have to do when you’re making a recording is you have to be economical. And if you find music that is in hand-written form, it’s difficult to get it recorded. It’s hard for the musicians to read. So what that meant, though, is that a lot of the scores that I’d look at, a lot of them were by female composers, But they were handwritten. I kept thinking, this is going to be something. One of the pieces on this CD is by Priscilla Beach, and it was only in handwritten copy. It’s very clean handwritten copy from the Works Project Administration projects that the Fleisher Collection took great advantage of in the ‘30s. Erwin [Edwin] Fleisher applied for grants and hired composers to make orchestral sets of some really great pieces of music. But for our purposes, it’s even better if we have a really good edition that can then be lent out to the orchestras that, I hope, will be intrigued by the music that we’re recording. The Fleisher Collection version of City Trees by Priscilla Beach anybody can now borrow it and perform from the same published set that we did.
JH: So you were sort of a frequent guest, I guess, at the Fleisher Collection and just discovered that there was this wealth of music by women composers that had maybe never been performed or not performed in a while, and then you built the American discoveries project around that.
RB: That’s exactly right. There’s this whole other history of American music that’s just terrific.
JH: If you would, please talk us through the works on American Discoveries.
RB: So, Priscilla Beach is descended from Mayflower folks, but she had an incredibly intriguing life. After studying at Smith College she went to Eastman, and then Juilliard. And she was involved in music for silent films at the Museum of Modern Art apparently. You just learn so much about America reading about these composers. The Museum of Modern Art had a silent film series where they’d have a small orchestra, and she composed music for that. I mean, this piece is very early in her career. It’s really her graduation piece from her master’s degree from Eastman. She started at about the same time as Howard Hanson, and it’s kind of in that vein of music. So Later on in her life, she moved over towards science and was a research director at Shelton University [College] Cape May, New Jersey. So fascinating, fascinating life.
Linda Robbins Coleman now, she lives in Iowa. She has, I think, lived in Iowa her entire life. She went to Drake University. At Drake, she was a composer at the playhouse there, and she continued that relationship for a long time. And so her music – it’s very beautifully tonal and accessible. And, you know, one of the instructions that she writes to performers is that “this phrase should be played in a very Coplandesque way.” So that’s the kind of musical language that she’s very attracted to.
Now, Alexandra Pierce’s piece – Alexandra Pierce was born in Washington, D.C., but she spent most of her life in California. She was a professor at the University of Redlands, and her husband was also a, I think, musician. But her area of research – It’s a fascinating area of how movement and physicality is connected to sound. And she’s written books about this. And it’s really kind of interesting, in Behemoth because she writes about the piece being inspired by the non finito, [by] Michelangelo, those marble sculptures where it seems as if the people – mostly very strong men – are emerging from the marble. And so the whole idea of muscles and kinesthetic connection to music is fascinating. And the piece really has a lot of that.
JH: American Discoveries is the first in what you are planning to be a series of recordings of underplayed works by American women composers. Could you talk about what you have planned of the rest of the series?
RB: Once the Lansdowne’s Symphony’s back at rehearsing, we’ll probably record our next piece sometime in February of next year and then probably another on in March, another one in hopefully May. And then we have our summers off because we’re a community orchestra that rehearses on Tuesday nights. A community orchestra of excellent players. Some of them have master’s degrees in music, but they work in other fields, so it’s just such a wonderful ensemble to work with. But they have work. Unfortunately, we can’t set aside a couple of weeks for recording sessions. That would be terrific, but their other employers might have problems. So I expect that the next full orchestra recording of the Lansdowne Symphony, which will include pieces by Joanna Brouk and Radie Britain and Frances McCollin, I think, and Ulric Cole. I’m expecting that the next full orchestra recording would be out in 2023 at the end of the year, hopefully. Or maybe 2024 early in the year. But I’m not sure yet. It sort of depends how things go, including the progress of the pandemic.
JH: It sounds like there is enough music in the Fleisher Collection by American women composers that you could keep doing this forever. You could make and entire career out of recording this repertoire.
RB: When you say the words “You could make a career out of it,” I just get so excited. It sounds like a fun one, a fun career. One of the really useful things that I heard recently was, make sure that your audience knows that you’re doing something special. One of the reasons that great music that deserves a second look can sometimes fall off the main serving table, to torture an analogy, is because people don’t realize that, Oh, we’re doing a female composer, we’re doing a composer of color. We’re doing a couple of underplayed pieces. We want you to think about this music, and we’d like to play it again. So I encourage people to check out this music. None of it’s music that I have the only copy of. And I hope that what we’re doing is able to encourage people to perform it and share it with their public, too.
JH: Conductor Reuben Blundell’s most recent recording with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is American Discoveries, featuring works by three American women composers. I’m Jennifer Hambrick with Classical 101, WOSU Public Media, in Columbus.
— Jennifer Hambrick, 6.03.2021
The 4th release in their ongoing series, the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and Reuben Blundell team up again to offer us previously unrecorded orchestral compositions, and this time it’s from a trio of female composers.
Priscilla Alden Beach’s “City Trees” starts the listen with soothing strings and plenty of warmth unfolding amid graceful textures, moments of sublime intimacy and larger swells of booming brass. A colorful 4.5 minutes, the lush climate dances around orchestral and classical ideas with much precision.
Linda Robbins occupies the middle track, where “For A Beautiful Land” bursts with crashing percussion, tense strings and booming drums that occasionally shift into calmer ebbs of beauty. A composition that pays homage to her home state of Iowa, it’s a rhythmic, frisky and cautious 10+ minutes that really displays meticulous woodwinds.
“Behemoth, in five short movements”, by Alexandra Pierce, exits the listen and leads with a haunting quality before segueing into unpredictable, adventurous song craft. The middle movement is the calmest and emits a soothing, cinematic appeal, before exiting on a burlesque focus that places much melody in the hands of the very capable brass.
Blundell leads the ensemble through a very spirited outing, where he illuminates the many strengths of the players as they place some much needed and deserved attentions towards the timeless vision of the women’s robust songwriting.
— Tom Haugen, 7.19.2021
Since I started reading The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown's biography of Florence Price, I have come to realize that my knowledge of twentieth-century American orchestral music is not is comprehensive as I would like it to be (or thought it was). This could be due to the programming and re-programming of music by the same well-known (and accessible) American male composers alongside the same well-known (and accessible) male European composers, many of whom came to America to escape pogroms, Nazis, and totalitarian regimes.
In the case of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Arnold Schoenberg (to name some of the better known men), the direction of influence almost always went "back" to Europe, which is completely understandable.
The American-born composers who dominated concert programs during the twentieth century like Charles Ives, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti, Irving Fine, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein gave us a set of lovely framed musical pictures that defined an American "voice" for many of us.
Then came a set of American-born (male) composers like Roger Sessions, George Crumb, Eliot Carter, John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Milton Babbit that stretched the idea of new American music towards the experimental, the minimalist, and the intellectual. The music that these composers wrote sometimes scared audiences away, but orchestras still programmed them because they wanted to have some skin in the game regarding new directions in music.
I'm not passing judgement. I'm just reporting on the male-dominated (and white-dominated) musical landscape that we are all starting to look at through a rearview musical mirror.
There have been female composers who held a place of importance in American music. Or of relative importance. The best known American woman composer would be Amy Beach. I was surprised to see the small number of people on this Wikipedia list of female American Composers, and I was equally surprised to see the people who didn't make that particular list (like Marion Bauer). I hope to see this list expand soon. I might have to take matters into my own hands.
Not present on this list are the three composers that have music on this recording of newly-discovered orchestral music by women: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandria Pierce. The project represents a great deal of care and work (during a pandemic year) by the Landsdowne Symphony Orchestra, its conductor Reuben Blundell, and the the librarians that take care of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) wrote "City Trees" in 1928, and Howard Hanson gave the first performance that year with Rochester Philharmonic. "City Trees" is a lush and romantic piece that brings to mind the paintings of the Hudson River School. The trees depicted musically here progress from rural trees to early twentieth-century urban trees. In scope, variety, and color it brings to mind Respighi's "Pines of Rome," but (and I wrote this in my listening notes before reading the liner notes) the trees here might be better associated with Rome, New York than Rome, Italy. Turns out that the composer, a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower fame, spent her childhood in Rome, New York!
Beach went to Smith College, and the studied at Eastman (I imagine with Howard Hanson), and had a fellowship at Juilliard. She wrote music for a series of silent movies that were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then disappeared from musical life entirely to write books about pets and work as a laboratory technician.
I wonder if there is more of her music hiding in a closet or a drawer, somewhere.
Professional life as a composer has been far less difficult for Linda Robbins Coleman. She enjoys an impressive career, and the American heartland (she lives in Iowa) has been good to her. What she has given back is music that reflects her love of the nature around her.
I noticed that "For a Beautiful Land," which she wrote in 1996, is "informed" by the Americana of Copland and Stravinsky. This piece is episodic, and is filled with interesting textures. Overall the wind, brass, and percussion sections seem far more present and important than the strings, though there is some enjoyable playful interaction that involves the strings. The woodwind solos and duets (there are a lot) are engaging and beautiful. "For a Beautiful Land" is relentlessly tonal, and, after a brief nod to Ravel's "Bolero," comes to a bold and optimistic conclusion.
Alexandra Pierce was born in 1934 and just died this past February. She studied at the University of Michigan, earned Master's degrees from New England Conservatory and Harvard, and her doctorate from Brandeis. She taught at MIT and at Antioch College, and spent the bulk of her career on the faculty of the University of Redlands (she retired in 2001).
Her 1976 "Behemoth" is a five-movement tone poem that explores ideas presented in the Book of Job. Pierce's use of orchestral color is typical of the 1970s, but I do not find it derivitive of any particular composer. Her technique at orchestration is excellent--as good as any better-known twentieth-century composer (see the list above). She often lets her material travel in a hocket-like fashion around her very large-sounding orchestra. Like Coleman's "City Trees," Pierce's "Behemoth" is very wind, brass, and percussion forward, with the strings mostly creating atmosphere (they engage in a healthy amount of pizzicato and tremolo) and giving support.
I particularly like the transparent and layered third movement that has a dialogue between the oboe and the horn that seems to travel over a foggy plain: ephemeral, questioning, and suspended. A bright flute glides above, and fades away. The percussion-rich fourth movement has a solo flute and a gauze-like color in the strings that reminds me of "The Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome.
You can buy the album here. It is both inexpensive and rich.
— Elaine Fine, 5.20.2021
The second of these two CDs was sent to CVNC; I had just purchased the first, so I suggested covering them in a duo review as I did in August. They mesh and sequence very well, and there is a fairly wide variety in the music: It's a Girl! is mostly 19th and very early 20th century; American Discoveries is entirely 20th, with a modern work to conclude. The performances on It's a Girl! blew me away when I first listened to them, and the feeling remained when I re-listened to begin writing this review. Two of its composers (Amy Marcy Beach and Julia Frances Smith) are American. The performances on American Discoveries are also outstanding.
The suppression that 19th century women composers suffered throughout their lives from both their parents and their spouses is unimaginable. This was especially true for Amy Beach, as documented in Moser's excellent notes in the accompanying booklet of It's a Girl!. However, Beach and her fellow women composers all surmounted oppression to have successful careers and leave lasting legacies. Eckhardt-Gramatté and Smith in particular bounced around all over the Western world through their careers.
The composers of the 2nd CD have had less stressful lives, because there were some changes in attitudes towards women as the 20th century progressed. Priscilla Alden Beach is a descendant of a passenger on the Mayflower, but grew up in central NY, while Linda Robbins Coleman, a pianist and writer as well as a composer, grew up in Iowan lands that were only settled in the second half of the 19th century. Alexandra Pierce was raised in Philadelphia, where the Edwin A. Fleischer Collection of Orchestral Music also happens to reside. Its Free Library, housing 22,000+ and growing scores of unpublished music, the world’s largest such archive, was Blundell's source for the notes in the CD's accompanying booklet. Blundell draws much of what he has his ensembles perform and record from this archive, so these are all world premieres, making this CD a particularly important release. The CD's shortchanged length is the result of the pandemic. Two more scores will be executed in a future release, which will likely be augmented with yet others.
The music on this CD picks up, in a way, where that of the It's a Girl! left off, but with orchestral rather than chamber music, played by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. Beach's City Trees is very much late Romantic in atmosphere. The 20-years older Behemoth, however, feels much more modern (though not at all dissonant) than Coleman's For a Beautiful Land, although it is different and somewhat adventuresome.
The Lansdowne Orchestra deserves a few words of introduction. Founded in 1946 by the First Presbyterian Church of Lansdown, MD, The orchestra is a community one, much like the Chapel Hill Philharmonia; both are composed primarily of professionally trained musicians and very advanced amateurs. Blundell is doing wonderful things (more below) with the organization, though he lives in Manhattan and commutes. Organizations such as this are very important for the preservation of classical music, now and in the future. Perhaps this review will inspire more exchanges of ideas, and readers to support such efforts wherever they are?
Blundell has also produced a set of three CDs, entitled American Romantics (likewise sold by Naxos Direct), that also use scores from the Fleischer Collection and are recorded on the same NYC-based label. I also happen to have other recordings by another musician on the same label, a ’cellist, with whom I reconnected a few weeks ago when he came with two of his colleagues to record a Schubert trio on period instruments in the Frederick Collection. The works on those are also world premiere performances and recordings, but Volumes I & II are with a NYC ten-member string group, the Gowanus Arts Ensemble (which takes its name from the Arts building in Brooklyn where the recording studio is based). They are also well worth exploring; Blundell has another CD in that series planned as well. My primary quibble with these products is that they do not print track or total timings; this makes playing them on the air difficult for DJs.
— Marvin J. Ward, 9.03.2021
I almost consider this an EP rather than an album. The total playing time is around 30 minutes. But I’m interested in quality over quantity, so the album’s length isn’t an issue.
Reuben Blundell and the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra present three works culled from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Libary of Philadelphia. “American Discoveries” indeed!
I was not familiar with any of the composers featured on this release. Discovering them — and their music — was a pleasant experience.
Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) is the oldest of the three composers. Her 1928 work City Trees was premiered by Howard Hanson and the Rochester Philharmonic. Like Hanson, Beach wrote in a neo-romantic style that somehow seemed uniquely American. Although Beach eventually abandoned composition, this work shows she possessed real talent.
Linda Robbins Coleman is a composer, conductor, pianist, and music consultant. Her 1996 work “For a Beautiful Land” was inspired by Iowa’s natural beauty. It effectively evokes the wide-open spaces and pioneer spirit of the land. While I heard some Copland influences, Coleman’s music is both original and engaging.
Alexandra Pierce is a movement educator as well as a composer and pianist. And motion is what I heard in her work “Behemoth”. Pierce says the work is “an exploration of musical bas-relief, of the relationship of melody to bass.” That it is. And that struggle provides the work’s forward motion.
The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra performs superbly under the direction of Reuben Blundell. My only complaint is that it ended all too soon.
These are indeed noteworthy discoveries. And now I have three more composers whose music I need to explore.
— Ralph Graves, 5.05.2021
American Discoveries is an intriguing and welcome survey (New Focus Recordings) of short orchestral pieces by three American composers you’ve probably never heard of: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandra Pierce.
Written in 1928, Beach’s City Trees is the disc’s oldest fare. A short, genial curtain-raiser, the piece’s flowing outer thirds frame a more stentorian central section.
Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land dates from 1996. Composed for Iowa’s sesquicentennial that year, it evokes Copland a bit with its open intervals and fanfares. But it veers its own way, too, tending to dance (Coleman frequently draws on waltz rhythms). While Coleman’s musical argument occasionally ambles, her scoring is idiomatic, structure straightforward, and the melodic line is always front-and-center.
Pierce’s Behemoth makes for the disc’s most substantive fare. A meditation on the biblical creature, its five movements are focused. The opening one features searching, nervous melodic lines that are echoed by percussion. In the second, eerie sonorities alternate between upper and lower registers. The third offers exchanges of melodic ideas between oboe and horn, while the fourth provides a showcase for the percussion section. Despite its tempo marking, the finale is only vaguely jazzy but functions as a summation of all the ideas presented earlier.
As played by the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra and conductor Reuben Blundell, it’s an affecting piece. A community orchestra based in Pennsylvania, this is an ensemble that plays with technical assurance as well as a good stylistic feel for the repertoire on hand.
Their account of the Pierce is admirable. So is the group’s well-balanced playing (particularly the confident woodwind attacks) in both the Coleman and Beach selections. At a time when so many top-tier ensembles risk little, it’s heartening to encounter this repertoire played with such skill by non-professionals who clearly love it.
— Jonathan Blumhofer, 9.07.2021
There are still plenty of discoveries to be made in American music, which is to say music created by American composers, not just arranged for performance by American ensembles. Reuben Blundell and the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra have led the way to a number of such discoveries, including three previously unrecorded orchestral works offered on a New Focus Recordings CD. The disc opens with the brief, atmospheric, mostly tonal and warm City Trees by Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970), a work from 1928 whose sounds of the sylvan in the city are as apt today as they were almost a century ago. The work’s speedier section midway through is more evocative of the trees’ surroundings than of the plantings themselves. Next is For a Beautiful Land by Linda Robbins Coleman (born 1954), a rather brash, proclamatory work from 1996. This is broadly expansive music that is very reminiscent of Copland’s “popular” mode – an outgoing, bright, forthright 11-minute tone poem whose emotions range from the celebratory to the playful. Finally there is Behemoth by Alexandra Pierce (born 1934), a 1976 work that is scarcely a leviathan, in fact being titled as “in five short movements.” Those range from the five-minute first to the 90-second fourth, all in the service of creating a tone poem quite different from Coleman’s. Pierce seeks here to expand, musically, the notion of the Book of Job and the struggles embodied in it, doing so with a darkly portentous first movement; a second movement even more percussion-infused than the opening one; a pathos-infused third movement, in which oboe and horn play prominent roles; a fourth movement that is essentially an extended percussion cadenza; and a finale that provides the only amusement in the entire piece, albeit through rather dark humor. Behemoth has attractive moments and some especially well-done percussion writing, but is not particularly convincing in terms of the theme it attempts to illustrate, although Blundell and the Lansdowne ensemble certainly play it with relish – as, indeed, they play all the music on this (+++) disc. It is, however, very unfortunate that the entire CD lasts barely 30 minutes: less-known, relatively modern music is a hard-enough sell without asking prospective listeners to pay full price for a half-hour disc of never-before-recorded material with which, by definition, they will almost certainly be totally unfamiliar.
Since the mid-teens, conductor Reuben Blundell has been unearthing one undiscovered American symphonic treasure after another, first with the Gowanus Arts Ensemble and most recently with the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra. His latest album with the latter, aptly titled American Discoveries, is streaming at Bandcamp. Fortuitously, he and the ensemble managed to wrap up the final recording sessions just a few weeks before the lockdown.
Blundell has been mining the vast archive in the Fleisher Collection of the Philadelphia Free Library for compositions which may not have been played in as much as a hundred years. This album features three women composers: an extremely rare work from 1928, and two better known, more recent pieces.
The orchestra open the album with Priscilla Alden Beach’s City Trees, a tantalizingly brief, triumphantly Romantic overture. The album’s liner notes mention Howard Hansen as a likely influence: Holst and Respighi also come strongly to mind. While Beach worked professionally in music for part of her life, she wore many different hats; tragically, most of her compositions have disappeared.
Linda Robbins Coleman‘s similarly colorful, Romantic 1996 pastorale For a Beautiful Land makes a good segue. Blundell evinces playful hints of birdsong over stillness, the orchestra rising to cheery bustle with hints of a fugue, Dvorakian sentinels amid the strings peeking across the prairie. The percussion section shimmer and shine, kicking off an ebullient, windswept waltz with the group going full tilt: Vaughan Williams is a good point of comparison.
The final piece is Alexandra Pierce’s 1976 Behemoth, an entertaining five-part suite inspired by the Biblical monster, even if it is not particularly monstruous. It’s a bit more modernist than the two preceding works. Portentous lows anchoring hazy strings, and tongue-in-cheek brass and percussion accents rise to heroic levels in the introduction. Puckish percussion flickers amidst alternating sheets of melody in the brief second movement, followed by a resonant, moody interlude, woodwinds and finally Suzanne Ballam’s harp precisely puncturing the amber.
The percussion section – Chris Kulp, Marshall Dugan, David Jamison and Susan Spina – get to indulge themselves in the very funny, fleeting bit of a fourth movement. Basses (Fay Kahmer, Barbara Brophy, Michael Carsley and Kurt Kuechler) take over the wary riffage beneath the lustre, cymbal crashes and blazing brass as the suite peaks out. Let’s hope for more from Blundell and this adventurous crew: Pennsylvanians seem to be getting restless, and the lockdown there looks like it’s on the ropes.
— delarue, 6.08.2021
At just over half an hour this is effectively a CD single but it contains three interesting works by American women composers who are unknown - at least here in the UK.
As far as I can tell, Priscilla Alden Beach is no relation to that fine composer Amy Beach. It seems that much of her work is now lost, which is a tragedy bearing in mind what a fine and moving piece City Trees is. Written in 1928, it is in ternary form with a strong climactic point perfectly placed in the structure. It is in many ways Impressionistic but has a Romantic undercurrent which, the booklet writer admits, may remind us of Howard Hanson. Beach may well have stopped composing later in life, as she took to other work - for example, as a laboratory technician and an author of books about pets!
There is much American music, particularly of the last century, which is often inspired by the country’s extraordinary landscape and wildlife. Coleman’s For a Beautiful Land is such a one, having started life as a celebration of the composer’s home state of Iowa. In a sense, its antecedents lie in Virgil Thomson’s film score and suite for the ‘Louisiana Story’; I can also hear echoes of Copland. It seems that I really should have heard of Linda Robbins Coleman, as she has received many commissions and honours in the USA and this work has had, we read, over a hundred performances around the world.
It is, to quote the notes, “tonal, rhapsodic and free flowing” and quite uplifting, but I have to say that its success comes as something of a surprise to me. Those notes give a clear, analytical outline of its growth and ideas but its abrupt ending doesn’t, it seems to me, really prove effective.
The longest and, for me, the most impressive piece on the disc is the award-winning Behemoth by Alexandra Pierce. This is a tone poem in five short movements and was inspired by the “awesome creature” found in the Book of Job, “his bones as tubes of brass, his limbs are like bars of iron”. The harmonic language, typical of the time, is suitably tough and reminded me of composers like Humphrey Searle and Peter Racine Fricker. I can’t be sure if the work uses serial technique but there are certainly many passages where the language is free and atonal. Especially fine and fascinating is the orchestration, which is always clear, colourful and often angular. It set me wondering what else I might be able to hear by this composer.
The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra is described as “one of the most distinguished community orchestras in the world” and they mostly cope well with these unfamiliar scores. However, the congested recording, especially at climaxes, does them no favours. Their conductor, Reuben Blundell, has a distinguished CV, including gaining a doctorate in conducting at the Eastman School of Music.
— Gary Higginson, 8.16.2021
The scores for these three world premiere recordings were unearthed from the Edwin Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia, a treasure trove of rare and out-of-print works. Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-70) wrote the four-minute City Trees in 1928, four years after beginning her M.A. at the Eastman School of Music. The sound world is straight out of Howard Hanson, who directed its first performance, but that was two years before his Symphony No. 2. Credit the lady with pleasant originality. Linda Robbins Coleman (who conceals her age) must be approaching 60. She wrote For a Beautiful Land in 1996 for the Iowa state sesquicentennial. It's pure tonal Americana with a fanfare, chirping birds, etc. Here Ruben Blundell makes it drag. Weakly-tuned violas and cellos don't help. Behemoth (1976) is by Alexandra Pierce (b 1934 in Philadelphia). She got her MA at the New England Conservatory and her PhD at Brandeis. In "five short movements" (15 minutes), it is the most substantial work here with contrapuntal involvement especially in I and V; it also has more imaginative orchestration that contributes to the work's depth. In III an oboe and French horn share the melody over slow-moving legato chords, reminiscent of the `Colors' movement from Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces. The other two movements are filagree. The Lansdowne Symphony is a community orchestra in a suburb of Philadelphia. Reuben Blundell, music director for the past seven years, is not a conductor who can make the amateur group rise above itself. The strings are scrappy, ensemble is weak, and, above all, Blundell's sluggish direction doesn't move any of the works forward. There are no timings. Consider the short playing time a mercy. The engineering is adequate. The liner notes claim that the Lansdowne Symphony was the first symphony orchestra to play "in the United Nations" in New York to celebrate Earth Day sometime after 1980. Not true: I remember the first time I ever heard Beethoven's Egmont Overture on a TV broadcast with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski electrifying the Minneapolis Symphony before the UN's assembled members.
— Gil French, 11.23.2021
The title of this album, American Discoveries, is as concise as can be. Here are three works by American women composers, never before recorded, spanning 68 years, in three distinct styles. The brief, but utterly charming City Trees was written in 1928 by Priscilla Alden Beach (a descendent of the Aldens of Mayflower fame), one of the early graduates from the then newly established Eastman School of Music. The colorful music has a cinematic energy and innocent simplicity that belies the catastrophes that would befall the civilized world in the following decades. Linda Robbins Coleman wrote For a Beautiful Land in 1996 as an homage to her beloved Iowa. It is also a sunny work, filled with dance rhythms and lovely timbral textures. She writes with a distinctively American sense for melody and broad pacing, often reminding me of the theatrical works of Bernstein. The third work, Alexandra Pierce’s 1976 Behemoth, in five short movements, breaks this spell of cheerfulness with music of impressive concision of expression. The title refers to the biblical behemoth of the Book of Job, the spirit of which she captures with both modern harmonic language (and bristling rhythms, featuring a prominent percussion section) as well as a sense of timeless emotional power. The Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, situated in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, sounds remarkably poised and expressive for a community ensemble. The orchestra was established in 1946 by the Belgian-born conductor Henri Elkan. Elkan was much better known as a music publisher, and he operated a retail sheet music store in Center City Philadelphia, where I was a regular customer and habitue in the late 1970s. Elkan’s great charm and cultural erudition are a dear memory for me. Talking with him was like looking through a window into an older, more gracious age. His legacy is in excellent hands, on the basic of this recording. Nobody will confuse this LSO with the better known one across the pond, but Reuben Blundell coaxes cohesive, full-toned sound out of the ensemble, and produces beautifully terraced phrasing out of the fine string section. Despite the short playing time, this is highly recommended. For the time being, you are not going to hear this compelling music anywhere else.
— Peter Burwasser, 1.08.2022