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Glasgow is about to go to town with a festival celebrating American arts, from composer George Gershwin to Hollywood guru Mickey Rooney. David Harris speaks to a conductor determined to bring America’s cultural
pioneers to Scotland‘s stage.
n 1872. two years before composer
Charles Ives was born. Henry James noted
that part of the complex fate of Americans
was having to fight against ‘a superstitious
valuation of liurope.‘ The giant shadow
cast by an imposing and ancient tradition has been evident in the history of American classical music. struggling to forge a native style which could stand alone yet take its place in the Western canon.
lves‘s solution (although unconscious) was to ignore tradition altogether. experimenting with atonality and serialism. independently and in anticipation of Schoenberg. An innovator without disciples. his idiosyncratic personal style confounded contemporaries and it would take years for his work to have any influence on aspiring composers.
A century later. things have changed. and the Yanks are coming in force as Glasgow hosts a festival dominated by a series of concerts celebrating the complex genealogy of American music. To coincide with events at the Royal Concert Hall. Glasgow Film Theatre will be screening Hollywood films witn notable scores. including Scorsese’s acute dissection of musical trends Neit‘ York. New York.
Together with some familiar names. such as Aaron Copland. George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. the seven—concert festival. cony titled I Like To lie In America’. features works by neglected figttrcs like Walter Piston and William Schuman. with the contemporary scene represented by. among others. Steve Reich and George Crumb.
Wth New York-born pianist attd conductor Andrew Litton was invited by the Royal Scottish National and Scottish (‘hamher orchestras to direct the event. he accepted the ambassadorial role with relish. ‘lt‘s so unusual in this day and age that one gets to pttt together a festival like this.‘ he says. ‘Without meaning to sound too egomaniacal. it‘s music that I do well. it comes very naturally to me. and so it‘s fun to share it.‘
An acknowledged interpreter of Gershwin. Litton is currently music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. a position he formerly held in Bournemouth. and has been a guest conductor with both Scottish orchestras in the past. ‘When I was at Bournemouth I found it important to introduce local audiences not only to American music like this. but also to British music.’ he says. ‘We share a common insecurity in our own music and tend to look towards the Continent for the substance of our programmes. There's an awful lot of good stuff written by British and American composers that doesn‘t get played. so I try to bridge the gap in both directions.‘
8 The List 26 Jan-8 Feb 1996
There is more than a little irony in the need to
popularisc a musical language which itself
draws on popular forms front folk to jazz and blues. Some soi—disant ‘s’crious‘ listeners have been guilty of doublethink. allowing that Dvorak cart incorporate a Negro spiritual and Shostakovicli can ‘refer' ironically to a Russian folk-tune. whereas an equivalent quotation by Gershwin or ( 'opland smacks of barbaristn. ‘lt's true that a lot oi American music had a stigma attached to it.‘ Litton admits. ‘bttt l think now that so much time has passed — after all. lx’ha/tsody In Blue is 73 years old attd it's become a classic piece — people recognise its influence on all the contemporary music we have before us. 'l‘hcse pieces. which were very much borderline classical music. were catalyst works that have prompted generations of composers since to change the st) le of writing: so we now have music from liurope and
Andrew Litton: a conductor with a pioneering spirit
Scandinavia that owes a huge debt of gratitude to Gershwin and Copland. l think the days are past when people in the hardcore classical tradition turn their noses up at them.’
These two composers. both Brooklyn Jews. exemplify and provide a contrast within the tradition. In common. their music has a strong sense of place: but while Gershwin will forever be associated with the dynamic bustle of the
‘We now have music from Europe and Scandinavia that owes a huge debt of gratitude to Gershwin and Copland. I think the days are past when people in the hardcore classical tradition turn their noses up at them.’
metropolis. (‘opland‘s blend of Mid-Western folk. jazz. and European modernism evokes a characteristically American grandeur. like a John liord epic scored by some hillbilly Stravinsky.
Although there is much individual variation. there is also a distinctive American sound. born partly out of the felt need to create a national style. ‘l think the general flavour of most .»\merican music is that it comes from a liuropean background.‘ says Litton. ‘but filtered through a jazz lens. and with more rhythmic concentration than other music from the same period. The extraordinary thing is how quickly it developed. which is. I guess. symptomatic of the country as a whole. 'l‘here’s a lot ofenergy in the music which is quite special: 1 think that must have something to do with the fact that people felt they couldn't hang around and waste any time.‘
Those whose knowledge of the New World’s musical heritage begins with the Gershwin themes in Manhattan and ends with the strains of Barber’s Adagio/or Strines iii The lz‘lephant Man. are invited in the festival to discover some less well-trodden paths. "l‘hese composers had an extraordinary output.’ Litton enthuses. ‘and it's wonderful to be able to explore it in a concentrated period.‘
l‘rom lves to Reich. the event should demonstrate that. unlike their often retrogressive European counterparts. American composers have been true to national tradition: pioneer spirits forever seeking out new directions in music.
I Like '12) Be In America! is from Wednesday 7- -.S'aturday l7 l’eln'uarv. Kicking off the
festival. Andrew Litton conducts the Scottish
('hamher Orchestra at the Glasgow Royal ('oncert Hall on Wednesday /7 at 7.30pm. See ('lassica/ Music listings for details and check next issue for more festival inﬁn'mation.